Less than five years after Melisa Raney and Alli Vaccaro divorced their longtime husbands, they launched the Lesbian Chronicles podcast for people coming out later in life. In the 17 months since their first episode, listeners the world over affirm that they are not alone.
“One of the most surprising things about starting this podcast has been the number of people who have reached out saying they’re in the same situation,” Raney told Project Q. “It’s amazing how much a shared experience can bring comfort to someone on the other side of the world.”
In each weekly episode of Lesbian Chronicles, the Atlanta-based podcasters share personal stories of coming out and the ongoing process of accepting themselves. They also welcome guests and recently added radio veteran Alyssa Young as audio producer.
“She is a life-long lesbian and brings another, very insightful perspective to our show,” Raney and Vaccaro said.
Topics range from sex to religion, from dating to long-term relationships, and from divorce to coparenting.
“Our most popular topics tend to focus on how to tell certain people — your husband, kids, parents — about your sexuality,” Vaccaro said. “And the overcoming the shame and guilt that come with coming out and divorce. Also, anything related to sex is always a top download!”
Keeping serious subjects approachable with humor is key to the success of the podcast, the women said. From their premiere episode recorded in Vaccaro’s closet in June 2019, to more polished uploads some 70 episodes later, it’s clear even to first-time listeners that the pair have fun with broadcasting their conversations.
“We try to make a very heavy topic much lighter in the hopes that people experiencing their own process can be uplifted through such a tough time,” Raney said. “We encourage our listeners to build community of women going through the same thing.”
A Long Way, Baby
Raney, 40, and Vaccaro, 46, met in just such a support group for people coming out later in life. They both say it was critical to their process, because the early days of their realizations were as uncertain as coming out stories at any age.
Raney started her process in late 2016.
“I had never considered my sexuality and just followed the heterosexual normative until that point,” she said. “It took time to process, but by March 2018, I came out to family and friends. By January 2019, I was out publicly.”
Raney shared her story on Facebook and wrote a piece about it for CNN. She was married for 11 years and has two school-aged children.
“I was 37 years old when I began to realize I was gay, but I felt like the only person on earth who didn’t recognize their sexuality during adolescence,” Raney continued. “I felt very alone and stuck.”
“Stories similar to mine were few and far between,” she added. “They often skimmed over the truly difficult and heartbreaking parts of having this realization while in a straight marriage.”
Vaccaro grew up in a “very conservative Catholic household” and never saw being gay as an option. Growing up, she envisioned having a husband and kids.
Realizing those dreams were wonderful in many ways. She had three children, aged six to 15 at the time she ended her 19-year marriage, but something was boiling underneath.
“I have always sort of known in the depths of my soul that I was gay,” Vaccaro said. “It became undeniably loud in 2015-2016.”
“As my youngest got a little older, the voice got louder,” she continued. “After much therapy, and when hope started to outweigh the fear, I decided to leave my marriage (and best friend) for a different life. A rewrite.”
Paying it forward
Among so many stories, Lesbian Chronicles details Vaccaro’s stops on a path from “painful and lonely” to realizing “I am far from alone,” she said.
“That feeling of finding community propelled us to do the podcast,” Vaccaro said. “We knew it would give comfort to those who are alone, scared to come out with no outlet.”
Raney called coming out “the hardest thing I ever had to do.” Still, the podcast, or something like it, was inside her through even her most difficult times, she said.
“As I was going through all this, I told myself that I would eventually share my story to help others, Raney said. “It’s definitely hard to put yourself out there, but I’ve realized the out-late crowd is such a large but very under-represented part of the LGBTQ+ community.”
“Our stories need to be out there to make it easier for others,” she added.
More than 70 episodes and a quarter-million downloads later, Lesbian Chronicles barrels forward into an unchartered future beyond the podcast.
“We have over 250,000 downloads and the audience grows each week,” Raney said. “We are working on ways to connect people so they can build community where they live.”
Finding others in similar circumstances helps tremendously, which was anathema to Raney’s earliest fears, she said.
“I feared losing people because of my sexuality,” she said. “But the reality is, I’ve gained so many.”
So, what would the podcasters tell anyone out there who knows they’re gay but feels “stuck” in a different life?
“It’s never too late,” Raney said. “You’re free to change your mind, shift perspective. A decision made in your 20s doesn’t define you and your entire life. We know people in their 70s who are now coming out.”
Facing the fear brings a realization that you could be hurting people around you more by living a lie than by working through the truth, she added.
“I realized my ex-husband deserved better than what I could give him,” Raney continued. “My children deserved a mother who was fully present, not slowly sinking into depression. Staying in the ‘stuck’ place is so mentally draining, and frankly dangerous. … When you let go of the fear, you’re free to do anything.”
Vaccaro agreed. She said, in fact, people longing to come out are never actually “stuck.”
“Is it scary? Yes. Is it worth it? Yes,” she said. “The price of admission is high, but to live your truth, the reward is higher.”
“When you decide to start living for yourself, everyone around you wins,” Vaccaro added. “I never wanted to be a martyr for my children, as that’s not teaching them how to truly live.”
While each person’s story varies, the women of Lesbian Chronicles see every journey as more easily taken in digestible steps.
“We talk about being the director of your life and finding courage to at least be honest with yourself and hopefully your spouse,” Vaccaro said. “From there, decide what you would want your life to look like if you could have it any way you wanted. Then methodically take the steps to get there.”
“It starts with honesty and eventually, clarity,” she said. “Taking the steps toward the life you want will give you hope. And at some point, the hope outweighs the fear.”