“When my younger son was heading off to college, I was in very intentional discernment about what I wanted my next chapter to look like and — spoiler alert — there were some surprises I had not anticipated,” said Suzette Mullen, author of “The Only Way Through is Out” — a new memoir about what it was like to both discover her queer identity and come out in her mid-50s.
“I put a stake in the ground that I was going to go all in with claiming my call as a writer and also as a freelance editor,” she said. “What readers will learn in the book is that the decision to really go all in with my writing is what sets in motion the story where I come to discover a deeper truth about myself and about my sexual identity. It’s all connected.”
Mullen was writing a different memoir about her struggle to find a sense of purpose in her professional life after transitioning away from her career as an attorney to be a stay-at-home mom. At the time, she’d been married to a man for 25 years — the partner she raised her children with in Houston, Tx. — and had just moved with him to a home on Long Island.
“In the process of writing that story, this other story emerged. It was a story about this very, very close long-term friendship I had with a female friend,” she said. “And it was through the writing that I came to see that relationship differently than I had been seeing it on the surface for all the years.”
Mullen realized she’d been in love with this friend, which helped her begin to process broader feelings about her identity. At first, she questioned if this was just something she needed to resolve with her friend — but when she recognized that her need for self-expression was deeper than sexual tension, she began to wonder what to do next.
“I still had to make a decision. Was I going to act on it? Was I going to do anything about it?” she said. “I had a kind, loving husband. Every marriage has its issues, but for all intents and purposes, we had a good marriage. I had a really nice life.”
“I didn’t want to cause my husband pain, and I was looking for an answer that didn’t involve pain,” she added. “Another spoiler alert: there isn’t an answer that doesn’t involve pain.”
More challenges emerged after Mullen exited her first marriage. Although she’d always considered herself progressive, she didn’t know many queer people and didn’t know any who had come out later in life.
“That was a lonely and really scary place to be,” she said. Mullen eventually found support in a Facebook group for women navigating similar experiences. “Having those women by my side was literally a lifeline for me.”
Although it was hard to start dating women for the first time in her life after not dating anyone at all for over 20 years, a series of events that Mullen described as “magical” led her to eventually resettle in 2017 to the city of Lancaster, Pa. — where she eventually met her wife.
“I think that sometimes we don’t know where we’re meant to be until we’re there,” she noted. “And that was absolutely the experience I had with Lancaster.”
The pair wed in 2021. Pride celebrations had been canceled due to the pandemic — so the couple, who felt safer after getting vaccinated, extended an open invitation to the community to join their own parade after the ceremony.
“We strolled through the streets of Lancaster with a brass band. We had over 100 people with us and pride flags, and it was amazing,” she said. Still, the group was met by one angry protester who stood on a ladder and shouted insults at them with a megaphone.
“There’s still bigotry, and it’s still risky being out and visible,” she said about the experience. That part of the state isn’t known for being especially welcoming to LGBTQ+ or otherwise marginalized people, but Mullen said there’s a vibrant and diverse queer community in Lancaster City.
In 2019, she became a founding board member of the Lancaster LGBTQ+ Coalition, the first organization to specifically serve LGBTQ+ people of Lancaster. Their efforts have grown over the years, and they now have a physical location with a thrift store and community space.
“I currently serve as a member of the LGBTQ+ Giving Circle which is part of the Lancaster County Community Foundation. We make grants to projects that serve the LGBTQ+ community in Lancaster County,” she noted about her current advocacy work. She also runs a writing cohort for the Pride and Joy Foundation, an organization working to end homelessness and suicide in the LGBTQ+ community.
In addition to her activism, Mullen finally found the sense of purpose she sought professionally. She’s now a book coach who works primarily with LGBTQ+ memoir and nonfiction writers. Her mentorship program is called Write Yourself Out.
“A book coach really is more than an editor. It’s somebody that is with you in the whole process of writing your book,” she explained, noting that she first became familiar with the coaching process when she hired one as a writer seeking both writing and emotional support. “It is an emotional roller coaster,” she said about writing. “There’s so many fears and doubts and all the feelings.”
Mullen said her focus on supporting queer writers makes her feel like all aspects of her life finally align.
“When I left my marriage and really started over personally, I was also starting over professionally,” she said. “The first memoir I was writing was about trying to find my professional purpose, and I finally did. It took me a while, but I love the work I do and I feel like it was what I was born to do.”
Mullen’s memoir will be in stores on Feb. 13 and is already available for preorder online. She’s hosting a launch party on the release date at the Lancaster Public Library. She will be at Big Blue Marble Bookstore in Philadelphia on Mar. 14 and at Doylestown Bookshop on March 22. More events will be planned in Delaware and South Jersey.
She noted that coming out “later-in-life” is a self-defining term, and that audiences of varying age groups have been connecting with her story.
“No matter your age, it’s never too late to live out loud. It’s never too late to live authentically,” Mullen said. “And I hope my story gives people encouragement with respect to that, wherever they are in their journey.”
“There is always a cost to authenticity. We weigh the cost,” she added, noting that for her it was worth it.
To learn more about Suzette Mullen’s upcoming events or to pre-order her memoir, visit yourstoryfinder.com/books.