"Am I gay?" I'm a middle-aged woman reinventing her life after marriage and kids — and I'm not alone

Turning in is common for women in their 40s and 50s. Why don't we talk about it more?

Published August 5, 2023 3:59PM (EDT)

Two Roads Diverged (Illustration by Ilana Lidagoster/Salon)
Two Roads Diverged (Illustration by Ilana Lidagoster/Salon)

It was in the locker room of the gym when I saw the woman, standing with her back to me applying lotion to her legs. She was naked. I was mesmerized. With the quickness of a snap, the hold on me released and the question emerged from the fog, "Am I gay?"

I was 44 and the proverbial chalkboard of my life boasted many checkmarks: college—check; marry a nice man—check; house in the suburbs—check; career—check; kids—check and check. Throw in a couple of cats and a yearly beach vacation and my blackboard was worthy of the A-plusses Ralphie imagined on his Christmas theme paper in the 1983 movie "A Christmas Story." Just as his fantasy disintegrated by seeing the big red C along with the comment, "You'll shoot your eye out," so was my blackboard erased as I entered liminality when I leaped into the unknowing in search of an answer to the question.

Having realized the life I wanted—husband, kids, career—I couldn't imagine another one. Yet the nagging sensation that something was missing lingered. Steeped in the life that growing up in the 1970s and '80s prepared me for, any unrest I felt throughout my 19-year marriage led to searching outside of myself—returning to school, immersing myself in motherhood, boosting my career, and diving into my inherited faith. Each new program enrollment and Gymboree class held a promise to ease my restlessness.

For those of us bred from traditional gender roles, a late-in-life reimagining of self can be confusing, but is not uncommon.

The message from my childhood of a path anchored in heterosexism — modeled by my neighborhood, extended family and the media — provided no language, no representation of a different option. I was so tethered to the only life I thought I could have that even after having my first same-sex attraction at 44, which led to a four-month affair, I still never questioned my sexuality. Revelatory feelings were waking up inside of me, but my mind never went there. I immersed myself in this other-worldly experience while going about my otherwise typically heteronormative existence. Until that day in the gym.

What followed that question I asked myself in the locker room was a journey inward. And while the catalyst for my self-refection was a woman, turning in is common in midlife, a time during which women desire to reinvent themselves.

A later-in-life sexual awakening is likened to a second adolescence. Indeed, crossing the threshold to a new orientation awakened feelings from my deepest recesses. Once I tasted that exhilaration, all I wanted is the freedom for more.

The countless women I met along my journey as a late bloomer offered unique stories of the circuitous path they traveled before arriving at their redefined sexual orientation, along with a redrawn roadmap for their life's second half. Some women knew they had same-sex attractions but suppressed them for fear of the messages they had heard, like, "You'll burn in hell." Some were subjected to exorcisms. They rightfully feared being disowned by their families and shunned by their communities and bristled with the homophobia that was deposited within them from an early age. Some remained solidly single while others did what was expected of them—married a man and had kids.

We value the personal and the political

By the time these women reached their late 30s, 40s or 50s, something or someone woke those dormant feelings. Others, like me, never had a previous same-sex attraction awareness, and those first times knocked our worlds off their axes.

For those of us bred from traditional gender roles, a late-in-life reimagining of self can be confusing, but is not uncommon. Women are granted unspoken permission to be more affectionate and develop emotional bonds with other women without societal or self-imposed stigma. The first time my attraction to a woman was more than just emotional, I still didn't consider the possibility that I was gay. While unpacking it, I hypothesized that she was the exception to my otherwise heteronormative existence. After all, I was married to a man, so I couldn't possibly be gay.

I belong to the latchkey generation—one in which its members have the distinction of being the first generation to experience their formative years with less nurturing and hands-on parenting. Some of us who tended to our own needs at young ages tried to compensate with our own children. The lack of supervision I received as a teenager, along with the fallout from my parents' contentious divorce, left me hypervigilant to ensure my children had a different experience. I wasn't going to readily embrace any notion that would jeopardize the life I had created for my children — the one I didn't have as a child.

While insisting I couldn't be gay because of my marital status, what I didn't know was how complicated sexuality could be, that the categories were variable. I was unaware of the concept of fluidity — that research scientist Alfred Kinsey, as early as 1948, had found that sexuality wasn't fixed but ran on a continuum and was subject to change. As the dialogue around sexuality continues to evolve, the rigidity around identities is loosening, as evidenced in younger generations, many of whom express a distaste for labels and exercise more freedom in selecting their partners.

The inherent ageism entwined with sexuality presents another barrier. Many of us grew up with images of recycled youth rather than maturation. When the most famous representative for Lancôme cosmetics, Isabella Rossellini, was fired at 43 for being "too old," she was told, "Women dream to be young and so the advertisement is about the dream, not the reality." Ms. Rossellini disagreed, "Women don't want to be younger; we want to be sophisticated. We want to be who we are."

Midlife doesn't have to be a crisis

Two decades later, the company recanted and hired Ms. Rossellini back, stating, "We were wrong, and we want to publicly make it right." Now a spokesperson for aging, she speaks of a stronger core and an inner peace that emerges with age and a shift from focusing on the outside to freedom to do what you want to do, to do the dreams you haven't realized, adding, "It's quite exciting to be old."

Midlife doesn't have to be a crisis. By letting go of manmade constructs and allowing our lives to unfold naturally, can we accept that life is dynamic and be gentler with ourselves, while appreciating our human diversity? Can we embrace aging and change?

Carl Jung wrote, "The afternoon of life is just as full of meaning as the morning; only, its meaning and purpose are different."

By the time women reach midlife, some of us have satisfied our early goals, like education, career, relationship and family. Others see their chances for those dreams or others finally within reach. Many of us have experienced significant loss, health scares, and ambiguous grief over life transitions (divorce, geography, profession), along with empty nests or being childless by circumstance, financial concerns, and the pressures of the sandwich generation. It is a time when many women find themselves examining whether their values reflect who they really are rather than carrying forth the preordained values of family or culture, leading them to want to hit the refresh button.

When I found the agency to explore my longing after that inaugural same-sex attraction ushered me into uncharted territory, I pondered what I wanted my future to look like and desired to evolve with the life experience I'd acquired. The question that pushed me over the precipice of uncertainty was, "If you do nothing, will you regret it in 25 years?" Immediately I knew the answer. I gave myself permission to make changes that would align myself with authenticity. I battled fear and guilt and wrestled with grief and loss, but it was worth being able to create a reality better suited for me.

By giving myself permission to be in the role of self, first and foremost, I'm modeling for my kids not to settle for anything less than being their true selves, too. Staying stuck in a life that isn't wholly fulfilling is hard. Making a drastic change in your life is hard, too. But we get to choose our hard.

By Melissa Giberson

Melissa Giberson's debut book, “Late Bloomer: Finding My Authentic Self at Midlife” (She Writes Press) comes out August 8, 2023. Melissa is a native New Yorker who identifies as a late bloomer, a highly sensitive introvert, and proud mama bear to two children. An occupational therapist and writer, she has published articles in The Boston Globe, Kveller, Dorothy Parker’s Ashes, and Highly Sensitive Refuge. She received an Honorable Mention in the Memoirs/Personal Essays category of the 91st Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition and her essay, “Art is the Antidote,” appears in the anthology, "Art in The Time of Unbearable Crisis" (June, 2022). Melissa is living her authentic life with her partner and their two cats; together, they split their time between New Jersey and Provincetown, Massachusetts. Find out more at her website.

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Aging Essay Lgbtq Midlife Women