Coming out is often framed as a youthful rite of passage, but many people only embrace their true selves later in life. Zosia Bielski explores the tentative joy and painful losses of LGBTQ seniors living openly for the first time
The daughter applied a moisturizing mask to her 95-year-old father’s face. She filed his nails and carefully trimmed his ear hair. Looking slick in aviators and a scarf adorned with neon palm trees, Roman Blank was off to the prom. The gay senior prom.
At the party, Blank hugged other gay men, clinging to them as if to a life raft. He won the title of “prom queen.” And then he grew wistful, wishing he’d been born 50 years later than he was: “Then I would be free, completely free, like a bird.”
Blank is the spark of the devastating new film On My Way Out: The Secret Life of Nani and Popi, about a 65-year, seemingly happy marriage that is detonated when Blank comes out to the family as gay. The documentary, which premieres Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival, follows Blank and his wife, Ruth – both Holocaust survivors – through the fraught revelation that he’s been in the closet all his life in order to survive. “For 90 years I was in pain – and still am,” Blank tells his family through the camera. “I never let you know or feel what is going on in my heart. Never. Until now.”
LGBTQ seniors who come out later in life do a difficult calculus all their lives: risk losing everything to liberate themselves or remain in the closet, embraced by their families but probably miserable all the while. Some come out when a spouse dies or when they themselves become terminally ill. Others, as with Blank, decide they don’t want to spend their twilight years living a lie – this could be their last chance.
But coming out late can come with dire consequences. Some LGBTQ seniors suffer estrangement not just from their spouses but from their children and grandchildren. They are also faced with having to build entirely new social networks in an LGBTQ community that may be completely alien to them after living with a heterosexual spouse for decades.
Coming out doesn’t guarantee happiness. Out seniors can become isolated as they decline physically and mentally. They are half as likely to have life partners or close relatives and four times less likely to have children to lean on, according to U.S. organization SAGE (Services & Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Elders).
“People who come out later in life risk losing everything – their jobs, families, access to their children. For some, the risk is way too high and they never do it,” said Helen Kennedy, executive director at Egale Canada, an LGBTQ advocacy organization. “A lot of people structure their lives to save shame and to save family so they can be stealth in how they live their lives. It’s a dreadful way to live.”
Shoshana Pellman is a 70-year-old transgender woman who transitioned when she was 58. A parent to seven children from two marriages, the second lasting 17 years, she braced for the reaction from her Orthodox Jewish family.
“I didn’t feel in the right place,” said Pellman, a retired engineer in Toronto. For years, she’d been secretly cross-dressing, often in her second wife’s clothing. “She suspected. Her bras and her panties weren’t exactly folded the way she folds them.”
After separating and losing her job, Pellman began seeing a psychiatrist, who told her “you never get over” cross-dressing. She did some research online, slowly coming to terms with her gender identity. She didn’t need a formal coming out: In 2007, her ex-wife walked in on Pellman in lipstick and a wig.
“She freaked out,” Pellman recalled. “She said, ‘Why did you marry me?’ I told her, ‘I didn’t know.’ I honestly didn’t know when I got married that I was trans.”
Among her children, reaction to Pellman’s transitioning has been mixed. One is praying for her.
“When you start feeling the isolation, when you feel the fact that the kids aren’t really wanting to talk to you, it really hits you,” Pellman said. “It does hurt. Those of us in our community, we’ve lost siblings, parents, children.”
Beyond familial rejection, social alienation remains a serious issue for those who come out later in life. Not only do LGBTQ seniors need to find resources and alternative kinship, they need to learn how to navigate new social mores. Dating, for instance, is a significant challenge – especially in youth-centric gay male communities.
“It’s a feeling of being lost,” said Stephanie Jonsson, a York University researcher who looks at LGBTQ seniors’ experiences with long-term care. “They’re trying to build these communities from the ground up. They haven’t necessarily been involved in LGBTQ communities. They may have never gone to a Pride event before.”
Brian Cope, 71, had been married for 25 years when he decided he couldn’t conceal who he was any longer. At the age of 52, he came out as gay to his wife and their two “worldly” teenage children, who seemed largely unfazed by the news. The couple separated three weeks later. On the one hand, Cope was finally independent. On the other, his new future was daunting.
“Starting a new life in your 50s is not highly recommended. It felt very scary and lonely because I had no life at all,” said Cope, a retired Toronto marketing consultant. “There’s a saying that when we come out late in life, our actual age is 16 plus the number of years we’ve been out. … You know how awkward a 16-year-old boy is, fumbling his way around, trying to figure out who to invite to the dance or whether to even go to the dance? We’re maturing as a completely new person.”
He started going out for solo dinner and drinks in Toronto’s gay village, where he’d never been before. “I took baby steps,” said Cope, who’s had three serious relationships since coming out. He joined the peer support group Gay Fathers of Toronto. Recently, he mentored a man who left his wife several weeks ago.
Advocates argue that those coming out later in life need more support than is currently on offer – as do their spouses. “The spouse who is liberated is on the fantastic journey,” Egale’s Kennedy said. “The other person, it’s not their journey per se. They find themselves totally isolated. What are they going to do now?”
Family and caregivers also need education. Those who might question why a 70-year-old is coming out now need a better understanding of LGBTQ seniors’ early life experiences and of the historical and social realities that forced them into hiding. Not so long ago in Canada, people weren’t just socially stigmatized for being gay, they were imprisoned for “gross indecency.”
As people now come out at various points in their lives, advocates believe it’s time to reconsider how we treat these revelations among the grandparent set. LGBTQ people can genuinely love opposite-sex partners even as they struggle with their own identities.
After 20 years of marriage, Bill Staubi came out at the age of 45 after his wife discovered his online chats with gay men, some of whom were also married to women.
“It was extremely upsetting,” said Staubi, a 62-year-old retired Ottawa public servant. He described his ex-wife’s reaction: “The person that you’ve been living with and about whom you had a clear idea of now reveals to you that they’re someone different – in a significant way. It brings a sense of betrayal and self-doubt: ‘How did I not know this about this person?'”
Today, society still has scant idea of what goes on between closeted men and women and their opposite-sex spouses. “One of the very first questions people coming out from a marriage get asked is about the quality of their sex life with their partner: How can you perform if you have this other attraction?” Staubi observed.
“More education about how those dynamics actually work in people would help spouses who are worried that their marriage wasn’t authentic. The relationship was authentic, but people are capable of a multitude of feelings and desires. These are challenging ideas for people.”
Eventually, his ex-wife made a crucial distinction that allowed them to move forward, just separately. “She could accept who I was,” Staubi said, but she was still angry that he hadn’t expressed his suspicions about his sexuality earlier. This was her life too, after all.
Will marriage ever be more expansive on this front? Will spouses grow capable of forgiving each other these trespasses, given the steep cost of coming out in decades past and what we are now learning about sexuality not necessarily being fixed in place forever?
It’s an empathetic lens the directors of On My Way Out are holding out for. The film was made by two of Blank’s grandsons, Brandon and Skyler Gross. Brandon believes his grandparents’ turbulent marriage was also “a great unconventional love story.”
Even as wretched misery lay under the surface – Ruth learned that her husband was gay in her 20s but guarded the secret for almost seven decades – the two raised a family and ran a chain of beauty salons in Los Angeles. Against all odds, the marriage was also marked by playfulness and affection, singing and dancing.
At 95, as Roman begged Ruth for a split and raced the clock to find romance with men – encouraging his wife to move on and do the same – Brandon Gross wondered: Had they had more time, would his grandparents have been able to build something else between each other?
“If Ruth had the time to realize what she could experience if she were a little more open,” he said, “maybe there could have been an evolved partnership.”