Chris Saladino told his parents he was gay at 21, but even after that he dated women here and there for a few years, giving his mother hope that he’d somehow emerge straight, after all.

“She would say, ‘I am just afraid for you,’” he said.

The AIDS epidemic stopped him from coming out to everyone. He joined a gay gym but waited until he was 30 to share his sexual orientation with friends. Then he shook up his environment, moving from Florida to Boston. He was 40 before he came out to colleagues.

“I had spent so many years alone in my own head,” said the Portland real estate agent, now 50. “I worked a lot. I was afraid of life in general.”

The slow roll-out of the news suited him. So did the solace of finally being completely truthful about his life. That’s why he empathizes with U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, who came out to his 79-year-old mother and to the public last week at age 58. “I have empathy for anyone who is going through the process,” he said. “And I am saddened by a world that still finds this an issue.”

Michaud’s gubernatorial campaign said voters, supporters and members of the gay community have reached out to him in gratitude and to share their own coming-out stories. He’s been praised for delivering the news with what appeared to be an easy confidence and for settling a question that many, even those in Maine’s gay community with strong hunches, hadn’t wanted to ask.

What they say is that the decision to come out is complicated at any age. Leap early and run the risk of alienating the parents you still need. Leap late and risk angering or hurting the people who thought they knew you. Never leap and surprise everyone except the people who know you best, as did astronaut Sally Ride, whose obituary naming her longtime partner broke the “news” that she was gay.

“Whether you are 58 or 38 you just have to have the courage to step into yourself,” said Portland public relations executive Chris Kast, 53, who came out to his wife and children at 39 and is now married to a man. There was a tremendous sense of relief in ending his “internal agony,” but that didn’t make the decision any easier.

“Ease is not part of the equation from my experience,” he said. “It’s more of a need to actually be open and honest with yourself so that you can live an authentic life.” Which, he added, can be earthshaking for those who love you. “You haven’t changed, but you have made this statement, and sometimes that is hard for people to get.”

Lori Voornas, host of WJBQ-FM’s popular morning show in Portland, came out two years ago when she was 45. Her sister, though, had already outed her to her parents when she was a teenager. She wasn’t happy about it then, but on the other hand, she didn’t envy Michaud the task of telling his mother.

“God bless him, because I didn’t have to deal with that part,” Voornas said. “My parents were super cool. I was 18, dealing with this. What is he, 58?” But she noted that his age is a sign of how hard it had to have been for the 2nd District congressman and candidate. “I know he was freaked out or he would have done it years ago,” she said.

Her own decision was spurred by the fact that she was marrying her partner in the summer of 2011. If she couldn’t share such a basic piece of information about herself – the excitement of a wedding – how could she share anything about her life? She’d been pondering coming out for years.

“For me it was a real struggle,” she said. “It was pure fear. I think the fear was that I would be – it’s just weird, since I was on the radio – that I would be exposing myself. I got really good at hiding, at being this other person on the radio.”

When she came out, what startled her was the response she had from listeners: Not only did no one seem particularly surprised, but she received only one piece of negative feedback out of hundreds of responses. She’d expected people to be upset, maybe angry. “It goes to show that maybe I was small-minded,” Voornas said. She’s never had a second of regret. “Best thing I ever did.”

Doug Kimmel is the co-chairman of Maine’s fledgling chapter of SAGE, a national organization that provides services and advocacy to older gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. The notion of someone coming out, either to voters or to one’s mother, at an age when many are focusing on retirement planning doesn’t strike him as particularly unusual.

“There are certainly people of his generation whose parents have never been informed officially that their son is gay,” he said, referring to Michaud. “You can go to any Maine town and you can find people like Michaud whose parents never knew or don’t know. You can go to any Maine town and find two women living together who have never publicly identified as lesbian.”

Kimmel is 70, a retired psychologist and has been openly gay in all areas of his life for nearly 40 years. But he was careful to come out to colleagues only after he secured academic tenure in 1976; the fear of being stigmatized was too high. When he and his partner, now husband, moved to Maine in 1981, they didn’t broadcast their relationship, but felt accepted.

“As long as you don’t scare the horses, you can do pretty much as you want,” he said. “That’s the way it is in Maine.” But they weren’t public figures, he said, and noted that if acceptance were a given for politicians, there wouldn’t have been this twist in the gubernatorial race. “It is kind of amazing that a 58-year-old man would have to tell his mother that he was gay in order to run for governor,” he said.

Better now than never, members of the LGBT community say. A 75-year-old transgender woman from central Maine, who asked not to be identified because she is not entirely out, said she began hormone treatments while her parents were still alive but waited for them to die before going ahead with sex change surgery at 64. “I wouldn’t do that to my parents,” she said.

Staying in the closet took a dangerous toll. “The only way I could live was through booze,” she remembered. “I was drinking like a fish.”

The gradual breaking down of legal and social barriers might suggest it would be easier for a young person to come out today than a middle-age person set in ways that would include secrecy, but Erica Rand, an activist and professor of gender studies at Bates College in Lewiston, says not necessarily.

Today’s gay teenager may feel emboldened by how far society has come, but telling one’s parents while a dependent means facing the possibility that you might get kicked out of the house.

“This is the thing about coming out,” Rand said. “You don’t know what is going to happen, and you can’t predict it.”

The person you most worry about hurting might already know the truth and be fine with it, she said. Rand remembers when she was featured in a 1994 Newsweek article about gay rights and her mother called her to tell her “this could kill your grandparents.” But Newsweek didn’t break any news to Rand’s grandparents; they had already figured out what her sexual orientation was and didn’t object.

“Sometimes people are just waiting for people to tell them,” Rand said. Michaud hasn’t said what his mother’s response was, other than to say he was “very pleased” by it.

Rand said Michaud does run the risk that some people will change their attitudes toward him. Others may be glad that he waited as long as he did. She wasn’t surprised by his announcement (the gay community, she says, is “very familiar with silence” and what it might mean for personal lives) but Michaud being out doesn’t change her view of his politics.

As for Saladino, he’s a little torn. “Why do you really need to tell people who you sleep with?” he said. But he believes Michaud needed to come out or risk being outed; there was simply too much speculation out there. It was the topic of conversation at a dinner party he attended just days before Michaud’s announcement. And Saladino knows that sometimes he gets work because he’s “the gay Realtor” even though he’d rather get work because he’s the good Realtor.

“Right now it is popular to be gay,” he said, although, as he hastened to add: “You never know what anybody does when they close the curtain to vote. But it is better that they smile on you as opposed to they spit on you.”

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

mpols@pressherald.com

Twitter: marypols