Conversations about coming out are so often conflated with youth, adolescence, or even childhood. As happy as we collectively are to see more and more youth able to name their identities and live openly, it can be alienating for those of us who recognize ourselves to be on a similar journey of self-discovery in adulthood. We may feel we’re at an age where we’re already meant to have figured everything out – or that lesbian or bisexual life is centered entirely around youth culture, and that there’s no point in coming out if our day to day life looks more like 10 am Zoom meetings and blood pressure meds than clubbing or college study dates. Despite that cultural narrative, the reality is that many of us can and do come out later in life – even into our 70s and 80s – to find fulfilling community, partnerships, and a sense of self. If that feels like what you need, here are some of my thoughts on where to start.

(Compassionately) Let Go of Your Assumptions

In order to get to the level of self-awareness and self-acceptance, you’re at now, you likely had to let go of a lot of long-held assumptions – that if you were gay you would already know, that everyone secretly felt the way you did, that NO one else felt the way you did, or that your life would be over if you ever came out. It’s great to have worked on challenging those somewhat and to be in a place of working on noticing the ways in which real-life is less black and white than those assumptions would presume.

Even now, though, there’s a good chance you’re (unintentionally) adopting a whole new set of assumptions, ones that run through your mind in moments of fear, anxiety, loneliness or shame. They might sound like any of these:

No one will ever believe I’m really gay.
I’ll never be accepted in the queer community if they knew I was married to a man.
Everyone else knows how to date except me; I have no idea what I’m doing.
If I meet another lesbian in real life, she’ll be able to tell right away I don’t fit in.
No one will want to date someone who has no experience with other women at this age.
There are so many identities and categories; I’ll never be able to get it right.
Everyone else came out twenty years ago; I’m the only one playing catch up.
I’d be laughed out of the bed of anyone I tried to sleep with because I have no idea how to have lesbian sex.
These are also very black-and-white assumptions, and you’ll feel a lot less shame and anxiety in this part of your life if you can work on (compassionately) checking yourself about them. When you notice these thoughts come up or inform your behavior, you can practice gently asking yourself “am I sure that’s true?” Do I really think I’m the only person on earth who’s in this position? Do I really think everyone else is just a dating pro? Is it possible things aren’t quite so extreme? Get into the habit of gently correcting these thoughts: “It’s true I’m not as experienced with lesbian sex as some people might be; there was also a time when I didn’t know anything about sex at all, and I learned. Everyone has something to learn, and I’m still a caring, attentive partner who brings a lot to the table.”

Focus on Community, Not Just Dating

Entering the dating pool as someone who came out later in life can be intimidating; in some ways, finding queer friends can feel almost even scarier. Making real friends in adulthood is hard for anyone, and it may feel like it’s not worth the risk. But queer communities of friends are one of the most affirming and joyous parts of being out, and getting to know other gay women will help you check some of your assumptions — you may find that everyone else doesn’t have it as figured out as you imagine they do, and you have more in common than you thought.

A special characteristic of queer communities is that the commonalities in our experiences bring us into relationships with each other in unique and unexpected ways – you may feel like you have more to share with a 22-year-old who also just came out and who you meet through a local community group than the straight friends you’ve known all your life. If you’re a cis woman, you may find trans women in your community you feel a lot of connection with – they also frequently have their lesbianism called into question. If you’re a lesbian who came out later in life, you may find more shared ground with bisexual women than you expected – they also have their identity invalidated if they haven’t always dated women. (Also, while having a community is key outside of dating, there’s no more classic gay meet-cute than meeting as friends first.)