Coming out can be very emotional for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) 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 LGBTQ equality may still be shocked or feel awkward when their family member, friend or coworker pulls them aside to say, “I’m gay” or “I’m trans.” 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:
|Listen to what he, she, or they have 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).||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.|
|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.||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 LGBTQ 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.|
|Be honest when you don’t understand. Just remember to be polite and respectful.||Use slang terms or offensive language. A glossary of common terms is available on the UIS LGBTQA Resource Office web site. 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.|
|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.”||Answer “I’m LGBTQ” 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.|
|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.||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.|
|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.||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.|
|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 (but they may be a fan!). 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.||Try to instantly hook them up with your other LGBTQ friend or out them to others. LGBTQ people aren’t attracted to every other LGBTQ person just like heterosexual people aren’t attracted to all heterosexual people. Just because your friend came out to you doesn’t mean you can now tell other people.|
|Introduce them to your friends and peers that are LGBTQ. Make sure you have permission. Other LGBTQ students could be an important social support system.||Tell them they should go to counseling. Take time to talk to your friend or peer. Simply telling them they should go to counseling or visit the Gender and Sexuality Student Services is not the best response. Take care not to pathologize your friend. There is nothing psychologically abnormal, unhealthy, or inherently wrong about their sexual orientation or gender identity. However, if they seem depressed or exhibiting behaviors that are harmful to themselves or others then perhaps visiting the UIS Counseling Center can be one of multiple options.|
|Offer to walk with them to the Gender and Sexuality Student Services. Introduce them to the staff. That first step in the door can elicit apprehension and seem an insurmountable initial hurdle to cross. Attend an LGBTQ event with them on campus such as the weekly LGBTea social or other events throughout the year.|
Adapted from an article by Amanda Perry at Care2.