I came out later in life. I’ve never felt more free—nor more alone

Before I could find belonging among fellow queers, I first needed to learn how to belong to myself

One night in the fall of 2019, I was sitting on a dingy couch in a Toronto dive bar at 2 a.m. hanging out with people a decade younger than me. I was suddenly hyper-aware of the oddness of my experience: my other 40-year-old friends who also have kids were all in bed at home, asleep for hours by this point. They’re all in straight marriages; I had just come out of one a few years before.  

I started to come out of the closet in my late 30s. Up until that point, I had been following the narrative of compulsory heterosexuality dictated to me by my religious, conservative and internet-free childhood, which was compounded by the media. I did most things expected of me, suffered great guilt when I did not and steadily checked off the list of what I thought I should expect out of life: an education, a picturesque wedding, a beautiful baby, a good job. Life was predictable, comfortable, settled; it didn’t have big messy question marks written all over the script.

Now, my life stage and my age are all out of whack: I’m at once a responsible 40-year old mother and also a single baby lesbian making mistakes I never made in early adulthood. But being a part of these two groups sometimes feels like belonging to neither. 

I share an age and life experience with my friends who also have children. Parenthood has its own series of unique stressors and landmarks that bond parents, but it also narrows your life. As family consumes more of you, friendships can fall away. My experience as a single queer person, so much a part of who I am now, can feel so far from this world.

Yet I also share a stage and lived experience with my younger queer friends who are still sorting out who they want to be with and, more fundamentally, who they are. But queers pair off too, and making new close friends at my age can be hard. A baby automatically gets you into the cult of motherhood, but finding your queer community can be more difficult. 

The queer friend groups I’ve encountered are largely already established, and so I’m left standing between a group of “old” friends who feel further from my current experience and a new landscape that’s hard to find a place within. Where do I belong? I’m not young or able to be as carefree as many of my queer friends, but at the same time, I’m single and wanting some sort of a fresh start. I flip a few times a week between single-parent mode and single-person mode, between being fully consumed as a mother and fully alone. Half of the time, I am an older person in a younger time of my life. Sometimes, it feels like a space that only I understand.


Coming out has taught me the crucial difference between belonging and fitting in. “Belonging is something we are all born craving,” explains Mychelle Williams, a Washington-based therapist and founder of Therapy to a Tea, Co., centred on serving LGBTQ2S+ Black and Indigenous folks and people of colour. “But fitting in is what we do to survive, and it provides the semblance of belonging.” Brené Brown, a researcher and storyteller, also makes an important distinction between the two: “Fitting in is about assessing a situation and who you need to be in order to be accepted,” she writes in her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. “Belonging, on the other hand, requires us to be who we are.” In other words, trying to fit in is an obstacle to belonging.

I’ve spent my life trying to fit into places and identities: in school, on sports teams, in my family, in the straight world. As a recovering people-pleaser, I was the shape-shifter that Brown describes, constantly adapting to the needs of my environment. Since childhood, I’d been assessing how to be the “right” person, instead of figuring out who I am beyond all of the external expectations I was trying to meet. 

“Coming out has taught me the crucial difference between belonging and fitting in.”

Neither my parents nor my Christian Orthodox upbringing ever taught me to look inside myself and discover who I am—their goal was to teach me how to behave and who to be based on a set of external rules. As a child and teenager, I was a “good kid”; as a young adult, I did a lot of the standard partying associated with that stage of life, but I was also an athlete and budding academic. Then later, I became the wife and mother I always thought I should be, even from a young age. And throughout all of this—and especially in my most problematic relationships—I was the chameleon who subconsciously calculated how to be the “right” person without any boundaries or reciprocity, giving myself away over and over in an attempt to belong to that other person.

But I can see now that the whole time I had been mistaking fitting in for belonging. I didn’t belong because I wasn’t fully myself and, according to Williams, “we really only feel a sense of belonging when we’re able to be ourselves.

“If we’re shape-shifting to fit in even if that crowd likes us, it doesn’t really feel as deep as it needs to feel because that’s not really all the way us.” This was what made belonging feel so tentative and fragile to me. 

When queer DYKE activist leZlie lee kam came out in 1976 and went to the Lesbian Organization of Toronto, she felt like she didn’t belong there because nobody looked like her. “Everybody was white and nobody was friendly or welcoming except the woman who took me there,” she recounts. This experience inspired lee kam to create a more welcoming environment for queer people of colour. She thought, “I don’t want any other woman who looks like me to go through what I’m going through, so I’m going to get myself into this organization to help other women who look like me.” Williams explains how white supremacy and racism create unique and layered obstacles to belonging for queer people of colour, since “you have to justify your existence [and] defend your humanity as a whole because you’re queer, and once you add on being a person of colour, you had to already defend your existence just because of the colour of your skin.”

This began a mission of inclusion for lee kam, who advocates for queers of all ages: younger ones who don’t have a voice or are too afraid to use it, and more recently, for seniors. “When you get to be a certain age, you start going back into the closet because society is forcing us to do that. You can’t be your whole self,” she explains. “So where do you belong?” 

Homophobia, transphobia and heteronormativity in long-term care homes make it more difficult for seniors to be openly queer. Queer seniors are “constantly being made to feel invisible,” and lee kam’s advocacy efforts try to “ensure that queer seniors feel that they belong, that we belong to the greater society…. [that] we exist, we are here.” On top of the desire to be accepted within their living communities, seniors also have the added need to be seen and acknowledged by a wider society that often ignores and invisibilizes them. 

“There are undeniable systemic barriers that tell many queer people they don’t belong.”

In her comparative study of older women’s social networks, Madeline Hannah-Leith, PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, found that, compared to their straight counterparts who typically feel quite socially connected, queer women tend to experience more feelings of loneliness and isolation. This is due to a number of factors, such as fewer ties to their family of origin or children, and stigma and homophobia, making it harder to find friendships and community. 

“Belonging is a feeling that may be described differently by each person,” says Kryss Shane, LGBT+ expert and author of Creating an LGBT+ Inclusive Workplace: The Practical Resource Guide for Business Leaders. And yet, it’s a feeling we all seek. “When someone in the LGBT+ community comes out,” Shane says, “they are most commonly seeking acceptance and a sense that they are wanted and affirmed for all of the aspects of who they are.” But there are undeniable systemic barriers that tell many queer people “you don’t belong here.”

Since coming out, I’ve never felt more free nor more alone. 

But I’ve learned to live comfortably with these contradictions. Coming out gave me a more authentic connection to myself; for years, internalized homophobia and self-loathing had unknowingly put me at war with myself. I had never truly belonged to myself before because I had never fully accepted myself. “Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world,” Brown explains, “our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.” The sense of belonging that I had looked for in other people, in hoping to belong to a group of people, had to start with myself. 

In order to get to this point, I had to let go of other people’s expectations of me. It took creating my own path forward instead of mindlessly following the path laid out for me; so much of my existence had been a performance for others to the detriment of my relationship to myself.

I had just been fitting a narrative, like I had stepped onto a moving walkway and passively let it take me to my destination without ever asking myself what I truly wanted. 

I used to live my life externally, waiting for others to give me a feeling of belonging and to, in their words and actions, show me that I belong. Since fitting in was always contingent on other people, I wrongly thought that belonging was something that had to be bestowed upon me too, or something that I had to work for.  

“I had never considered that belonging is an active process, something I could claim for myself.”

I’ve created community before, but more instinctively than consciously. I often bring together friends from different realms of my life, probably in response to my own experiences of feeling excluded—work colleagues, ultimate frisbee friends, queers I’d gone on one or two dates with before becoming friends. But I can now also see the times that I excluded myself, looking for evidence that I didn’t belong: I’d stand back in order to give other people a seat in the circle because I didn’t think that it was mine to take. I had never considered that belonging is an active process, something I could claim for myself. 

I also never thought to look for it inside of myself before. But that’s where the roots are; that’s what I needed to build in order to become immovable by the outside world. This was me “learning to belong to myself,” as Williams describes it, after first having been “taught that we belong to our parents and that we had to belong to our communities and the societal norms and standards that we were expected to fit.”

This means that, at times, I’m alone, living my truth against the grain or to the indifference of others. Brown writes that true belonging is “finding the sacredness in being a part of something and in braving the wilderness alone [and]…. when we reach this place, even momentarily, we belong everywhere and nowhere.” 

Up until recently, I’d viewed my experience in the awkward space between groups as evidence of not belonging to either, when in fact it’s possible to belong to both and neither at the same time. It was like I’ve been staring at one of those puzzling optical illusions where I could only see one possible image despite others existing, but they were hidden to me. It might be an awkward space at times, but it’s my space—mine to take up and mine to claim. It’s a space that honours and reflects me, both where I’ve been and where and who I am now. 

It’s strange to think about the possibility of being alone yet still having a feeling of belonging, but I’m now my own best friend after years of barely knowing myself. And that’s the reward—never having to change myself for someone else, never having to make myself likeable in order to be lovable; I’m the reward. It was in the changing of myself that I stopped belonging to myself, and therefore failed to belong anywhere. 

Belonging to myself feels like I can finally relax after years of tension; like feeling remarkable after years of not knowing my own worth; like a full heart instead of a heavy one; like I can sit on any dingy couch anywhere, surrounded by anyone or no one, and still belong.

Alena Papayanis

Alena Papayanis is a later-in-life-lesbian, professor, Tiktok content creator and freelance writer whose work has been published in The Globe and Mail, HuffPost, Chatelaine, Refinery29, Xtra Magazine and FASHION Magazine.

Keep Reading

Job discrimination against trans and non-binary people is alive and well

OPINION: A study reveals that we have a long way to go to reach workplace equality for trans and non-binary people

The new generation of gay Conservative sellouts

OPINION: Melissa Lantsman’s and Eric Duncan’s refusals to call out their party’s transphobia is a betrayal of the LGBTQ2S+ community

Over 300 anti-LGBTQ2S+ bills have been introduced this year. This doesn’t mean we should panic

OPINION: While it’s important to watch out for threats, not all threats are created equally. Some of these bills will die a natural death

Xtra’s top LGBTQ2S+ stories of the year

The best and brightest—even most bewildering—stories from a back catalogue brimming with insight