Realising you’re LGBTQ+ later in life and how LGBTQ+ affirmative therapy can help

Isabella Ryder

Biography:

Isabella Ryder is a psychodynamic therapist working at Pimlico Psychotherapists and Counsellors. Isabella works with her clients to gently uncover the unconscious conflicts within their minds so that they can relieve their symptoms and move towards how they would like to be in the world. This type of therapy involves exploring how we came to be the way that we are and exploring the beliefs about the world (and ourselves) that we have been taught throughout our lives.
For more information or to book a session, contact her with details at the bottom on this page.

16.06.2024

Why do some people not realise they are LGBTQ+ until later in life?

Whilst it seems that the world is moving towards becoming a slightly more hospitable place for LGBTQ+ people (at least in parts), it is still the case that we all live in a world that is based on hetero-cis-normativity. A system of hetero-cis-normativity is one in which it is “normal” to be both heterosexual and cisgendered, and people who fall outside of these narrow parameters are pressured (and often forced) to conform to those parameters.

Sometimes the pressure to conform is so strong, and starts at such an early age, that people literally may not know that they are LGBTQ+. Some LGBTQ+ people go many years into adulthood, perhaps living many decades in the gender assigned to them at birth, perhaps having heterosexual relationships, marriages, and children, and much later come to the realisation that they are LGBTQ+. This is because our minds come up with ways to protect us from thoughts and emotions that are too unacceptable for us to hold in our conscious awareness. If we are taught implicitly and explicitly that being LGBTQ+ is “abnormal” then our minds may squash away thoughts and feelings that would let us know that we are different, and hide them in the depths of our psyche, in order to protect us. Even if we are not taught that being LGBTQ+ is “bad” we may exist in a world that is so hetero/cis-centric that we may not even realise there are any other options. For example, a woman who grows up in a culture that does not truly celebrate women’s sexuality and agency may not even realise that the heterosexual sex she’s having isn’t her preference because the culture normalises a world in which lots of women are having average sex, so why would she expect to be any different? Why would she even wonder if perhaps this isn’t the sex for her? If she lives in a world where men are the ones with sexual desires and women are simply the objects of sexual desires, never the people who have sexual desires, then she might not even notice that something might be up. Then add on top a whole load of messaging about how all lesbians look a particular way, and if she doesn’t see herself represented in those figures then it is unlikely to occur to her that she may be different in some way. Then add on top a whole load of implicit and explicit messaging that lesbians are always depressed, mean, and likely to be killed off first in a horror film, and you’ve got a situation in which the idea that she might be queer is unlikely to enter her conscious mind.

How do people eventually realise they are LGBTQ+?

Our minds can’t keep up this coping mechanism of repression forever because it comes at a cost. I believe that deep down we all strive towards our own flourishing, even when we don’t know what this would practically entail. We know that something is up, even if we don’t know what. Hiding knowledge from ourselves is exhausting and denies us the opportunity to process our emotions. These unprocessed emotions build up within us and cause both psychological and physiological issues that are different for everyone, but may include: unexplained illnesses, feeling low, cut-off, anxious, stuck. We cannot selectively repress our emotions. If we are hiding more “negative” thoughts and feelings from ourselves, then we will also be limited in our ability to experience the more positive ones. Over time this protective function of the mind limits our ability to understand ourselves, to connect to others, and to live our lives to the fullest. At some point the mind can no longer repress the thoughts and feelings, and they make themselves known. This can take many different forms. Sometimes it is a slow realisation, perhaps made in a therapist’s consulting room. Sometimes our unconscious impulses break free when we’re drunk. There is even a growing trend for people realising that they are LGBTQ+ because their TikTok algorithm picks up on what they like and delivers them queer content.

Hopefully, when people start to let themselves know that they are LGBTQ+, they will be in an environment where they are safe to share this knowledge with others. Unfortunately this is not a given. It can therefore be helpful to find a location in which you know you are safe to begin exploring what discovering this identity means for you.

What is LGBTQ+ affirmative therapy?

LGBTQ+ affirmative therapy refers to any therapy that does not treat being gay, bi, queer, trans, ace, poly or any other form of GSRD (gender, sexuality, and relationship diversity), as something that is “wrong” that needs to be “fixed” or “explained”. Instead, LGBTQ+ affirmative therapy simply views these identities as a few of the many varied ways in which humanity appears in the world. LGBTQ+ affirmative therapy does not mean that your therapist will tell you whether or not you are LGBTQ+. Instead, your therapist will help you explore your identity, helping you discover your authentic self yourself, if that is what you would like to do in therapy. Obviously, LGBTQ+ people go to therapy for a whole load of reasons other than just exploring their queer identity! Just like cis/het people!

Emotional wellbeing and LGBTQ+ issues

Living as who you truly are is fundamental to a life well lived, and a life absent authenticity is one plagued by suffering. When the conflicts that have been lurking somewhere deep in your mind become known to you, you can gain a sense that you are in control and that you have agency in your own life, rather than feeling pulled around by murky feelings that in some sense feel alien to you. Human beings require authenticity. But we also require acceptance, belonging, and connection for our survival. LGBTQ+ affirmative therapy can help you navigate the challenges of living authentically and finding the acceptance and belonging that all human beings require.

How to find an LGBTQ+ affirmative therapist

Many therapists will write that they are LGBTQ+ affirmative in their profiles, and you can also ask a therapist how they work in advance. Remember: you are trying to find a person who you can begin to trust, so it is absolutely fine to ask them questions in order to find out if you would like to work with them. For example, you might want to ask a therapist if they have undertaken specific training on working with a marginalised group that you identify with. Some therapists choose to also list themselves on LGBTQ+ specific websites, such as Pink Therapy.

If you would like to talk to someone, there are many practitioners at Pimlico Counsellors and Psychotherapists who can provide a confidential, non-judgemental and safe space for you. If you would like to talk to someone immediately you can also contact Switchboard, the national LGBTQ+ support line.

If you are exploring any of the ideas in this article I wish you all the best with your journey. And particularly this month, I wish you a happy pride!

 

Isabella is a member of Therapists Against Conversion Therapy and Transphobia. You can find out more about her work - https://www.pimlicocounsellors.co.uk/directory/isabella-watson/ or https://londontherapyandcounselling.com/

 

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