This is what it’s like to come out of the closet at 40

This is what it’s like to come out of the closet at 40

My first experiences with queerness could have been scenes from a clichéd coming-of-age story. Open dim bedroom interior. Two pre-teen girls, one with a shock of dark curls, the other, me, with a slicked back hairstyle and thick bangs, negotiate who will be “the guy” at their kissing practice.

Transition to the interior of a Jeep five years later. Outside, the rain is pouring down. The stereo plays “Tragic Kingdom” by No Doubt. A blonde girl with glitter in the corner of her eye sits in the driver’s seat. Next to her is one of the girls from the previous scene, with longer hair, but with the same heavy bangs. The rain forms beautiful slippery patterns on their bodies. They hold their knees to avoid reaching into each other.

We then see them in a bedroom, sitting on a huge waterbed. The blonde girl reaches for the other, kissing and grabbing her breasts, laughing. The other girl walks away from her. Then there’s a montage of the blonde girl skinny dipping with groups of other teenagers, dancing naked with a group around a campfire, her and the girl with bangs making out with different guys on opposite sides of the waterbed, and finally, after a tearful argument, the girl with bangs walking away.

In the mid-’90s, while struggling with guilt and confusion about being attracted to one girl, and his attraction to many people simultaneously, the term “queer” was changing from an insulting label to an empowering verb as a new framework, theory. queer, united scholars interested in sexuality and gender who fell outside of heterosexual norms. “Queering” was about more than just sexuality and gender, it also subverted the mainstream culture’s position on sex and relationships, what families were like and how they were formed. He challenged conventional narratives about identity, monogamy, and more.

He was far from ready for such an unconventional lens. Just kissing a girl felt like a dangerous boundary crossing, but the girl he was kissing was ready to shed the entire structure of heteronormativity. Unable to understand each other’s perspectives, we broke up, and at the age of 15, I was dating men again. It was easier than finding out my sexual identity.

I never thought of myself as gay back then. I was attracted to men, after all, and bisexuality was treated with deep skepticism in the ’90s. The few gay people I knew explained that their sexuality was not a choice. As someone who was attracted to both men and women, I felt the only defensible thing to do was to choose what would make everyone feel most comfortable.

This logic held through high school. I alternated periods of exclusivity with guys who wanted to be my boyfriend (even the ones I wasn’t particularly attracted to) and periods of what I considered “wild flirting,” where I made out with lots of different guys. . I always had multiple crushes, of which I felt deeply ashamed. I also had a best friend who I found beautiful in a way that made me want to touch her stomach, even though I never did. When I was 18 years old, I left my conservative hometown for the nearest town. I had only been there a few months when I met a woman who I found so utterly magnetic that I decided she must be a lesbian. I called my parents and announced my new sexual orientation; they responded, unsurprisingly, by telling me I was going to hell.

The woman and I moved in together. She was very curious about her body, but she quickly established that touching her was forbidden: she would only touch me. She carefully kept me separate from her friends and prided herself on dating “straight” girls, a category she insisted on including me in. When our relationship ended, after three years, she found another “straight” girl and I was left without any connection. to the gay community, embarrassed by how little experience he had in pleasing a woman, and a lingering Christian shame about what sex and love were supposed to be like. For a year I pined for my ex, then I started dating a boring, financially successful guy who pressured me to grow my hair out and shop at Banana Republic.

I dated another guy, then another. At the same time, I had a number of intensely close friendships with women, some of which eventually led to some kind of sexual or romantic climax (a kiss, a hug, a long look) that either ended the friendship suddenly or ushered in a new relationship. a. measured moving away. I gradually came to accept that I was bisexual, but lived as a straight person, even though I often found dating men overwhelming and frustrating.

Then one of my relationships with a man extended beyond the usual two or three years to five, then six. He talked about marriage, which scared me even as he tried to tell myself what he wanted. When the relationship ended, he was sad, but also relieved. I moved on and found myself in a whole new cliché: the midlife crisis.

Finally, at 40, he was ready to figure out what he wanted. I was tired of monogamy, of gender roles, of forcing my feet into heels and my body in size 6 jeans, of sex that stuck to a predictable script, of every relationship following the same trajectory. I found myself coming out again, not as gay or bi or even pansexual, but as queer, an identity that implied a total rejection of sexual and romantic norms.

“For many people born before Gen Z, making decisions about our sexuality feels self-indulgent. We grew up in a time when queerness was considered unnatural and wrong, where gay and straight were two opposing teams that everyone was expected to choose between.”

If I were 20 years younger, this identity wouldn’t feel so out of place. At the university where I teach, many of my students identify as queer and non-binary, but among my older millennial colleagues and friends, I still see a lot of suppression of bisexuality, rigidity around relationship structures and discomfort with exploring gender identities. outside of the masculine/feminine binary.

For many people born before Generation Z, making decisions about our sexuality feels self-indulgent. We grew up in a time when queerness was considered unnatural and wrong, where gay and straight were two opposing teams that everyone was expected to choose between. I spent many years believing that, but I’m finally learning to accept that my sexuality doesn’t fit neatly into a set category and finding ways to queer my relationships, regardless of the gender of my partners.

What it looks like is complicated. It also has a lot to do with community and visibility. I have immersed myself in podcasts, TV shows, and queer music. I participate in the monthly walks organized by a local LGBTQ+ organization and joined a queer book club. I identify as queer to my students and colleagues at the university where I teach. I’ve been back to talking to my family and friends, most of whom have assured me that they still love me, and some of whom have taken an interest. I started to see queerness as an intrinsic part of me, not something that depends on who I’m dating.

I am expressing my gender in a way that feels more authentic and fluid. I cut my hair and donated most of my dresses. I choose clothes that I feel good in, even if they don’t follow the rules of what is flattering or sexy to others. I am working to accept my body instead of trying to force it into a certain size and shape.

Love and connection are very important to me, but I have learned that I am happier living alone and I do not want children. I’m no longer willing to follow the old family story that love is possessive and one-way, that it only counts if it’s romantic, reserved for one person, and lasts forever. When I meet someone I like, I try to explore the connection with an open mind, and if something doesn’t work out, I take a step back rather than cut things off forever. I build relationships that make me feel good, even if they seem strange to other people.

In the final scene of that movie that started playing all those years ago, the girl with the bangs, now a woman, is having dinner with three other people. The man next to her, whom she has loved for eight years, touches her knee under the table, in a gesture of calm and affection. She smiles at him, then directs her attention to a blonde woman across from her, asks if she wants more food, then gets up to clear the table. The two women stand together as they prepare the tea and plan when to meet again. When it’s time to leave, they hold each other for a long moment, before the blonde woman and her partner say goodbye. The woman with bangs and the man she has known for eight years sit together on the sofa, holding hands. They discuss all the ways they’ve been together and apart and all the possibilities that come their way. It’s a life she’s still figuring out, one that sometimes scares her, but it’s the life she’s chosen, one she’s built out of her deepest needs and desires. She feels it’s right to choose, right to be fluid, right to be different. Strange. Queer.

Laura M. Martin lives in South Carolina, where she teaches at a small college, tends an unruly and mostly edible garden, and works on her memoir. You can find her on instagram @LauraMMWriter.

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