How to React When Someone Comes Out: Dos and Don’ts for Straight Allies
Editor’s note: This post is a Care2 favorite, back by popular demand. It was originally published on October 11, 2012. Enjoy!
DOS AND DON’TS FOR STRAIGHT ALLIES
Coming out can be very emotional for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. It can be exciting or provide a tremendous sense of relief, but it also carries the risk of rejection, discrimination, harassment or even physical violence. A person who is coming out may experience a roller coaster combination of joy, fear, self-confidence, vulnerability, pride or anxiety.
For a straight person, it isn’t necessarily any easier. Even straight people who support LGBT rights may still be shocked or feel awkward when their family member, friend or coworker pulls them aside to say, “I’m gay.” They may not know how to react. They may also be afraid of making the situation uncomfortable or saying something they might regret.
Everyone’s experience is different, so there’s no script to follow when someone comes out to you. But if you’re respectful, polite and patient, you can avoid or minimize any possible tension or embarrassment by remembering the following guidelines:
DO… Listen to what he or she has to say and let them set the tone of the conversation. Listening will show that you respect them and help put them at ease. Be serious or casual depending on whether they’re serious or casual. However, if they seem upset, go ahead and comfort them. Don’t underestimate the power of encouraging words or a hug (if it’s appropriate for your relationship).
DON’T… Rush them or “fill in the blanks.” Let your acquaintance take as much time as they need. If you hurry them to get to the point, or interrupt before they’re finished and say “so you’re LGBT, in other words,” you may trivialize the situation and make them feel uncomfortable or self-conscious.
DO… Ask appropriate questions. Think about your relationship with this person before they came out. How close are you? How many personal details have you shared in the past? Use discretion. Questions that are appropriate for your best friend or your brother might cross a line with a new acquaintance or a coworker.
DON’T… Ask about the person’s sex life (“are you a top or a bottom?”) or STI/HIV status. It’s rude and condescending. By coming out, your acquaintance is seeking acceptance as an LGBT person, not as a walking sexual fetish. Even if you’re very close and you’ve both discussed sex or health issues in the past, don’t bring them up during the coming out conversation.
DO… Be honest when you don’t understand. Just remember to be polite and respectful.
DON’T… Use slang terms or offensive language. A glossary of acceptable LGBT terms can be found here. However, every person is different and a term embraced by one person might be offensive to someone else. When in doubt, ask how they prefer to identify — or better yet, just call them by their name.
DO… Remember the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity. Sexual orientation is about the kind of people you’re attracted to. Gender identity is about how you relate to your ascribed gender role and your body. Don’t confuse being lesbian, gay or bisexual with being transgender. Gay men don’t want to be women and lesbians don’t want to be men. Similarly, if someone comes out as trans, don’t tell them they’re “just gay” or “actually a lesbian.”
DON’T… Answer “I’m LGBT” with “Well, duh!” Even if you’ve always suspected this person was LGBT, it can be impolite or even offensive to point this out. Your acquaintance may feel ashamed that it’s taken them so long to come out and they don’t need to be reminded of that struggle. If they ask if you’ve suspected they were LGBT, answer honestly but respectfully.
DO… Ask about confidentiality and reassure them of your confidence. Is this person telling everyone or just you? While some people come out to everyone, all at once, others come out in gradual stages. If this person isn’t “going public,” make sure they know they can trust you to keep the information to yourself until they’re ready for others to know.
DON’T… Take it personally, or assume this means that they have a crush on you. Coming out can be very daunting. No closeted LGBT person ever intends to betray or deceive someone they care about. There are many reasons why someone would wait to come out. Don’t jump to the conclusion that they’ve been harboring secret feelings for you. It could make you defensive and they might feel uncomfortable or self-conscious as a result.
DO… Thank them for trusting you. There’s a reason this person is confiding in you. They respect you, feel comfortable with you and value your relationship. They may also wish to form a stronger connection by sharing something so personal.
DON’T… Bring up politics or religion, offer unsolicited advice or make rash decisions. It’s disrespectful. This person isn’t coming out to you because they want to have a debate. Don’t suggest that they ”might be confused” or need counseling. If you disagree over LGBT issues, there will be other opportunities to have a polite discussion. Try to keep an open mind.
DO… Treat them the same. They are still the same person. Unless they tell you otherwise, your LGBT acquaintance’s interests and hobbies won’t completely change now that they are out of the closet. Your sports buddy won’t suddenly ditch the NBA Playoffs to listen to Lady Gaga. Assure your family member, friend or coworker that nothing changes between you two. This is one of the best ways to be a straight ally.
Coming out isn’t an instant solution for the challenges faced by LGBT people, but it represents an important step toward acceptance. If you’re straight, you can be an ally by creating a safe space for them to come out. You’ll help combat homophobia and transphobia, and support the LGBT people in your life — even those you may not know about yet.
Share Your Thoughts
Has anyone ever come out to you? How did you react? What else do you think is a “Do” or “Don’t” for coming out scenarios? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Photo credit: essygie