Editor’s Note: Melisa Raney is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Atlanta with her two children. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Explore CNN’s coverage of LGBTQ trailblazers at cnn.com/pride
By the time you reach your 30s, you think you know yourself – your likes, your dislikes, what inspires you, what makes you tick.
But there I was, at 36 years old, realizing I didn’t know myself at all.
I had everything I thought made my life perfect. I was married to my best friend and we had two beautiful, healthy and hilarious children, with successful careers and a beautiful home.
My life would change forever after a simple Google search in November 2016. I had just seen Kate McKinnon perform the song “Hallelujah” on SNL and discovered that she’s a lesbian. That shocked me because she didn’t fit the awful stereotype often depicted in the media.
I quickly declared her my “new girl crush.” But it was more than that.
At that moment, I realized that I wanted a relationship with a woman like her – but I felt terrible for even having this thought, as someone who was faithfully married.
It was slowly becoming clear to me that I was not straight.
How could I not know? I had my first “boyfriend” in the 3rd grade. I had already decided I was straight. How do you go back on that after being with guys for 20+ years?
Where I fell on the sexuality spectrum would take me the better part of two years to figure out. A part of myself wasn’t living. And by not letting that part live, I was slowly dying.
Unraveling a life
There’s a price of admission for coming out as gay later in life. Over the course of several months, I paid the price daily. It was like I was watching a movie about myself but unable to control what was unfolding. Everything fell apart.
I did my best to slowly confide in my husband. But I kept many of my feelings inside to avoid hurting him. He tried to be supportive, but he also needed answers.
He felt unsettled and scared about the uncertainty of our future. He asked several times if I was a lesbian. It was a question that felt impossible to answer because I knew what that answer would mean.
I kept waiting for the moment where I would realize I was no longer gay so I could put a halt to everything. My family was being shattered and I couldn’t stop it. I constantly had to remind myself, “You get one life. This is your life and no one else’s.”
I felt alone. I was crumbling and desperately looking for someone who could relate. I Googled to the ends of the earth looking for stories like mine. They were few and far between – and none seemed to touch on just how difficult the journey ahead of me could be.
By early 2018, my husband and I separated in an effort to give me some perspective. I lost time with my children as we began a shared custody schedule. I was consumed by the pit in my stomach – the shame of ending my marriage because I was gay was like lugging a sandbag over my shoulders and having a rock in my stomach at the same time. I couldn’t eat. My weight dropped by the day. For the first time since I met my husband, we went a full day without speaking.
I wasn’t sure how to tell my conservative, Georgia-born and bred parents that their former pageant queen daughter was ending her marriage because she is gay. I’m very close with my parents – a phone call with my mom is almost a daily occurrence.
I confided in my sister first. I wasn’t brave enough to actually say the words – the label of being gay or a lesbian was too much for my soul to bear at the time – so I sent her a text message, “I am not straight.”
She responded perfectly, asking if she could buy a Pride flag and offered to tell my parents.
Later that day, I got two of the most relieving texts from my parents that I’ve ever received.
I didn’t realize until then how important it was to be accepted by my parents. I’m a grown woman, fully independent of my mom and dad – but I still needed their love and acceptance.
Living my truth
Telling my family wasn’t the end of my journey. I was finally figuring out who I was. Now I was ashamed by that answer.
That began to subside when I met other women in various stages of the coming out process, all on the same path. Hearing the experience of others felt like hearing my own: married to wonderful men, mothers of amazing kids, the perfect life practically every woman strives for.
Through this group, led by a therapist, we quickly determined we are in this together. We were on a path that feels impossible to navigate until one day, you can live your truth and be perfectly fine shaping a new life.
That’s what I’m striving to do now: shape a new life that includes my now ex-husband and my kids. Our family structure just looks a little different than it used to. We spend most holidays together, attend parent-teacher conferences, we even have plans to take the kids to Disney World in the fall.
We no longer have the perfect suburban home together, but we are both navigating new relationships and have found people who understand the importance of us both being present for our children.
On New Year’s Day this year, I came out on social media. I expected to see my friend list tick down but instead I was met by love and support. So many people choose to keep their private lives private, which I absolutely understand and respect.
But what so many don’t realize is that sharing your tough moments can make other people’s tough moments a little easier.
I don’t think I would have been able to accept who I am as quickly as I did without the changes in American society in recent years. When I was growing up in the 1980s, someone’s sexuality was only spoken about in hushed voices, as if the person had a disease they didn’t want others to know about.
Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg – who, like me, is in his late 30s and, like me, came out publicly just a few years ago – put it this way: “It’s hard to face the truth that there were times in my life when, if you had shown me exactly what it was inside me that made me gay, I would have cut it out with a knife. If you had offered me a pill to make me straight, I would’ve swallowed it before you had time to give me a sip of water.”
There is so much truth in his statement. There was such a big part of me that did not want to be gay. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a gay person over the age of 30 who hasn’t felt this way.
On the flip side, it is getting better for younger generations. When I told my kids last year that if mom remarries, it will be to a woman – it didn’t faze them in the least.
Throughout all of this, I would have loved to have known that I was going to come out on the other side and be OK. And I want people reading my story to know that it’s OK to be the person you’re meant to be – no matter what your age is when you finally get to know yourself and love who you are in the process.