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What to Say (and Not Say!) When Someone Comes Out to You

National Coming Out Day logo by Keith HaringIt’s National Coming Out Day.  Today is a celebration of the strength and courage it takes to be wholly oneself and to publicly identify as queer. Someday we won’t need to come out at gay, lesbian, bi, trans or gender queer, but until then since people are assumed to be straight by a heteronormative and gender binary society, “coming out” is necessary to avoid confusion and to be seen as oneself.

Coming out can happen in many stages. First we have to come out to ourselves, which might be a gradual process or an immediate one. Then we might decide which friends and family members we’d like to tell and how. Conversations over coffee dates? Carefully worded letters? One Facebook update? A grand proclamation over the turkey at Thanksgiving? Queers all choose our own adventures on this one.

And then there is the lifelong process of coming out to new acquaintances. New bosses, colleagues, teachers, doctors…and also casual encounters, like someone who asks about your husband because she doesn’t know that gays put a ring on it, too.  We constantly assess “Should I come out to this person? Is it safe? Do I need to? Do I want to? Can I?”

We can all help each other with coming out. If someone comes out to you, there are some things you that you might want to be ready to say if they feel like they will be appropriate: 

  • First, don’t panic! This can be an heightened, nerve-racking conversation, but your good heart will see you through it, even if it prompts complicated feelings. It’s going to be okay.
  • Start non-verbally. Smile and open your body language. If this is someone close to you and it’s cool, hug her. Take her hand or reach out to her shoulder.
  • Affirm your connection. When you come out, your worse fear is rejection and that everything will change. So really, all you have to say in response to someone’s coming out announcement it an affirmation of acceptance. “I love you/like you so much/respect you.” “Jane, you are amazing and wonderful.” Or if the person coming out to you is the parent of your child’s friend, affirm that you understand and respect why she is coming out to you. “We love it that Caleb is Marcie’s friend at school, and we are loving getting to know you better so he feels safe, understood and cared for around us on playdates.” Something along those lines is manna when someone has risked coming out.
  • Thank them for coming out. If someone comes out to you, it’s a compliment and an honor. You are loved and respected so much that  someone wants you to truly be known to you. Thank him or her for that.
  • Celebrate them. If this is someone who has recently come out to him or herself and is now going public (or wants to come out to some friends or family members) coming out is also a celebration. It is a rite-of-passage and an indicator of self knowledge and self acceptance. Cheer them on. Tell them you are excited to hear this news and are so glad for all it means.
  • Offer support. Assure your friend that you are there for her, that you’ll follow her lead on whatever level of privacy or public acceptance she needs on the topic…and if she came out to you because you made a heterosexual assumption, tell her you’ll work on educating yourself on that issue and your privilege.

Things to avoid saying when someone comes out:

  • Chastising them for not telling you sooner. Please try to understand that assessing when to tell someone can be complicated. Your friend wasn’t lying to you, he was likely trying to protect a very precious thing with privacy until the time was right. If it feels bad or weird, wait to talk about that for another conversation.
  • Asking them if they are sure. Trust your friend’s process. Doubt can sound very much like judgement.
  • Sharing that your religious beliefs or the way you were raised makes this announcement complicated for you. Coming out isn’t about you, it’s about your friend. Do your very best to keep the conversation focused on them. Focus on the fact that they are coming out, not on all of the social, religious or political implications that might be crossing your mind. You can thank someone for coming out without saying whether or not you co-sign every aspect of their lives.
  • Asking nosy questions about their sex life or relationship. Girlfriend, please. Coming out is about identity, not sex…hold your horses until your friend wants to tell you more. Similarly, it might not be the best time to share details of that one time with your sorority sister.
  • Shouting “Duh, I knew it!” Coming out is not a scavenger hunt or a game show, Mr. Know-it-All.  Unless you are sure your friend will appreciate your humor, bite your tongue to avoid insulting her process. Really, all this type of joke reveals is your heterosexual privilege.

These are just some thoughts garnered from my experiences and from hearing from friends about their coming out success and woes. Mostly, if you keep in mind that a coming out conversation is an announcement that creates a real connection between someone’s life and yours, not an invitation to process your every thought and feeling, your instincts will guide you well. Acceptance and connection, that’s all we really hope for when we come out. Champagne cocktails, cigars and confetti, that works too!

[If the person coming out to you is a child, you’ll want more support and information about this topic. PFLAG is a good place to start.]

Check out some of my other posts on Babble Voices: 

Parents as Gender Warriors

Watching Gay Parents on The New Normal

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Read my blog at Deb on the Rocks.

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