Rev. Anne-Marie Zanzal, M. Div is an author, coach, counselor, and speaker based in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a graduate of Yale Divinity School, a coming out coach to the LGBTQIA+ community, an experienced hospice chaplain, and Compassionate Bereavement Provider with the Miss Foundation.
She came out as a lesbian at fifty after her ordination in 2016 in the United Church of Christ. Anne-Marie’s personal experience includes a decade long journey of coming out and frustration in finding both help and community as she grieved losing an old way of existing while struggling to embrace her authenticity.
Desiring to use her experience to help others, she started Anne-Marie Zanzal Coaching in 2018 to help facilitate this difficult journey for other women coming out later in life. Since then she has written the book Authentic Peace: A Story of Courage, Change, Transformation & Hope which takes us through her coming out process. She is also the host of the “Coming Out & Beyond | LGBTQIA+ Support” podcast and is a spiritual and wellness retreat leader.
Naturally, we wanted to sit down with this remarkable woman and introduce her to the Q40 audience. Here is some of our discussion.
Q40: Hi Anne-Marie! It’s a pleasure to be speaking with you to discuss your amazing work. Like many LGBTQ people, you came out later in life. Can you walk us through that journey? Did you always kind of know you were gay or did same sex attraction surface for you suddenly as you got older?
Anne-Marie Zanzal: You know, when I talk to people about this, it’s one of those things where I knew and I didn’t know, you know what I mean?
I remember the first time I realized that I thought a woman was attractive. I was 19 years old.
And then a couple of years later I was with a friend who was getting her PhD. She was straight, but she was at Stanford, and she was really, really immersed in queer culture there. I remember, going to lunch with her and just being fascinated by the culture. It was the first time where I consciously walked away and thought “maybe I’m gay”. However, I was engaged to my ex-husband at the time and like a lot of women, I just sort of got lost in raising children and having a family.
Then it wasn’t until, 2006 when I read an article in Oprah Winfrey Magazine which talked about the fluidity of women’s sexuality that, all of a sudden, I had a name for something that I had only thought of in my head. It was so monumental for me, because I realized that although I had started down this straight path, I didn’t have to stay on it forever.
Soon after, I went to Yale Divinity School. I was 42, and I was at a National Coming Out Day ceremony, and I just started to cry hysterically. I knew that I had to do something about this, but I didn’t know how to do it. I was married, I had four kids. You know, all that…
So fast forward and a bunch of therapists later, I’m going to therapy because I’m trying to figure out if I’m gay or not. And the mistake I made was that I was looking for some professional to tell me I was gay, but the only person who could tell me if I was gay was me.
After graduating and becoming ordained, I was working as a hospice chaplain, and I had this client. It’s a long story, but I’ll just say basically she had a really tough death and near the end she said: “I feel like I’ve been waiting for something my entire life.” And that really hit me in my core.
When I was talking to my therapist several months later about it; I told her the story, and of course my therapist said: “So, what are you waiting for?” And I said, “Well, I think I’m gay.” And that put the ball in motion for me the final time.
I Googled “late in life lesbian”, and I found a Facebook page of women who were in the process of coming out later in life. All of a sudden, I had community and that’s what changed everything. It’s what gave me the courage to finally come out. I’m still friends with some of these women today.
Q40: Amazing. Community is so important. I was wondering, when you came out how that impacted your relationship with your children and ex-husband?
Anne-Marie Zanzal: My ex-husband is pissed. He doesn’t want to be friends. So we’re not, and that’s okay.
My kids are four different individuals, so they reacted to it in four different ways. I always say that my bookends had it the easiest. They handled it the best. My middle two children had a harder time, but my second child came out as non-binary a couple of years after I came out, so I think they were having their own issues with it, and they just didn’t want to deal with the fact that their mother was having issues too.
What was harder, I think, really for my children is that the fact that their dad and I, weren’t gonna be together anymore. We had a pretty good family. We really loved each other and had some wonderful times together, but there was a lot of dysfunction too. So, you know, everybody’s fine. My wife and I got married last October; they were all here at the wedding. I’ve lost contact with two of my siblings though.
Q40: I’m glad your children have handled it so well. Did your budding queerness cause any crisis of faith since you were raised Christian?
Anne-Marie Zanzal: I’ve had quite a faith journey. I was Catholic and then evangelical and now I’m UCC, United Church of Christ, which is pretty progressive. I consider myself more of a Buddhist though, and I’m a big yoga practitioner.
It was really interesting because as I went through meeting my wife and getting married, I really went through this time of wondering if this was sinful, was it wrong? But it felt so, incredibly right and I knew that a loving God would never disapprove of anything like that. God is love, and so love is love. I know it’s trite, but that’s the truth.
Anne-Marie Zanzal: I’m a graduate of Yale Divinity School, and I’m ordained by United Church of Christ. I’m also a certified grief counselor through the MISS Foundation.
I started doing support groups for them. Through that work I began realize that I was also grieving (my former life) and so I started working with women coming out later in life.
I work with anybody who identifies as a woman– cisgender, transgender women and non-binary people folk. I create community for people. I do a lot of work around internalized homophobia, which is a real thing in the queer community.
I do a lot of work around shame and guilt because there’s not only the shame and guilt around being gay, but there’s this shame and guilt around, for women especially, divorcing. A lot of times women talk about destroying and breaking up their families.
I do a lot of education around queer culture, especially lesbian culture. I do a lot of work around normalizing the experience [of coming out] because what I have learned is no matter whether you come out at 15 or 75, that the experience is exactly the same.
I call myself a coming out coach, but I do so much more than that. You’re sort of on your own when you come out unless you happen to find a group of friends or something like that. It was it was an incredibly isolating experience for me. The thing is, is we have to talk about it, to talk about how hard coming out is, and we have to give people support around that, you know?
Q40: Absolutely. People need to know they are not alone. You also do some work as a retreat leader, correct? In partnership with Women Out West?
Anne-Marie Zanzal: Oh, yes! Previous to this, I’ve had these retreats in Nashville, and Nashville is fine, but it’s not conductive to what I wanted to do. I really wanted them to take place in a beautiful space. I wanted to have somebody run the logistic part of the retreat, so that’s why I partnered with Women Out West. I really wanted people to have an opportunity to connect with nature, connect with community, and also to put their computers and phones away for a while, you know?
Mary (from Women Out West) and I were talking about it, and we wanted to create a place where people who are at a crossroads, either personally or professionally, could have some time to be in community, to have some questions asked about them so they can gain clarity about what they wanna do next and really challenge themselves a little bit.
Q40: Yes, our sister site Vacationer did a feature on Women Out West. They curate some beautiful trips out in the wilderness. Lots of hikes and adventure! For those looking to join your retreats, are the walks hard?
Anne-Marie Zanzel: None of the nature walks are hard. None. They’re all novice appropriate. We’re going to be going through the Singing Canyons in Utah and things like that. Beautiful stuff!
Q40: Sounds great! Tell us a bit about the programs.
Well, I’m Here, I’m Queer, What Next? is for any queer woman. I was really thinking of it more for people that have come out later in life, but it doesn’t have to be. I’ve had some people join that have already come but who are also asking themselves: “What do I do now?” And we do our best on this retreat to answer these questions because honestly, coming out, was truly, for me at least, a spiritual awakening, and a shift.
Then there’s Releasing Religious Expectation, which is a healing retreat, for those of us who’ve been raised in religious traditions. It’s for people that are really, really struggling to let go of the religious expectations placed upon them.
What we really want to do in that retreat is help people move past their religious upbringing so that they are able to come home to themselves. Much like, Martin Luther said, there should be no intermediary between God and ourselves.
So, if you’re somebody who believes in the God, the Universe, the Higher Power, whatever you call it, the goal is that you become comfortable listening to that voice and to be able to have a personal relationship that is not mediated through a denomination or religion or anything like that.
We’re going to do some work around situations like when you have a religious family but you still want to be in their life. We are going to look at how to maintain boundaries with them as you live your life as a queer person. Things like that.
Q40: That sounds deeply moving Anne-Marie. Thank you for taking the time to chat with us and best of luck with the retreats!
To learn more about her work and ministry visit annemariezanzel.com.