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Coming Out of the Closet, in Retirement

On his 75th birthday, Bill Farthing decided to be reborn. In the six years since he'd buried his wife of 45 years, he'd felt as he did long before: Lonesome, different, outcast. He wondered if he was going crazy; he contemplated suicide.

Looking back, the clues leading to this day had been scattered throughout his life, but only made sense just now.

So Farthing dressed in the most basic of blue wool skirt suits he could find on the Internet, with a white blouse and low-heeled, open-toed white shoes, and went shopping. Arms loaded with skirts and blouses from the clearance rack, Farthing approached the checkout.

"Did you find everything you wanted, ma'am?" the cashier asked.

Farthing looked over his shoulder, then realized she was talking to him. He had pulled it off.

He had become a she.

The Elderly Come Out

Increased awareness and acceptance of varied sexualities and gender identities has led Americans to come out far younger, as early as middle school. A less noticed but parallel shift is happening at the other end of the age spectrum, with people in their 60s, 70s and 80s coming to terms with the truth that they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

While no one tracks the numbers of the elderly who come out, those who work with older adults say the trend is undeniable, and a resulting network of support groups and services has cropped up.

The decision can fracture lifelong relationships. Or it can bring the long-sought relief of an unloaded secret.

"For the first time in my life, I'm not putting on a show," said Farthing, who eventually had sexual reassignment surgery and changed her first name to Chrissie. "It seems like I've been out on a cloud all my life and now I'm not. I'm me."

Outing yourself late in life can be complicated after having lived through times when being openly gay could get you arrested, put in an institution and given shock treatments. It's snarled in a lifetime of trudging along through society's view of normalcy and the resulting fear of being ostracized by children and grandchildren. And it's marked by a nagging doubt that all the heartache, all the potential for it to go wrong, may not be worth it with one's years numbered.

"When somebody comes out at the age of 20, they have their whole life ahead of them," said Karen Taylor, the director of training and advocacy for SAGE, a national group that works with LGBT seniors. "There's a real sense of regret and loss for somebody who comes out later in life, even when talking to them and they say the decision was the right one."

Still, many seniors have felt empowered by the growing presence of gays and lesbians in pop culture and some high-profile, late-in-life outings. Among the most notable, "Family Ties" star Meredith Baxter came out in December at 62; Richard Chamberlain, long the target of rumors, came out in 2003 at 69, decades after the height of his career as a TV heartthrob.

Those who've mustered the gumption to out themselves say they feel as if they've been given a second chance.

Carl Martin, 83, of Falls Church, Va., came out as gay not long after his wife died in 1997. He says he was happy in his marriage but had known of his feelings for men since he was in high school and revealed an unrequited crush to a friend. Coming out, he says, has changed him from a withdrawn, tense, reticent bystander to a vibrant social butterfly who even talks to strangers in the supermarket.

"I would describe these as the happiest years of my life," he said. "I'm free to be who I am. I was not free to be who I was before."

The realization often doesn't come easily. Sue Pratt, 74, of Kirkwood, Mo., remembers having feelings for her high school English teacher, but she wasn't sure what to do with them when she always dreamed of getting married and having a husband. She got her wish, but even when her husband left her, she still couldn't come to terms with the truth.

"You would think I would say, 'I'm free now,"' she said. "But that thought never occurred to me. I was so deep in denial."

Eventually, in her 60s, she answered a personal ad and slowly began coming out to her loved ones as a lesbian. Not everyone has taken it well, as she feared would be the case, but she has no regrets.

"I didn't want to have a secret," she said. "It doesn't matter if I lose every friend that I have, this is what I have to do."

Dr. Loren Olson, a psychiatrist in Des Moines, Iowa, who has studied late-in-life outings, said for most such seniors, there are losses, though they are typically less than they fear, and often vary greatly by socioeconomics.

Olson himself was 40 before he came out. While it may seem incomprehensible to some, he said it makes sense that many can't face the truth for so long, even if some around them have surmised it.

"We don't like disharmony in our thinking so sometimes we block out things that really are in opposition to really what we believe is true," he said. "It's like a child believing in Santa Claus: You just hang on to that as long as you can."

Missed Signals

Farthing's life was sprinkled with hints.

As a boy, his mother asked one day how he liked school. "It was OK," Farthing said. "But it would be better if I was a girl."

He didn't want to do the things other boys did. Girls didn't want him around. He fought every haircut.

"We've got a homo on our hands," he overheard his father say.

But with no sense what to do with his feelings of being different, life wore on. He served in the Air Force. He lived overseas. And then there was that girl he found at a pub in England.

She felt different, too, always attracted more to women than men. But they got along so well. And they fell in love.

Sex was never a big part of their relationship, but a daughter was born. The marriage, Farthing says, was happy. Both of them thought they would die with their soul mate by their side.

She did. He wasn't so lucky.

Afterward, he tried anything to keep busy. He got his pilot's license back. He bought a small plane; he built a hangar.

One day, he needed a brass, elbow-shaped piece for his plane's fuel line. They call them male-to-female fittings, and he typed some such phrase into his computer. One of the search results that popped up was titled "The Male Lesbian Complex."

"That's stupid," he thought, moving along to find the part.

But later, something drove him back. The description of the "complex" sounded just like him. Was he always meant to be a woman? Was he too old to accept this?

"I read it and it was so close to me that it made the hair stand up on the back of my neck," Farthing said.

The transformation that followed has not sat well with all, of course.

A neighbor runs indoors now when Farthing comes outside of her Oakville, Mo., home. A brother-in-law and other relatives have cut her out of their lives. And her volunteer work at a nursing home had to end when her secret became known.

But those who are closest have accepted her. And now, in life's twilight, she says she finally feels whole, finally feels normal.

"For the first time ever my life feels like it's in the right place," she said. "I'm going to check out of this world the way I was meant to come into it."

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