‘I said to my 16-year-old, ‘If something ever happens to me and dad, don’t be surprised if I end up with a woman.’: Mom of 4 comes out, ‘I finally came home to myself’

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“I am a woman who lived in the straight world for most of my life.  I was married to a man, with four kids, a minister, hospice chaplain, and grief counselor. I had a misguided belief that everyone had their sexual or gender identity figured out by their twenties. I now know this is a common misconception in the heterosexual world. Another misconception, because of increased representation in media and culture, is that coming out as a member of the LGBT+ community is easier than it was in the past. Most people in the LGBT+ world know that isn’t true. We understand that it’s much more complicated, with variable complex layers in each person’s individual story and there’s no ‘one size fits all’ to this journey. I am here to tell you as a witness to many journeys and in experiencing my own it is easy to come out now is simply not true.

woman with her family outside
Courtesy of Anne-Marie Zanzal

I grew up in Connecticut in the 1970’s and hit my teen and sexually exploring years in the 1980’s. My home life was chaotic with alcoholism and constant arguments. Frankly, I was just trying to survive. The one source of constancy in my life was Catholic school and church. Why? Because I knew exactly what was going to happen in the ritual of the mass and I was a good student in school. It is a place where I received affirmation and I was seen. It was also a place I received very strong messages about sexuality and the role of women in society. All sex, outside of marriage, was wrong, and women were definitely second class citizens. The message about sex was reinforced by my religiously conservative but socially liberal mom, at home. In reflection, I received so many mixed messages as a young child, it took me a very long time to sort them all out.

young girl with her mom
Courtesy of Anne-Marie Zanzal

As I went through my teen years I struggled to understand all the fascination with boys and teenage idols that my friends expressed. They had Shaun Cassidy and Leif Garret posters (da*n  – I am so dating myself!) on their walls and I would roll my eyes. What is the point of putting posters of a boy on your walls? You are never going to meet them. What I didn’t understand is that my friends had adolescent hormones raging for the opposite sex. I did not, but because it was expected of me, I tried to find boys who I was interested in.

I ‘successfully’ dated men throughout high school and college. Therefore fulfilling the subtler messages and narratives in our culture that all women receive: We should be attractive to men, our relationships with them will be difficult, and sex can be unpleasant. When I finally had sex with a man at 19 it was just ‘ok’ and I did not feel any emotional connection. But I chalked it up to my guilt over having sex without being married. Maybe if I got married it would be better?

Yet as I went through my late teens and twenties, I began to notice my attraction to other women. I did wonder about my sexuality and if I was gay. It was the mid 1980’s, and the AIDS epidemic was raging and homophobia was everywhere. It was a hard time to come out as a gay person in this country. Yet, on a more practical level, I did not know where to go to find a community. The only place I knew of was a gay bar several towns over, but unfortunately my friends did not want to go there and I was not brave enough to go alone.

There was a pattern to my attraction to women that became familiar as time wore on. For me, it was always a gay women, not straight friends. I’d see her, we would meet or maybe not, and then I’d spend the next three or four weeks wondering what it’d be like to be with her, yes sexually, but also in a relationship.  Invariably, I’d spend way too much time and brain space wondering, ‘Am I gay?’ It wasn’t until much later did I realize ‘straight girls don’t lay awake at night wondering if they are gay.’

During this same time, I married a man and had four beautiful babies. I was both busy and entrenched in something that I was told would bring me happiness and peace – marriage, family, and career. It did and it did not. This is where the story gets intertwined with many different threads. I loved being a mom and raising my kids. My marriage was much more complicated. I met my now ex-husband in 1986, and after a tumultuous courtship, we got married. Why? We were in our twenties; our friend group was getting married; both of us wanted kids; and he would keep me warm, safe and dry. He’d ‘do’ and I would ‘do.’ I was acculturated to believe that relationships with men are difficult, and ours was no exception. During most of our relationship, we could just never seem to connect and I craved a level of intimacy in which he wasn’t capable of giving. Ironically, he’d often say to me, ‘if you want that, you need to be with a woman.’

As the years turned to decades, we both just gave up on connecting as a romantic couple, moved into separate bedrooms, and developed a deep friendship centered around our children. Both of us loved our family unit as we had craved this centeredness and peacefulness during our own emotionally unhealthy and unstable childhoods. It’s something we achieved together and my ex would’ve stayed that way for the rest of his life.

woman smiling in glasses
Courtesy of Anne-Marie Zanzal

Yet there was a ‘problem’ which I called my restlessness. Surrounded by the busyness and chaos of family and work-life, I was heartbreakingly lonely and constantly looking for that missing piece. Why didn’t I feel complete? Why did I question everything? I’d completed the great American checklist for happiness – married, children, fulfilling career, beautiful home, wealth. I’d look at my life and wonder ‘Is this all there is?’ or ‘What’s wrong with me? Why am I not satisfied?’

In 2006 I read an article in Oprah magazine about the fluidity of women’s sexuality and how some women who were once married to men are now with women. All of sudden, I realized that, although I had become deeply entangled in this straight path, I didn’t have to stay in it forever. I said to my then 16-year-old daughter, ‘If something ever happens to dad and I, don’t be surprised I end up with a woman.’ Like the good little liberal I had raised her to be, she said, ‘OK mom that would be cool.’

It took me another 10 years to come out as I struggled to separate my love of my children and family life, from my now peaceful boring marriage, and my own needs as a woman. I stepped in and out of the closet several times. I did not have a relationship with another woman, but sought help in the therapeutic world.  Unfortunately, like most later in life people, this world was very unhelpful as the understanding of human sexuality is limited. And just to be clear, I received poor guidance from straight and queer therapists. Yet now I realize that I was also culpable, no one else in the world can name my sexuality, the expert in my own sexuality was ‘me.’  I am the only person who can name my sexual orientation.

In 2016 I googled the words ‘late in life lesbian‘ and first found a blog, and eventually a secret online Facebook support group for women coming out later in life. For the first time in my life, I was with my people and in their stories, I heard my own. This was a group of women, who for a myriad of reasons, waited from their late twenties until over eighty years old to come out. Late in life is self-defined and often generational.

two women walking in street with rainbow flag
Courtesy of Anne-Marie Zanzal

My own coming out was hard as I naively thought no one in my liberal Connecticut town would notice or care. The South doesn’t have exclusive rights to homophobia. It’s everywhere. My ex outed me to many members of the community and suddenly people stopped greeting me or quickly looked away when I approached. It truly stunned me.

My kids, ages 12 to 24, as individuals, went from accepting to furious. They were all heartbroken over the divorce. For two of them, it took several years for us to mend our relationship. The identity that I formed around marriage, family, and work began to crumble and my new self began to emerge as I became romantically involved with a woman. I learned to hold in tandem the grief over the loss of my life as I knew it and the indescribable joy of discovery of self and falling deeply in love for the first time.

What was I grieving?

I was experiencing multiple disenfranchised losses or grieving something that is not publicly acknowledged or mourned. My first two losses were an identity in the world as a straight heteronormative woman and my family as it existed. With my ex, even though we were not partners and lovers as I am with my now fiancé, we had a friendship based on a mutual love for our family as a unit and our children. I lost standing in my very heteronormative community as a married woman, which anyone who was divorced can relate. My work identity. I was a chaplain and the public face of the hospice where I worked. The executive director no longer used me in this role when I came out. Ironically, I did not have to grieve my church community like many of my LGBTQIA+ friends, the congregation was very supportive of this former associate pastor, but I grieved my relationship to religion and how in many ways it kept me in the closet for so long. I also struggled with my faith in God. I experienced ambiguous grief of a future that I imagined I was going to have, and the past of a lesbian woman I did not.

woman with her girlfriend
Courtesy of Anne-Marie Zanzal

Yet, on the hand, after separating from my husband, I met a long time out lesbian online and began the process of falling in love with the correct person for my gender identity. I entered the LGBTQIA+ community where I not only felt accepted, but I felt that I belonged. My new relationship, my new community all felt like home. My mind struggled to wrap itself around the concept that these new things could feel like ‘home’ when I already had a ‘home’ with my soon to be ex-husband and children. What I now realize, is that after years of wondering and searching I finally came home – to myself.

This journey was very difficult for me and for other people coming out later in life. I now work with cisgendered and trans women coming out later in life to the LGBTQIA+ community. I can point you in the right direction if you identify as a male. Using my skills from ministry, chaplaincy, and grief counseling I work with people just questioning their sexuality to those well into the coming out process. For those questioning the baseline from which we work is ‘I might not be straight.’ We also work together on internalized homophobia, grief, and normalizing this process, but most importantly finding community. Finding our ‘people’ is truly vital as we begin to create a new life.

woman with her girlfriend
Courtesy of Anne-Marie Zanzal

I am often asked to give advice about navigating change, loss and transition of coming out later in life and divorce. What I say: ‘It is never too late to make changes to our current life so we may fulfill our dreams. We have a right to happiness, but most importantly we have the right to be who we were authentically created to be.'”

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Anne-Marie Zanzal. You can follow her journey on Instagram, Facebook, and her website. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos. 

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