LATE BLOOMERS, OR SOMETHING
A couple weeks ago, I was FaceTiming with a fellow queer friend, and we got to talking about something that seems to be rather ubiquitous in the queer world, particularly for queer people who were raised in conservative Christian or other conservative spaces, the second queer adolescence that so many of us experience in our late teens, early twenties, or perhaps even later in life, depending on your individual circumstances. While this isn’t an uncommon occurrence or topic of conversation in queer circles, a quick Google search also shows that it’s not talked about nearly as much as many of us have experienced it. So, we’re gonna talk about it, and small disclaimer: there will be a little more academic language in this post, just because I’ve been studying this in grad school as well.
Developmentally speaking, there are usually certain ages and stages in life where people tend to sort through specific things, and for most people, adolescence, generally between the ages of 13-17, is when explorations into identity and sexuality tend to happen. This is usually when teenagers tend to date their first significant other, are sorting out their own individual identity as separate from their parents, and all the things that come along with those domains. Or at least, I should say…for most straight adolescents that is. This is starting to change for the better more recently, but for many of us queer millennials and older, this probably wasn’t the case, which is why we tend to experience a second queer adolescence at an older age.
In talking with my friend, she told me about how she had dated boys when she was a teenager, but it wasn’t until she dated a woman for the first time when she was 20-years old that all those teenage feelings and a lot of the internal sensations that people tend to first experience at a significantly younger age started to rush in. Suddenly, everything that everyone had been talking about liking people and feeling that intense nervousness and euphoria all made sense. The same thing happened to me when I dated a boy for the first time when I was 18-years old, already in college, theoretically past the developmental stage when I was supposed to be figuring these things out. The racing heartbeat, the sweaty palms, the anxious anticipation, actually liking someone, all those things were happening for the first time at 18-years old.
The racing heartbeat, the sweaty palms, the anxious anticipation, all those things were happening for the first time at 18-years old.
Similarly to my friend, I had dated a girl in high school, simply because having gone to a very fundamentalist and conservative Christian K-12 school, I hadn’t been self-aware enough to realize that I actually liked boys. It had been socialized and ingrained in me that boys liked girls and girls liked boys and that there were no other options. Now, of course, my demisexuality also played into this, but I felt like my lack of feeling any real romantic or sexual attraction just made me a really, REALLY good Christian, ya feel? But in reality (and all seriousness), it was just the intense sheltering and heteronormativity of my surroundings at the time that prevented me from realizing that I didn’t feel anything because I didn’t like girls.
This is pretty basic information I realize, but it contributes to the reason why so many queer people don’t have true adolescent experiences until later in life, usually their early 20’s or beyond. While most other straight people are having all these experiences “on time,” if you will, queer people tend to instead either be realizing that they’re not like everyone else (surprise, surprise), wrestling through theological questions if they were raised in a Christian/religious space, or both. With all of that going on, especially the theological/religious components, there usually wasn’t a lot of time or energy for young queer people to devote to dating or any of that exploration that normally happens. A lot of that time is usually spent on introspection and self-analysis instead. But alas, these adolescent experiences need to happen eventually, and for many queer people, this tends to happen once a lot of those conflicts have been resolved, often in their early or late 20’s.
MANY QUEER PEOPLE DON’T HAVE TRUE ADOLESCENT EXPERIENCES UNTIL LATER IN LIFE, USUALLY THEIR EARLY 20’S OR BEYOND
But this delayed second adolescence can create tensions and additional complexities for queer people, because of the mismatched developmental stages. While some people certainly do get married to the people they date in high school, and many people, especially in Christian subculture, get married to the people they date in college, it’s generally understood developmentally that high school romantic relationships, and college romantic relationships to a lesser extent, are “recreational” and not usually lasting. Again, there are many exceptions to this, but most people do not usually enter relationships in high school, expecting to marry that person.
Later in life, in what has come to be known as emerging adulthood, usually between the ages of 18-27, but sometimes 18-33, the expectations are a little different. For most people in this stage of life, romantic relationships tend to carry a little more weight and the expectations are higher due to age and societal norms. In addition, it’s generally expected that people have dated before and been in prior relationships, but that isn’t always the case, especially for queer people. Again, many millennial queer people and older did not enter their first same-sex relationships until they were significantly older than the typical adolescent age range, which can put even more pressure on queer people who are just beginning their second queer adolescent during the emerging adulthood stage of development. And perhaps this can be identified as part of the reason why dating is so hard for queer people, because so many of us are just starting to figure out how to do relationships in a space when most other people our age have already had a chance to “practice.” Within this dynamic, queer people are then expected to date “for real” by society at large, and oftentimes by themselves as well, despite never having had a real opportunity to date casually at a younger age.
Within this dynamic, queer people are then expected to date “for real” by society at large, and oftentimes by themselves as well, despite never having had a real opportunity to date casually at a younger age
And of course, for many queer Christians, this can lead to feelings of isolation, because of the way the Christian subculture trends towards marriage at younger ages than the broader population. In perhaps an even more magnified way, queer Christians often find themselves within a system where many of their friends are married, engaged, or in serious committed relationships while they are still figuring out what it means to be in a romantic relationship at all. This is something I’ve experienced for myself, and I know from talking with friends and interacting with other queer Christians that it’s not an uncommon sentiment.
This territory also comes with all the other complications of only beginning to work out how to engage in romantic relationships at an older age, like the majority of your time being consumed with work, sometimes school, and other obligations that tend to leave many adults with little time to date, let alone figure out how to date, as is the case for many queer people. Along with all the other pressures of early adulthood, queer Christians may also feel a sense of “not being able to relate” to many of their straight peers as life stages often begin to diverge even more at this stage of development. While we’re still trying to figure out dating and relationships, many of our straight friends may have already moved on to other life stages such as the early stages of parenting, which can only heighten the feelings of being “behind” in terms of life milestones and development.
Perhaps more than anything, the case of the second queer adolescence is just another one of the many things that changes the lived experience of many queer people. It’s another one of the things that changes the dynamics between us and the people in our lives, here highlighting how growing up queer has changed the “speed” at which we might reach certain cultural or societal milestones. It’s not something that’s bad or even necessarily something we’ve “suffered,” but something that makes the way we live our lives different due to growing up in times and spaces where there was less tolerance and less normalization of who we are, resulting in certain milestones and events occurring for us later in life. It’s just one of those things we learn to live with and navigate as queer people that we understand many other people will not have to confront, and it just becomes part of the queer experience for many of us.
So, we may sigh a little as our straight friends get married while we nervously go on first dates, and we may feel that rush of giddy excitement as we hold our partner’s hand for the first time while our friends get engaged, and to many of us, that’s what our normal becomes as queer people. And despite the fact that many of these experiences might be “delayed” but the typical straight societal timelines, we live and love on our own time, hoping that for many of the younger queer people that come after us, they will grow up and live in an accepting and tolerant world where they get to have those adolescent experiences during their adolescence. And I think that’s already happening, which makes the living out of our second queer adolescences feel more worth it.
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