Teenage angst, breakouts, self-doubts, identity crises... Undergoing adolescence once is more than enough, for many of us. But, some in the LGBTQ+ community face a "second adolescence".
Would you have a second go at adolescence if you had the chance? We don’t know about you, but honestly, we had our fair share of awkward moments during puberty, so… Probably not. But for many LGBTQ+ people, a second adolescence is a common experience – but also a hard-earned and valuable opportunity to explore their own sexuality, having grown up in a heteronormative society.
Second adolescence: A journey of self-(re)discovery for LGBTQ+ people
What is adolescence?
Adolescence is usually defined as the time between being a child and an adult; for most people, this takes place during their teen years. From cringeworthy, terrifying, and awkward moments, to feelings of excitement and liberation, adolescence is often the period when people learn about themselves. They grow, make friends, have their first romantic trysts, and gain more responsibility.
Many people remember the awkwardness of it all, but also feel nostalgic about it. With no taxes, bills, and jobs to contend with, they look back on their teenage years happily, as the calm before the storm when real-life responsibilities began to take hold.
Why is adolescence different for the LGBTQ+ folk?
For many LGBTQ+ people, the joys of adolescence can be severely lacking due to the pressures of compulsory heterosexuality. A term that came from Adrienne Rich’s 1980 essay, Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, compulsory heterosexuality is generally described as the individual pressures one feels from living in a heteronormative society.
Adolescence is a time of self-experimentation and conceptualising who you are, beyond the views and confines of your parents and caregivers. This is why the process can be painful and traumatic for LGBTQ+ people when they realise just how different they are from their family of origin. We all grow up seeing our families as the blueprint to life, so when some people realise that what they had imagined for themselves and what they actually want might be at odds with each other, it can be terrifying.
Many studies show that LGBTQ+ people know their gender or sexuality from a young age, but homophobia and transphobia mean that they’re not able to embrace this. Going through adolescence (implicitly or explicitly) knowing that they’re unable to be their true self can be exhausting and scary. This also means that a lot of the LGBTQ+ folk spent this period of their lives feeling unsafe and isolated. Unfortunately, this can often result in mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, among others.
What are the results of this?
“Coming out” is a common topic of discussion among queer people, as it is generally a shared – albeit varied – experience. People who came out in their youth are viewed as brave, as it’s, understandably, a very difficult thing to do. However, many people realise their sexuality only as they get older, or weren’t able to come out when they’re younger, for a variety of reasons.
As a society, we are not great at accepting change. There’s this thought process that by a certain age, we are who we are – and that’s that. And coming out as an adult can challenge that belief. Realising, embracing, or exploring your sexuality at any age can be tough, but for adults, it can be especially tough to step out of the expectations other people have set for you.
This period is what can be called the “second queer adolescence”. Because so many LGBTQ+ people weren’t given the space or time to find out who they really were in their teenage years, they had to hide who they were or keep themselves buried deep down. Now, they’re working through adolescence, once again, in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond.
What can do you do if you’re experiencing second adolescence?
You’re not alone – second adolescence is a very common experience for LGBTQ+ people! While it’s unfortunate that queer people aren’t usually given the same amount of time and space that cisgender and heterosexual people have for experimentation during the teenage years, you can do that now. It’s also okay to grieve for that young person you were – the one who didn’t have that time and space.
An important thing to bear in mind is that the traditional idea of what life “should” look like is not actually realistic to most people – never mind, then, to those who are queer. During (first) adolescence, many LGBTQ+ people spend a lot of time trying to be straight and internalising the sense that they’re not going to fit in. So, it’s only when they get a bit older and more comfortable that they’re finally able to explore beyond themselves, meet their community, and find out what they want in partners (or if they want a partner at all).
Much like the typical adolescent period, second adolescence can be a time of experimentation. You can experiment with your style if you want to and learn how you want to present yourself. If you want to explore sexually and go for different types of relationships, a great starting point is learning about consent and how to practise safe sex. Experimenting with yourself and getting comfortable with your own body can benefit your relationships with others as well. Above all, be kind to yourself throughout all of this. Remember: if you try something and it doesn’t work, that’s okay, too.
Moreover, speaking to other queer people about what you’re experiencing can be helpful. It may also worthwhile to talk with a mental health professional who will be able to provide you with a safe environment to work through your feelings.
My friend seems to be going through second adolescence – what can I do?
For those undergoing second adolescence, the “sudden change” in style and behaviour may appear strange to their peers who are adhering to more traditional milestones in life. So, try to be as compassionate and understanding as you can. Give your friend the space to discover who they are, and encourage them to embrace themselves.
The term “second adolescence” might not be fitting for everyone. But, whether you call it a second adolescence, a period of personal growth, self-actualisation, or self-discovery, they are all absolutely valid. You are going through something you should be allowed to process and experience, at any point in your life.