LGBT Topics: Coming out

While many queer individuals find coming out of the closet to be a liberating experience, taking that step can still be a daunting challenge. Most of the time, before making a large-scale announcement, a member of the LGBTQ community will come out to a friend, and that friend’s response can be tremendously significant. It can either pave the way for a smoother, easier coming-out process, or it can instigate doubts that plague the process moving forward.

Below, I will give some general tips to help you react appropriately, respectfully and constructively if a friend trusts you enough to disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity to you.

If a friend comes out to you, the most important message to convey is that they made the right decision in doing so. That means, first and foremost, making it clear that your friendship has not changed while at the same time avoiding even positive phrases (such as “I accept you”), which can make it seem like your acceptance was not guaranteed.

Moreover, it is essential that you prove yourself to be trustworthy by refraining from exposing your friend’s sexuality/gender identity to others. You can offer to help them begin the coming-out conversation with others, but you should be careful not to pressure them to begin those conversations, and you should not initiate those conversations on your own prerogative. It is up to your friend to decide with whom, if anyone, they are comfortable confiding in.

When trying to convey support to a friend, it is imperative that you be deliberate with your language. Sexual orientation and gender are not choices, and queerness is not a phase. Implying that your friend’s coming out marks a decision about themselves, as opposed to a realization about something that was already true, is insulting and inaccurate.

At the same time, gender and sexuality can be fluid; some people lean further masculine or feminine with each new day, for example, and others take years to fully understand their own sexuality. It is not uncommon for someone to initially come out as gay, but later realize that they are in fact pansexual. Don’t make your friend feel that they are locked into whatever gender or sexuality they told you they were; it may be more complicated than even they realize.

On the same note, preferred gender pronouns (PGPs) are very important. Especially with a friend who comes out to you as trans*, you should establish if they prefer masculine pronouns (he/him/his), feminine pronouns (she/her/hers), gender-neutral pronouns (they/them/theirs) or others. Never refer to them as “it.”

More often than not, a trans* individual would prefer to be referred to by their gender identity than by their biological sex. For example, if your friend is physically male but identifies as a girl, they will likely prefer feminine pronouns. Being careful about these sorts of linguistic distinctions can help you avoid miscommunications or implied judgments.

Finally, offering to help them learn about their sexuality/gender can be very meaningful, though it is important to keep it within reason. Sometimes LGBTQ individuals are able to find a term that fits them well, whether that is a specific term such as “bisexual” or a broader umbrella term such as “queer” or “trans*” that denotes a wide spectrum of sexualities and identities. Taking some time to research terms with your friend can be immensely helpful, and it is also a good way to show that you care about their sexuality/gender without being intrusive.

You may also help them get in touch with the Boston Alliance for Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Youth (BAGLY), the high school’s Gay Trans* Straight Alliance (GTSA), or other local organizations that may have answers that your friend is looking for. Before offering this kind of assistance, however, be sure to ask if your friend would find it useful.

All of these tips are meant to help you demonstrate to your friend that they can confide in you and that you want to help them come out to others if/when they feel ready. Communicating that point is crucial and will be the basis of your ability to support a friend in this vital process.

 Ben Gladstone can be contacted at [email protected]