Coming out later in life: After 37 years married to a man, I divorced and fell in love with a woman

Liz Hilliard (R) pictured with her partner Lee (L). The couple are pictured here wearing pink swimming costumes on a boat beside caves in the sea.

At the age of 64, everything Liz Hilliard thought she knew about who she was disintegrated in a single moment.

Liz, who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, was going through a turbulent time in life. Her 37-year marriage was coming to an end. She and her husband had decided to go their separate ways and she was in the process of writing a book.

As time went by, Liz found herself leaning more and more on Lee, the director of training at her fitness company Hilliard Studio Method. Their friendship was blossoming.

In the middle of a tough day at work, Lee threw her arms around Liz and told her that she had her back.

“She’d hugged me a thousand times, but something clicked, as in an electrical charge,” Liz, now 69, tells PinkNews.

Liz describes what happened as a “physical shock”. Instinctively, she pulled away, not knowing how to deal with the feelings that had sprung up out of nowhere.

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Liz Hilliard (sitting down) with Lee sitting on the arm of the chair.
Liz Hilliard (sitting down) with Lee sitting on the arm of the chair. (Supplied)

“It sounds so dramatic and weird but all I can say is the truth. I had a moment where I went, ‘Oh my god, I’m really not a heterosexual. I am in love. I love her’.”

Liz was sent into a tailspin. It was the first time in her 64 years that she had felt attracted to another woman. To make matters worse, Lee, then 40, was 24 years her junior and was her employee. It was, she admits, a “HR disaster”.

That night, Liz and Lee went for dinner before retreating to Liz’s garden for a talk.

“I said to her, ‘What has happened to me, I can’t explain, but I have these feelings for you, and they clearly need to be addressed because you’re my best friend and I’m your boss. And we either need to separate this working arrangement or we need to just explore what is going on, but right now it needs to be addressed’.

“She was quiet for a moment and she didn’t say anything, and then I said, ‘Do you sort of feel this?’ And she leaned in and said, ‘Yes’. And at that point I went, boy, if I even touch her hand the world will explode, so we didn’t,” Liz laughs.

Liz Hilliard (R) with Lee (L). They are pictured here wearing pink swimsuits on a boat.
Liz Hilliard (R) with Lee (L). (Supplied)

Five and a half years later, Liz and Lee are still together and their relationship has continued to deepen and grow.

“This is the most creative, beautiful relationship I’ve ever had. I loved my ex-husband, but it was a totally different relationship. There’s just some freedom that happens when you open up to true love, to real passion that you never expected and can explore it together.”

She laughs: “Maybe I was just a lesbian the whole time, I don’t know!”

Liz Hilliard had to accept that she would lose relationships when she came out

It’s safe to say that this is a relationship Liz never saw coming. When she married her husband aged 26, she says she did so in a fit of passion and lust and, like most people, assumed the marriage would be for life.

But as the years went by, their relationship became more like a friendship.

“Most of our marriage was fairly good, especially the hot lust at the beginning, but we allowed ourselves – and we both take credit for this, and blame at the same time – to grow apart.”

Liz Hilliard (L) with Lee.
Liz Hilliard (L) with Lee. (Supplied)

They were able to find some common ground through therapy, but they eventually decided to go their separate ways. It was in the middle of their divorce that Liz started to develop feelings for Lee.

Telling her husband and family about the change she had experienced was one of the most difficult things Liz has ever had to do. In the end, her ex-husband took the news better than almost anyone else.

“His whole thing was, ‘Good for you, I want to find that for myself. I need that kind of love too’.”

Not everybody was so accepting. Liz had the painful task of accepting that living her truth and finding love would mean losing others along the way.

“I’m strong, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt me and destroy me every time someone rejects me. We’re human beings. Our lives are completely dependent upon the connection we have with each other,” she says.

“One of the ways I accept that they cannot accept me is by understanding we’re all on our own separate paths. We are connected together, but that doesn’t mean we’re all going to get to the same place at the same time. I have to disinvest myself with the fact that somebody else just can’t do this, they can’t accept this.

“I just bless them on their path, release them spiritually, and let them go.”

Liz (R) with Lee (L). they are pictured here siting on steps back to back.
Liz (R) with Lee (L). (Thomas Gallagher)

Liz was also worried about how her newfound relationship might affect her business. She lives in a conservative place where LGBTQ+ people are not always accepted.

Her fears ended up not coming to pass. Hilliard Studio Method is still going strong today. She was able to release her fears about the business after a surprise conversation with a highly conservative client.

“I was still in shock, I was raw, wasn’t sure what I could say to anyone, but she came up to me, she grabbed me and said, ‘Liz, I can’t even imagine what you’re doing. I don’t even accept it. I don’t accept this behaviour in people. I don’t understand it, I think it’s wrong, I think it’s wrong in the Bible, but you’ve always had my back … and I will always have yours’.”

This Pride Month, Liz wants others to know that it’s never too late to question your sexuality, and there’s no time limit on finding love.

Her advice to those who start questioning their sexuality later in life is simple; find the courage to speak to somebody about it, whether that’s your partner, a therapist or a close friend.

“Listen to your body. Listen to your soul. Be afraid, but do it anyway,” Liz says.

“It’s important that we live our lives fully or else what are we doing for our people, whether it’s our children, our ex-husbands, our husbands presently or whoever our partners are?

“If we’re not living, fully we’re waiting space.”

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