The experience of “coming out” is something that most folks in the LGBTQIA+ community have numerous times throughout their lifetime. It can look completely different depending on a lot of factors including the individual, where they are in their coming out journey, who they are coming out to, how they grew up, where they live – the list goes on and on.
Coming out is a very unique experience for a queer person as it depends on many personal factors. There are some helpful ways for a straight person to respond in the moment if a friend comes out to them about their sexual and/or gender identity – whether it be gay, trans, lesbian, asexual, or anything else! Below are some hints of what to do and what things that are better to avoid.
My friend just came out to me! What should I do?
- Acknowledge the fact that they trusted you.
- It is not always easy for gay people to come out, especially if it is to someone who is important to you. When your friend tells you they are queer, it likely took a fair amount of courage for them to get to this point. Acknowledge that courage and the fact that they trusted you. You could say something like, “Thank you for trusting me” or “I feel honored that you told me” (while continuing to keep the focus on them).
- Show support in your own way.
- Your friend is still your friend, and them coming out actually changes nothing about them (in their life). Use your relationship with them to show support and make them feel comfortable. If you typically hug, give them a hug! If you crack a lot of jokes, maybe crack a supportive joke, though try not to change conversations quickly. If your friendship isn’t one with much talking, just a simple statement of “I got you” or “I’m here for you” is enough.
- Ask questions… respectfully.
- It is okay to ask questions about your friend’s sexual identity and it often shows that you care and want to know more about them. Depending on where they are in their coming out journey, they may or may not be ready to answer questions. Ask questions, but also be supportive if they don’t feel ready to answer them.
- Follow their lead.
- If your friend is bursting at the seams with excitement, get excited with them! If they are nervous and can’t quite make eye contact with you, don’t try to force them to look at you. Mirroring the body language and energy of the person coming out helps them feel safe in that moment. If you want to run around with joy and they would rather everyone stop talking and keep doing whatever activity you are doing, save your running around with happiness for when you get home.
- Respect their privacy.
- Be sure to ask your friend who knows and how you should talk about it (or not talk about it) in front of other people. Again, coming out can be difficult and scary and it’s important that your friend comes out to others on their own timeline! Respect their choices around who they have told and who they haven’t and offer support in a way that is most helpful for them. Gay people should be given the space to come out to whoever they want, whenever it feels right.
- Remind them that you love them (if this is language that you already use).
- Even though you may have known your friend for a long time and have a strong bond between the two of you, there’s no harm in reminding them explicitly that you love them, no matter what! While they may sound simple, “thank you for telling me, I love you and support you no matter what” can go a long way when someone comes out to you.
My friend just came out to me! What NOT to do:
- Don’t say “I knew it!”
- A statement such as “I knew it!” might feel like it could be helpful and reassuring, but for some individuals, in that initial moment of coming out, it can minimize what they are feeling. While it could be reassuring, depending on your friend, it’s best to keep the focus on them and just listen. In this moment it is about them sharing with you and not so much about you and whether or not you saw it coming.
- Don’t ask if they are attracted to you.
- Just don’t! That’s not what this moment is about. It is about your friend trusting you to share something important. It’s not about you!
- Don’t make it weird.
- If you have things you need to sort through to better understand what it means to be gay, do that work on your own. It is okay to ask your friend a few questions if they are open to it, but if you have more questions and your friend doesn’t seem interested or comfortable talking about them, it is time to move on and do your own research. It is not your friend’s responsibility to educate you about being gay. Do not ask them to represent all gay people or to teach you everything. That is your work to do.
- Don’t put your own opinions on your friend.
- You might have an opinion about what they shared with you or even just need more time to process. That is okay, but now is not the time for processing that with them. In the moment, it is important to just acknowledge that they trust you enough to tell you. It is important that you process your own feelings and opinions on your own before returning to them to talk about it if that is needed.
- Don’t get offended that they didn’t tell you earlier.
- Coming out can be difficult! It is a process and it takes time. It often takes time for an individual to understand themselves in a clear way where they are even able to begin talking about it with others. In this instance, it’s not about you. Your friend has their reasons for telling you when they did and how they did and that is valid enough.
- Don’t say “It doesn’t matter.”
- This is another statement that is often meant to be reassuring, but could also be invalidating for your friend. If they took the time to have a conversation with you and “come out”, it does matter. Saying it doesn’t matter, takes away that importance. Acknowledge their courage to tell you and listen.
- Don’t label too much or compare situations.
- Everyone’s experience with their gender and sexual orientation is unique to them. As humans, it is helpful to have labels to have a starting point of understanding and to be able to relate to others. That being said, not everyone places the same significance on labels. Ask your friend how they like to be identified but don’t assume that just because they said “gay” it means that they relate to all gay people you’ve seen on tv or your gay uncle.
I think I responded well! Now what?
Nice work! And now, the ongoing support comes in.
Keep it going! Take interest in your friend’s life the same way you have and did before. Remember, your friend is still your friend and their gender and sexual orientation is just one piece of their whole identity.
That being said, add in those things that are supportive of their gender and/or sexual orientation. Use the pronouns they prefer, watch shows and read books that are inclusive, and follow their lead on how they approach things. If comfortable for all involved, maybe try out some queer events or outings to show your support. And most importantly, be their friend.
Blog written by Sentier therapist Abby Voigt, MSW, LICSW.