How to Best Support Someone Who Comes Out to You
Sometimes it can be difficult to know how best to respond to someone when they come out, especially if this is not something you experienced before or were surprised by the disclosure. You may wonder…What do I say? What do I do? You may even wonder afterwards if you handled the conversation well.
These tips are a starting point for how to respond when someone you know comes out to you.
1. Listen – this moment is about them.
2. Be mindful of your response and don’t overreact. If this has come as a surprise to you and/or you need to process your thoughts and feelings about what this person said that’s okay. However, it’s not okay to expect this person to help you process this. You should process how you feel with someone other than the person who just came out to you. This is an unfair burden to place on them. So where do you turn then? Support groups. Check out your local PFLAG for groups (pflag.org). There also may be other local or online groups though other organizations or mental health clinics. Also, a mental health professional can be helpful in processing how you feel and how to best support this person. Check out psychologytoday.com for therapists near you.
3. Be careful to not blame yourself or others in front of this person such as saying, “Was it something I did that made you gay/trans?” or “I should never have let you spend time with your friend. They put these thoughts in your head.” Again, this moment is not about you, but about them. Also, this is not a choice but is a part of this person’s identity and who they are. Their identity that they are disclosing during their coming is not ‘caused’ from exposure to certain behaviors, people, media, etc.
4. Thank this person for sharing such personal information with you and for trusting you.
5. Let them know you still care about them by showing some sign of support through what you say or do. Because of oppression and discrimination in society, they may have fears about rejection. Gestures of support might include you stating that you accept them and care about them for who they are, or you might ask if you can give them a hug.
6. Ask permission before asking questions. Just because this person felt comfortable enough to come out to you does not mean they are comfortable or ready to talk about it further. If they decline to talk further about what they shared with you, be patient.
7. Do not ask questions such as, “So is this a phase?” “Who turned you gay?” “Do you find me hot?” “Was it because of all those shows I let you watch as a kid that you decided to be a woman?” Ask instead, “Is there anything I can do for you?” “How can I best support you?” “Is there anything else you would like to share with me about what you just told me?”
8. If the person does not label themselves (e.g., gay, bisexual, transgender), do not force them to identify with a label. For example, a female stating, “I have a girlfriend.” does not mean that this person identifies as a lesbian, knows how they want to identify, or wants to identify with a label at all. Or someone stating, “I feel like my gender is more fluid and I’m figuring out what I like to wear and what feels comfortable to me.” does not mean they are transitioning or changing their pronouns.
9. If someone does label themselves, such as saying they are pansexual or genderqueer, you might ask what this means to them only if they are okay with being asked this question. Not everyone who identifies with a particular label will apply the same meaning to that label. And be patient if they don’t know how to answer this or do not want to at that time.
10. Ask permission before sharing this information with others, even if it is someone very close to you like your partner, best friend, or family member. It is disrespectful, and actually can be dangerous and unsafe, to share this with others (called outing someone) without that person’s permission. This is their story and their truth, and it is not your choice regarding who knows and does not know. It is their choice.
If you realize that you have not responded as well as you’d like at the time the person came out to you, it is never too late to go back to that person and apologize for how you responded and to send them a message of support. Just be mindful to not over-apologize as this tends to shift the focus from making amends with them to them feeling the need to comfort you.
Check out these links for additional resources:
GLAAD LGBTQ Resource List: https://www.glaad.org/resourcelist
List of National LGBTQ Resources: https://www.vanderbilt.edu/lgbtqi/resources/national-resources
Transgender Care Listings (includes a book list, non-binary resources, youth resources, parent resources, QTPOC [Queer and Trans People of Color] resources): http://transcaresite.org/
Queer and Trans Disability/Deaf Resources: https://eliclare.com/background/queer-disability-resources
Rural LGBTQ Resources: https://www.lgbtmap.org/rural-lgbt-resources