You Need Help: I Just Turned 65 and I’m Questioning My Sexuality

Q:

Help me, Autostraddle! I know I’m too old for you, but who else am I gonna ask? I just turned 65. I was single in the pre-plague 70s and made good use of it, fu#king just about anything with a dick. I got sober and stopped that, met my husband and soulmate. Loved him madly, and then he died. Honestly, I loved our intimate relationship but over time had less and less interest in sex. My hetero married friends my age are getting testosterone shots ~ for their husbands. Ugh. No.

I never even considered anything other than heterosexuality, but the vast majority of my friends, male and female, have always been gay. Always. I sponsored half the lesbians in AA for decades. I am attracted to lesbians in a way I can’t explain. My dearest friend in the world died four years ago and she was a self-described dyke. I adored her.

But I don’t want sex. I don’t actually want sex with anyone (well, myself, occasionally, but it’s not a driving force these days). I recently encountered a man who by all of society’s standards would be a catch. Smart, educated, well off, enchanted with me. So why was I feeling so cringe-y, the more interested he became? And as his sexual interest became clear, I actually felt revulsion.

I meditated and tried to work this out with my spirit guides (woo woo, I know), and I kept seeing my body outlined with bright white light, and hearing the word, “impenetrable.” Let that guy go. What a relief.

And yet now I’m on a lesbian dating site. What is going on with me? I really hope you can help me, or at least direct me to some resources. There’s no one in my life I can ask about this. I’d be too embarrassed to go to my lesbian friends and say “Hey, guess what? You were right.” (Because they’ve been telling me for years…)

I’ve been feminist for years, fought for the ERA, have hated men, felt compassion for them, pity most and, thankfully, love a lot of the poor creatures now (definitely have found peace there). But the idea of sharing my life with a hetero man is just a big fat nope. I just love women. And I love women who aren’t into all that male/female BS. It’s exhausting.

I don’t know what to do, or even if I should do anything. I’m happy in my life, just really surprised that all of this has come up and I guess a little disconcerted thinking I’ve been deluding myself for years?? Okay. There it is. Thanks for listening.

A:

Editor’s note: Every so often, a question lands in our inbox that sparks a lot of discussion amongst our staff! This was one of those questions, and as a special treat, Himani and I decided to have a formal conversation about it and then publish our transcript so you can get multiple perspectives — and of course we hope you’ll all share your perspectives in the comments per usual. This felt like an especially fun way to close out the year of You Need Help. Thank you all for trusting us with your vulnerable questions, and we’ll be back in 2023 to keep trying our best to help when you need it! — Vanessa 

Vanessa: So my first instinct here was to just be like… “babe, you’re queer!” Because I feel like being queer is expansive, and can include many identities throughout one’s life, and to me when I read this question it was like a foregone conclusion. Duh babe, you’re queer. Welcome!

Himani: I don’t disagree with you, but when I hear people say things like that, “Well of course you’re queer,” in that kind of matter of fact way — I wonder if it just reinforces this letter writer’s fear about their friends being like “I told you so.” And, I really feel for this person, because the embarrassment of telling your friends something it’s taken you decades to come to, when other people have been insinuating it forever is so real. And not to throw shade (but also throwing shade) the smugness of the queer community in situations like this really doesn’t help. In my experience at least it makes it harder. It makes it harder to come into something that is your own because it feels like everyone is going to be like “well duh” or laugh at you. And then after you do come out a bunch of people who are way younger than you call you a baby gay, which just feels so pejorative and dismissive of the life you’ve already been living.

Vanessa: Yes, I think that’s all such good info to mull over! And when we first talked about this as a group in the editorial Slack channel, you mentioned some of those feelings and I was really surprised and then really happy that you called it out and brought your experience to the table, because I hadn’t meant it that way but can totally see how it comes across that way. So then we decided to answer this question together, and now here we are! So I guess I’m wondering from your perspective, what are some ways this person can move forward that will feel affirming and empowering rather than belittling or dismissive?

Himani: I mean, I think everyone in the queer community knows this but I think we need to say it more explicitly and more often: Queerness is a journey. And also, I don’t think sexuality is a fixed thing — although that’s a tricky one to own because homophobes have been using this against us forever. But I don’t mean it that way. I just mean that if you’re older and coming out now, that doesn’t deny or negate the life and love that you’ve had. It also doesn’t negate the fact that your feelings in the present are maybe pointing to other interests than you’ve had or pursued in the past. In the case of this particular letter writer, I also feel really compelled to add: you can be straight or a lesbian or bisexual or however you choose to identify at the end of the day and also not be into sex. You can be any or all of those things and also asexual or aromantic.

Vanessa: I 100% agree on all of that. And if you’d like more resources for exploring asexuality, you can check out the articles we’ve written about it on Autostraddle, or I really loved Angela Chen’s Ace. I really want to focus on what Himani said which is that queerness is a journey. I think something I wanted to zoom in on for this answer is affirming the meaningful relationship the LW had with her husband — maybe I’m sensitive to that because my dad died just a couple of years ago and I can see how much my mom is struggling — but I feel very strongly that we do fall in love with people, not always a specific gender, and it seems clear to me they shared a beautiful relationship for many years. But I’m looking at the LW now, writing to us (which, by the way, thank you for trusting us with your question!) and wondering what her next move should be. I’m specifically looking at the end of the letter where she writes: “I don’t know what to do, or even if I should do anything.” What do you think?

Himani: Ultimately, I think there’s no wrong way about this in terms of whether she seeks out a relationship with a woman or queer community that she’s more explicitly and openly a part of or whether she continues along with the life and friends and relationships she has currently. But she does seem to be stressed by feeling like she needs a clear “answer,” and I don’t think there necessarily is one or has to be one. I think I’ve written this in response to an advice question before but when I was first coming to terms with my sexuality, I felt the most “seen” and belonging when I saw a sign at my work place that said it was LGBTQ+ affirming and included “questioning” along with the more definitive identity labels. Because it was this realization that I could just live in the Q of “questioning” forever if I wanted to and I would still have a place somewhere, and that was an ok decision to make. And I think we need to be able to accept and embrace the uncertainty. So often we get questions from folks about specific identity labels, and at the end of the day, I really do believe that you get to make a label what you want it to be (within reason, of course, I’m not sanctioning Rachel Dolezal over here) AND also you get to choose or not choose or change your labels when and how you want. In the end, I personally don’t think the labels are all that important, and sometimes I think we get caught up in them at the expense of just living. Which brings me to my next point: I do think finding friends to talk to is going to be really helpful for her, ultimately — whether that’s her lesbian friends or straight friends or otherwise. She seems like she just needs someone to talk through her feelings with, at least as a starting point. And if she is concerned that her friends will be like “well, duh” she can preface the conversation with something like, “I’m feeling really tender around this topic, and I need you to be kind to me and to take this seriously.” Or something along those lines.

Vanessa: Yes! That’s so much of what I’m thinking too. The answer to “what should I do now” is so open, and I think that in itself can be a little overwhelming, but honestly, it can be anything. I remember when I first came out to myself, I was 20, and I really gave myself such a hard time — like “if you didn’t know this about yourself how could it possibly be true now!” I wrote that in my journal! And I was only 20! So I’m thinking, if I felt that way then, it seems like possibly many queer people, no matter how old, have a really hard time coming to terms with their identity, for so many reasons… some of which are surely the idea that queer people won’t welcome them, or will scoff at them and say I told you so, or will simply be kind of cliquey. I do think this LW is at an advantage because she says she already has so many gay friends — it seems like she wouldn’t have to do much to plug into queer community because in many ways she’s already in it. My main advice is to take some pressure off yourself, be gentle with your journey, and just be open to anything. Don’t date men if that feels bad. Don’t feel like you have to date women either (though do if you want to, as it seems the Lesbian Dating Website might indicate… yes?). Roll your own eyes at anyone who acts smug about your journey. Just let it be what it is every day, and go from there.

Himani: Yeah, I completely agree with that. For me, when I accepted the uncertainty and was just like “I’m going to just keep doing me,” that really helped me just live my life and make decisions based on what I felt like doing.

Vanessa: I love that. Do you think there’s anything else we need to share with this LW? I really want to cheer her on and just encourage her to keep doing what she’s doing. Honestly, she sounds like a fucking rad person, and I wish I got to be her friend!

Himani: One last thing I want to touch on is when she says, “I guess a little disconcerted thinking I’ve been deluding myself for years.” That’s a really hard feeling to live with, and also something I can relate to, and! also something we’ve gotten asked in the past. A few years ago I responded to a letter writer in YNH who felt guilt about coming out and buried in their question was this kind of guilt for kind of letting themselves down. I don’t know if that’s the exact feeling this letter writer is experiencing, but I just want her to know that, first, she’s not alone: I think a lot of people who come out older (myself included) feel like, “How could I not know sooner? How could I have been deluding myself for so long?” And second, that ultimately she hasn’t let herself down at all. As I wrote in my earlier reply: “You came out when you did for a reason and, in all honesty, probably more than one.”

Vanessa: I will say as my final thought — if you do choose to share with your friends, which I hope you do, there’s no reason to frame it like “omg you were RIGHT and I was WRONG”… and if they’re good friends, they won’t want to feel that way either! It’s just life. You’re just living. Who cares what anyone thought until now? You’re you. This is the you of right now. It sounds like your friends are really loving and accepting, so make space for them to love and accept this version of you, even if you remain in a questioning place for the rest of your life.

Himani: I love that so much! And I think you’re right! If you’ve been friends with some of these people for so long, they probably just really love you and want what’s best for you.

Vanessa: Which is… literally whatever you want. We’re sending you so much love from Autostraddle and hoping you get everything you want and more in 2023 and beyond!


You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.


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Vanessa

Vanessa is a writer, a teacher, and the community editor at Autostraddle. Very hot, very fun, very weird. Find her on twitter and instagram.

Vanessa has written 395 articles for us.

himani

Himani is a dabbler of a writer. Her work includes reviews of media centering Asian stories, news and politics, advice and the occasional personal essay. Find her on Instagram.

Himani has written 49 articles for us.

19 Comments

  1. I can totally understand feeling like “how could I have lived this much of my life and not known this,” but I also think it’s kind of wonderful that we discover new things about ourselves all the way through our lives. Not only is there always something new to learn about the world, there’s always something new to learn about our inner worlds. What a great argument for continuing to live, what a great reason to look forward to getting older. You might frame it like this when talking to friends, like “look, I’ve unpeeled a new layer of the onion that is me, how cool is that?!”

    • Also, even though it’s against the born this way ideology, people might change, or develop new needs with age. Also, changing physiology may change needs.
      As many trans people whose attractions shifted with hrt can tell you, or people after menopause.

  2. I’ve been having a similar experience in my 40s and I really relate to the LW’s feeling of reserve and caution about approaching her queer friends to go, “Hey, looks like you were right!”

    It can feel very disempowering sometimes when others seem to know, or feel they know, more about us than we do ourselves. Getting older comes with – or there’s an expectation that it will – all this growing confidence about who we are, but there’s also an unwritten narrative that we’re distilling into a more condensed, precise version of whatever we were already.

    So there isn’t a huge, well understood social narrative about “I’m coming into my queerness later in life, and on one hand it’s like what people have been telling me, but in other ways it’s not like that at all.”

    I’m an older Millennial, and I feel like my generation have really latched onto the concept of feeling Seen – whether in one of our contexts, or all of them – and how good and powerful that can feel. But just as feeling seen can be intensely validating, feeling like people DON’T see your whole picture, or see but misunderstand, can make it harder to come out, either to others or to ourselves.

    The wary anticipation of those conversations can get in the way of enjoying the journey to our fullest selves, and that’s not me telling LW to relax about it, that’s me acknowledging that it’s been one of the things that kept me unsure for a long time too. But you deserve that journey, LW, whatever it looks like for you.

    I wonder if one thing that might help would be to sign up to one of those sites which allows people to make both romantic and social connections – this is something I’ve been considering for myself, because I know I’m not ready for a romantic/sexual relationship currently, but I do need friends, and it sounds like maybe part of your conflict comes from feeling like you can’t take a step unless you’re ready to take a whole lot of steps.

    One thing I have already done which has helped me a lot is getting into the writing of other people who came out later in life – I think this can be really important because, wonderfully, more and more people are coming out when they’re very young now, and therefore that’s often the narrative that dominates, but there are still a lot of us who’ve lived full lives in different ways before we recognised these aspects of ourselves, and we don’t always see ourselves fully reflected in content aimed at young people.

    Like you, LW, I tend to prefer not to get too hung up on the gender binary or gender essentialism, so I’ve been reading things by people who identify all kinds of ways, and these are ones I’d recommend:

    Robin Douglas has a great podcast called “Coming Out Late” – for her, that meant realising she was a lesbian in her 50s, but she discusses all kinds of experiences. I also enjoyed William Dameron’s book “The Lie: A Memoir of Two Marriages, Catfishing and Coming Out”, and I’m currently reading “Fashionably Late: Gay, Bi and Trans Men Who Came Out Later in Life”, edited by Vinnie Kinsella. I’m sure there will be others, but those are just three that I’ve seen facets of my own experience in.

    Lastly, I would say it’s really worth finding groups online where you can talk about this, because I also often felt shy about talking to my friends who’d been out for decades. When I did find out that a friend was going through something really similar and was in a similar place on their journey, that helped a lot.

    Good luck to you, LW – I hope you find what you need.

  3. I love this question and the conversation. Some of it resonates with me a lot. Where you say ‘I guess a little disconcerted thinking I’ve been deluding myself for years’ – I can relate to this feeling a lot but also – we expect people to grow and change over time in every other way, why not in this way? I really struggled with getting gayer over time even though I’d IDd as queer for my whole life, finding men didn’t…work for me anymore was discombobulating. I hate to be that person but I have found therapy super helpful in taking away the sense of guilt/blame/feeling dumb and would really recommend if you have the means.

    Also – what if you went on a few dates before telling your friends? Just a thought but you might find that the dates themselves give you a boost, and then you’re updating them from a position of sharing something new about your life but a little less pressure/big coming out discussion? And it gives you a little space to feel things out.

    I will also say, my straight friends (if you have any) have been incredible for me lately, I also didn’t relish the smugness of ‘I knew it’ bc apart from anything else it felt like bi erasure after a lifetime of being very out. And I knew my straight friends wouldn’t be coming from that place but more kindness and curiosity (the good kind! Not prurient!) rather than feeling they had all the answers.

    This was a lovely answer recently covering some slightly similar ground also

    You Need Help: How to Feel Good About Getting Older

    I just want to also say, however and wherever you end up being and identifying, we’re lucky to be in community with you. And have lots of fun!

  4. I want to say too that shifts in sexuality are common, and what you feel at any given point can be true and doesn’t invalidate the previous thing. It might be that you were straight and now gay. Or bi and now gay. Or bi the whole time! I guess in some ways that reinforces the sentiment that ‘queerness is a journey’ but I dislike that, personally. Queerness can be a journey. But queerness doesn’t have to be some intrinsic thing and it also doesn’t have to be changing, even though it can.

    I think it’s helpful to explore what you might want. You talk about what you clearly don’t want! Now you’re on a dating site for women. So explore that. Or meet new lesbian and bi friends and talk to them. Or do other things that are new to figure out what does feel good. I used to think I wasn’t a person who went to the gym. Then I started going to the gym. I realized the only ‘type of person’ who goes to the gym is one who goes to the gym, and you can just do it. You can think the same way about queerness. Instead of worrying about am I a lesbian or bi or queer and what have I been, be a person who does what she enjoys. Date women or have sex with them. Or don’t! But easier to focus on that then identity. Let identity follow as it may.

  5. I love this question, the dialogue and the eloquent comments!

    Shower thoughts: what if most of us can fuck with heterosexuality when we’re young because we’re lead by our ova/testes and patriarchy? And then we become more fluid or gay as we move farther from breeding age and unlearn false dichotomies? 🤯

  6. As encouragement to the letter-writer, I just want to echo others and say that it’s never too late in life to learn new things about yourself! I have a friend who fell in love with a woman for the first time at age 79. Four years later, they’re still together! ❤️

  7. Really appreciate the format with answering from different ankles! Also I have to add too, its tiresome to find yourself in the “either/or” normativity. I (50) found myself questioning in my mid-30ies, before that I lived a happy heterosexual life, after that I exclusively dated cis-women for a bunch of years, and now the dating bubble extends itself to be more trans/ nonbinary inclusive. Who knows what will catch my eye (or not) in my 60ies. I never struggled with my fluid sexuality though, I was just surprised, haha. Good luck to the questioning person figuring out the best way for her <B

  8. Also for the LW I’d recommend the work of researcher Lisa Diamond. Part of her book Sexual Fluidity talks about how many women she was encountering in her research who were identifying as lesbian today identified as straight in the past, and many of them had long relationships with men.

  9. I don’t know whether this helps but I have a handful of distinctively queer friends who have all been out since grade school that identify as some variation of ‘just chilling’ or ‘fluid’. I understand that we’re all quite young, on the scope of things (early 20s) but human sexuality is so fluid and liable to change! Who and how you love now does not change or discount the ways you’ve loved in the past. At the same time identifying a new aspect of yourself does not mean that you didn’t know yourself in the past, it just means that you’re growing now. I may have missed the point but I would like to leave you with the parting words of:
    Be kind to your past self and know that there’s always room for change and growth, age regardless.

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