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2.4 Million Older Adults in U.S. Identify as LGBT
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2.4 Million Older Adults in U.S. Identify as LGBT

The joys and obstacles of coming out later in life

A married father of five, George Murphy seemed to have it all. The successful construction company he founded, afforded him luxuries such as private school tuition for all of his children, a sprawling home in McLean, Va., and a marriage that spanned more than three decades. Still, something was missing: a satisfying romantic life.

“I loved my wife but I was not sexually attracted to her,” said Murphy, now 62 and in a seven-year relationship with a man 20 years his junior. “I’ve known since I was 16 that I was attracted to men, but I kept it hidden. I grew up in southern Virginia and there’s no way it would have been acceptable.”

According to the American Psychological Association, more than 2.4 million adults over 65 in the United States identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, with many coming out later in life. During October, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) History Month, advocates are working to raise awareness of the particular issues facing older adults.

“Many of the issues are emotional,” said Bethesda marriage and family therapist Carol Barnaby. “If you think about it, feeling like you’re being forced to lead a double life can cause a laundry list of issues.”

Anne Whitty grew up in a devoutly Irish Catholic home, one that disavowed any romantic relationship that wasn’t heterosexual. “We were taught that relationships with someone of the same sex were one of the worst types of sins,” she said. “But I’ve know that I was lesbian since I was 30.

Now, the 62-year-old grandmother of four, who is married to a 73-year-old woman, says she feels liberated and finally able to live as she feels she was intended. “I’d felt a low-grade depression for most of my adult life because there was a part of me that I tried to pretend didn’t exist,” she said. “When I was growing up, that was something that we didn’t even discuss, so I was never able to get help.”

“Being forced to live most of your life as someone you’re not can be overwhelmingly stressful and lead to depression,” adds Barnaby. “So many older adults – and younger people too – use alcohol and even drugs, to squash those feelings, which in reality only compounds them.”

Seniors like Whitty, whose sexuality is at odds with their religious upbringing, can find themselves suddenly disconnected from an important part of their lives, says Barnaby. “To be accepted is something that most of us want, but when you’re suddenly rejected by a source of comfort that you’ve had for 40 or 50 years, it can lead to incredible loneliness, especially if you’ve also been rejected by some family and friends.”

Suddenly experiencing discrimination for the first time in one’s life can be perplexing, advises Barnaby. “For those who’ve never had to deal with being treated differently because of the way they looked, suddenly being singled out as a minority can be tough.”

In spite of the emotional obstacles for those who decide to come out after a marriage and family, the outcome makes the effort worthwhile. ”I feel like I’m finally free,” said Murphy.