The Current

'I'm myself now': What it's like to come out as gay later in life

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson spoke openly about his sexuality for the first time in a column in the Ottawa Citizen. Coming out of the closet is an intensely personal decision no matter what the age. We speak to two people who, like Watson, came out later in life.

Watson's story has resonated with many in the LGBTQ community who remained closeted for much of their lives

Ottawa's Mayor Jim Watson has come out as an openly gay man, just a day before the city's pride celebrations. (Judy Trinh/CBC)

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Ken Rusk was heartened when he learned that Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson came out as gay at the age of 58.

It's a story Rusk can relate to: he came out at 72.

"The feeling of release ⁠— the burden on your shoulders ⁠— is really gone at that point," he told The Current's guest host Matt Galloway.

Watson's story has resonated with many in the LGBTQ community who remained closeted for much of their lives.

"I've been thinking about it for 40 years … I've known I was gay since I was a teenager," Watson wrote Saturday in a column for the Ottawa Citizen. "I feel comfortable with the decision and I'm glad I did it. But it took me a long time to get there."

Ken Rusk came out as gay at the age of 72. (Jonathan Ore/CBC)

Rusk knew he was gay when he was a small child. But he says societal expectations set him on a life's path as a straight man.

"I was really convinced that if I had come out earlier, it would have devastated my family, and hurt my wife terribly," the 87-year-old said.

Rusk married his wife in 1955. He's a father of four, a grandfather of nine, and a great-grandfather of five.

'I need you to know I'm gay'

Rusk vividly remembers his public coming-out in 2004: "It was in front of 28 people at Grace United Church in Thornbury, [Ont.,]" he recalled.

In an earlier meeting, he had challenged the church to "make themselves more affirming, more inclusive," he said.

"And a few people read into that [to mean], 'here's a guy who's gay.'"

The church's minister, who Rusk described as "my crutch throughout all of this," asked if he was comfortable with having an "interview" with members of the congregation.

Watson raised the rainbow flag over Ottawa City Hall Monday, marking his first Capital Pride event as an openly gay man. (CBC News)

Rusk agreed. "The first thing I did is, I stood up and said, 'I need you to know I'm gay.'"

He was answered with hugs and acceptance.

He came out to his family members individually.

"My younger son and his wife, I was visiting them, and I told them. And they just got up and hugged me. So that's the way it went with all of my kids," he said.

"I'm myself now."

Familiar stories

Anne-Marie Zanzal is a graduate of Yale Divinity School and is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She provides emotional and spiritual support for women coming out later in life. (Submitted by Anne-Marie Zanzal)
Rusk's story sounded very familiar to Anne Marie Zanzal, who came out at age 52.

She had been married for 27 years, with four kids. Unlike Rusk, she didn't know she was gay until later in her life — but she described living with "a lot of restlessness" that she couldn't explain.

"Once I tied that to [the realization] that I am a lesbian, that restlessness really went away."

Despite her initial relief, coming out at that stage in her life "opened a Pandora's box" of then-unknown complications.

Her now ex-husband was supportive, but her kids' responses ranged from "pretty accepting to really struggling," she said.

She found some much-needed support through an online group she discovered on Google by searching "late in life lesbian."

"When I joined the group, all of a sudden there were women there that were telling the exact same story," she recalled.

Zanzal, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ in Nashville, Tenn., now counsels other women who come out later in life.

Finding communities for support

Rusk says people considering coming out later in life should do so — but also take the time to think about how it will affect the people closest around them.

"I would encourage them. But at the same time be careful, because you may open something that you're not anticipating. And it may hurt a lot of people," he said.

Rusk's wife died of ovarian cancer. He never told her the truth about his sexuality.

He was her primary caregiver, and said "coming out at the time was out of the question" because he was worried the shock would worsen her condition.

Rusk credits Toronto's Metropolitan Community Church for supporting him in his journey. (CBC News)

Rusk found valuable support in LGBT communities, such as Toronto's Metropolitan Community Church, to aid his steps into a new phase of his life.

"Without that experience, it would have been much more difficult," he said.

Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Danielle Carr, Samira Mohyeddin and Ashley Mak.