There’s no one right way to go about the delicate conversation, but there are things it’s better off without
For the LGBTQIA+, being out is a crucial part of being able to live authentically.
Doing so under safe, reassuring circumstances, in particular, can easily be a queer person’s first taste of empowerment on the individual level. Yet the fact remains that the process of coming out can more easily disempower. This happens when those on the receiving end, usually caught off guard, trip and fall into antiquated thought. Perhaps they react in ways that invalidate feelings, steal focus, or minimize the queer experience rather than acknowledge, accept and create a safe space.
It’s for this reason that the coming out experience can be fraught. In this day and age, however, there are ways for current (or soon-to-be) allies of the LGBTQIA+ community to better prepare, better react and better participate. There’s no one right way to go about the delicate conversation, but here are just some statements that it can certainly do without:
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“Do you think this could pass?”
When someone comes out to you, your first order of business isn’t to ask questions that invalidate the very identity they had just mustered up the courage to share. Sure, you might think the innocent inquiry is acceptable since gender is fluid, but there is such thing as non-urgent, non-essential questions. This is a primary example.
Know that you are there, first and foremost, to listen; then, to see how you can extend support if needed. One thing is clear: questioning their reality is in no way a show of support.
“Are you sure?”
Coming out is not an easy journey on a singular, straight path. Not all that come out are certain about where they fall on the gender spectrum, for example, and might be coming to you for support and enlightenment. “Are you sure?” does not lead to clarity as well-meaning as the question might be. You’re better off saying: “If you’re comfortable, can you tell me about how you came to this realization about yourself?”
This way, you can either show support by reaffirming their identity or be the soundboard with which a queer person can work through any lingering questions on their own.
“But I know someone who…”
When someone comes out to you, the general rule is to be mindful of your “buts.” With experiences that involve a vulnerable opening up anyway, the space isn’t yours to fill with unhelpful hypotheticals or cherry-picked anecdotes.
“But I know someone who dated girls for a bit then got married to a man later on.”
“But the pastor at our church says people like you are just experimenting.”
The list goes on. Nip statements involving other people in the bud. This isn’t about them.
“I knew it.”
Along with non-urgent, non-essential questions come non-urgent, non-essential declarations like, “I knew it.”
The idea of a gaydar is so deeply embedded in pop culture and society that no one bats an eye when it’s used either lightheartedly, in passing or for comedic effect. But what this does is it takes away from the fact that a person’s sexual orientation is theirs and only theirs to confirm. Gender stereotypes be damned.
“Does this mean you’re going to start…”
For lesbians, the usual roll call of ignorant questions might include: “Does this mean you’re cutting your hair short?” For gay people: “Does this mean you’re going to start wearing makeup?”
Well-meaning or not, these are trivial questions that are better left unasked. Here, you run the risk of sounding like a pseudo-ally obsessed with optics and outworn gender binaries more so than anything else. Refocus your attention instead on the actual person opening up to you about their unique human experience.
Without the ability to live their truth, the cards are only further stacked against members of the LGBTQIA+. As it stands, “between 30% and 60% of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals or transgender people deal with anxiety and depression at some point in their lives,” according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA). This rate is “1.5 to 2.5 times higher than that of their straight or gender-conforming counterparts.”
But it gets better for those with the privilege to come out to supportive friends and family. A 2013 study found: “Lesbians, gays, and bisexuals who were out and open about their sexuality had fewer signs of anxiety, depression, and burnout (i.e. emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and feelings of personal accomplishment).”
So when a person does come forward with their coming out story, there’s a chance for you to improve the statistic and, more importantly, the life of a loved one. Maybe all it takes, too, is one statement: “Thank you for coming out to me. You’re safe here.”
Art Matthew Ian Fetalver