Steps to Support: How To Be There When Someone Comes Out to You
This Wednesday (October 11) is National Coming Out Day. While not every LGBTQ person chooses to come out on this day, some find it the perfect motivation to tell their loved ones about their LGBTQ identity. If you are not part of the queer community, you might not know how to respond to your loved one as they come out. Even if you care about your loved one a lot and want the best for them, you may feel anxious and uncertain about what would best help.
Coming out to someone is an expression of trust and vulnerability. If someone comes out to you, keep these five tips in mind so you can respond with support and compassion. You don’t have to know everything about the queer community to be a good ally to your LGBTQ friend.
Thank your loved one for having the courage to tell you.
Coming out is not a decision that your loved one took lightly. That they've told you shows that they trust you a lot and value the relationship that you have. Whenever someone comes out to you, don't be afraid. Be honored that they respect you enough to express something this personal. Show your gratitude for their friendship and let them know how brave they are for sharing.
Offer your compassion over judgment or criticism.
Again, coming out puts your loved one in a vulnerable position. Whether you're the first person they've told or not, their LGBTQ identity is probably something that's very personal to them. They may feel just as anxious or uncertain about how to process their identity as you feel. The choice of how they define themselves and interpret their identity is up to them. This will be a decision they take seriously. As someone they trust, your job is not to judge them but to express your unconditional love.
Refrain in particular from offering religious judgments. Telling a LGBTQ friend that they are "going to hell" or that you "love the sinner but not the sin" can not only break your relationship's trust but also deeply hurt your loved one. Put your religious feelings aside and focus on helping your friend feel safe, comforted, and loved. When they are ready, they can decide how to best integrate their LGBTQ and religious identity.
Remember that they are still the same person as before.
Coming out does not happen on a whim. In most cases, the person telling you has thought about their identity for months or even years. The person coming out to you has not changed in any way from before you knew about their LGBTQ identity. They are, however, showing you a part of their identity that you didn't know before. Avoid treating them like they have changed or like your relationship can never be the same again. The best thing you can do for your LGBTQ loved one is maintaining the same strong relationship as before, just with more awareness about who they are.
Additionally, don't assume anything about their identity or choices beyond what they tell you. If your loved one comes out to you as gay, this does not automatically mean they know whether they want to date a partner of the same gender, practice celibacy, or express their orientation in another way. If someone comes out to you as transgender, this doesn't give you direct insight into their plans for social/medical transitioning or their sexual orientation. Unless they directly tell you, you should not make any inferences.
Ask questions, if they're comfortable!
In some cases, your loved one may want to discuss their LGBTQ identity. If they're comfortable with you asking questions, bring up a few that you think might help you understand what they're going through. Make sure every question comes from a place of love and respect. If they don’t feel ready to answer a question, thank them for letting you know and ask a different one.
Remember that your loved one may not have all the answers, especially if they are just coming to terms with their queer identity. Give them the time to work through questions themselves if they're uncertain.
Respect your loved one's right to keep their identity private.
Do not assume that because a loved one comes out to you that they are fully out in all of their social spheres. Don’t tell other friends, family members, or anyone else you and your loved one interact with about their LGBTQ identity. Let your loved one tell these people themselves as they see fit. Who they choose to share with is up to them.
On a contrary note, avoid asking your loved one to keep their gender identity or sexual orientation a secret from others. Put your own feelings aside and remember that this identity is a part of who your loved one is. Asking them to hide it away when they're ready to share with others sends the message that they should feel ashamed about who they are. Let your loved one know that whether they only tell a few people or they come out publicly, you will be there no matter what.
Being there for someone who just came out can feel overwhelming, but as long as you offer them love and support, the two of you can work through it together! For more information on supporting an LGBTQ loved one, check out these resources from GLAAD, Belong To, and My Kid is Gay.