Coming Out: How to React If Someone Comes Out To You
National Coming Out Day is an annual observance celebrated on the 11th October worldwide (where safe to do so!). Originating in 1988 in the US, the idea behind it was to protest against the notion of homophobia thriving in “an atmosphere of silence and ignorance, and that once people know that they have loved ones who are lesbian or gay, they are far less likely to maintain homophobic or oppressive views.”
Coming out truly is a privilege and for some this isn’t an option for them, and may never be. Coming out is also incredibly personal. Some may never choose to come out or only come out to a select few, and this can be for a multitude of reasons. Often the reason is safety, but also because where being LGBTQ is becoming more “accepted” in society people are feeling less and less inclined to have this big “coming out”. Let’s also not forget that Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation is fluid. Things change, therefore people may wait a while or actively avoid doing it on National Coming Out Day.
This is why it’s so important to create an environment where it’s not only safe, but the person coming out to you feels empowered to be themselves.
For me, I officially came out as a Lesbian when I was in my late teens, however just like many other LGBTQ folk this wasn’t the only time I’ve come out to people. After my initial coming to family, friends and colleagues, the next 30-something years saw me also coming out to delivery drivers, my son’s teachers and other parents, our vet and strangers on the internet.
Most of the time coming out is consensual, but in a world where heterosexuality is very much the “norm” I often find myself having to correct people’s assumptions when I may not be ready to do so. Likewise, as an often assumed Lesbian by societal standards and expectations I don’t get the privilege of being able to hide until I’m ready to show myself.
If someone does come out to you, regardless of whether it’s via a passing comment that they’ve made about their significant other or a larger, more formal affair, know that this has likely taken them a while to build up to and they may be feeling vulnerable. Therefore, it’s vitally important that your reaction to this is both supportive and understanding. We’re also talking to the parents out there. Coming out isn’t just an adult thing.
Here are a few things you can do to make sure the person coming out to you doesn’t regret their decision.
Thank them for being so open with you.
Whilst we’re encouraged not to seek the approval of straight people, hearing the words “Thank you so much for trusting me with this information” or however this message comes out is a wonderful thing to hear. You’re prioritising the person coming out to you and making them feel safe.
It’s so important not to centre your feelings in this. Even if you weren’t the first person they told, what’s important is that they’re telling you now and that they trusted you to do so.
Tip: After the initial “coming out” ask whether there’s anything you can do to make this process or transition easier. Is there anyone they’re nervous about telling?
Don’t suggest that you already knew!
Whilst some may take this as reassurance or a relief, not to mention an invitation for a more open, detailed discussion, for others it can take what is a very personal event away from them. This can then lead to shame and embarrassment knowing that they “failed” at hiding it for however long they’d been “in the closet”.
Tip: If the person coming out to you asks whether you had any suspicions, be honest, but avoid centring yourself. This isn’t about you. Instead, say that you had suspicions but were waiting for them to feel comfortable.
Avoid the jokes (for now anyway)
Let’s not immediately try and pair your gay mates up with other gays (not straight away, anyway!). Also, let’s not ask them whether they fancy you, yeah? For some, coming out is the first step on what can be a very arduous journey. The last thing they will likely need are insensitive jokes.
Tip: If jokes are your way of feeling comfortable, ask yourself why you’re feeling uncomfortable. This is probably not the time for a joke, so do something else. Make a cuppa!
Ask whether they want to talk about it.
Similar to acknowledging and thanking them for being open, invite them to speak freely and without interruption. This may be the first time they’ve spoken about their identity. They may have years of stories to tell you or questions to ask you if you’re also LGBTQ. Likewise, ask whether they’re safe and whether they need somewhere to stay. You never know why someone may have come out.
Tip: During the initial coming out stages, a person may come out and then never speak of their identity again. That’s okay, don’t force the process. Allow them space to re-visit it. Tell them you’re here.
Don’t tell them it doesn’t matter.
This isn’t the reassuring message you think it is. Yes, being LGBTQ shouldn’t matter. People should be able to introduce their significant other(s) to their loved ones without the need to come out. But, in a society where two dads on a chip advert gains thousands of complaints, being LGBTQ clearly does matter.
Tip:Instead, tell them that you just want them to be happy and that you still love them. This says that whilst you’re not personally affected, you appreciate them telling you.
Don’t out them!
Whilst coming out for some is like ripping off a plaster – wanting to get it over and done with immediately – this might not necessarily mean they want everyone knowing their business right now. With this, ask whether they’ve told anything else and how it went (depending on their reaction). If they haven’t and they want to, ask if they need any help. This might be being in the same room as them when they come out or being at the end of a phone.
Tip: Asking whether they’ve told anyone else (and their reaction) may also be a good measurement for you and how NOT to react. Listen and make note of any feedback.
Once a person’s identity becomes more common knowledge, whether it’s in the workplace or in your social circle, you may find people’s attitudes change towards that person. This might be down to the way they’ve chosen to express their gender suddenly or their choice of partner(s). Either way, this is your opportunity as a friend and ally to step up.
For example, if someone has come out as Trans* publicly make sure people around you aren’t dead-naming them or mis-gendering them. Even if the other person isn’t in ear shot or even in the same room. There’s a reason why this person chose to come out to you, it’s because they trust you. Don’t let them down.
On the same note, don’t ever assume that this is the first time someone has come out. Quite often for LGBTQ people we come out numerous times – both intentionally and unintentionally. It can be incredibly tiring. Therefore, if someone has trusted you with this information – even if it’s brief – it’s your job to make them feel safe.
If you have any advice, feel free to comment below. Likewise, if you’d like a space to come out – anonymous other otherwise – our virtual doors are always open.