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How To React When Someone Comes Out: Dos and Don’ts for Straight Allies

How To React When Someone Comes Out: Dos and Don’ts for Straight Allies

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 he or she seems 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 he or she needs. 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 he or she asks if you’ve suspected they were LGBT, answer honestly but respectfully.

 

DO… Ask about confidentiality and reassure them of your confidence. Is he or she 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 he or she has 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 he or she 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. He or she 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 he or she wants to have a debate. Don’t suggest that he or she “might be confused” or needs 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. He or she is still the same person. Unless they tell you otherwise, your LGBT acquaintance’s interests and hobbies won’t completely change now that he or she is 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.

 

Care2 Causes is recognizing the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia throughout the entire week. For more Care2 coverage, click here.


Other Resources


International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia


Human Rights Campaign Resources for Straight Allies


PFLAG


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Photo credit: essygie

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96 comments

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5:59PM PDT on Oct 15, 2012

Do understand their beleifs
Do allow them to speak openly about it.
Don't ignore it.
Don't boast about it.

1:31PM PDT on Oct 13, 2012

"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.


+++++++++++++++++++ No kidding! Would ANYONE do this?

8:29AM PDT on Oct 13, 2012

My best friend came out to me while in treatment for depression. I came to visit her and pretty much as soon as I sat down at the table, she said, "I'm bi." She was very blase about it (probably because she knew what an LGBT ally I was), but I could see a little smile as she threw me a huge curveball within 30 seconds of sitting down. It only took me a second, though. "Congratulations." "Why?" She was confused. "Because you're being open about it." She rolled her eyes at silly me and we've never looked back.

There is nothing better in life than friendship! No matter what, be accepting and loving.

11:41PM PDT on Oct 12, 2012

Lovely, thoughtful, sincere and wise article. Good one!

1:40PM PDT on Oct 12, 2012

As the Mom of a gay man who lives in a different town, I needed to ask him if it was OK before I could come out. ( And coming out is not easy for parents of gay people either) But one woman friend of mine said just the perfect thing to me when I told her my son was gay-----she said, Well, now I KNOW it's OK to be gay! Never to be fogotten by me.

12:44PM PDT on Oct 12, 2012

Thanks Miranda for this very fine article.

12:21PM PDT on Oct 12, 2012

When a friend of my came out as a transgender I told him I that no matter what he was my friend and that I love him.
For years he talked about being sick and there was something wrong with him but he felt too ashamed to share what it was with me.It was eating him out. Finally he came out. Some people couldn't handle it and for many others it didn't change a thing. He's still the same beautiful human being he always was. He's just happier. I'm happy for him.

11:23AM PDT on Oct 12, 2012

thanks.

6:10AM PDT on Oct 12, 2012

Thank you for the article...

5:26AM PDT on Oct 12, 2012

Good article. No one has ever come out to me but I feel better prepared now if anyone ever does. Thanks.

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