Your friend she "needs to talk." She takes a deep breath and tells you the news: She's gay. So ... what happens next? There are plenty of resources out there for LGBTQ+ people on how to come out. But if you're straight, it can be harder to know how to support a friend who's coming out as a member of the LGBTQ+ community — no matter how much of an ally you are.
“Coming out can be such a delicate and vulnerable process,” Beck Liatt LMSW, a psychotherapist at MyTherapyNYC, tells Bustle. If they’re choosing to share this with you, they’re asking for your support and love during a complicated period. Afraid you’re going to say or do the wrong thing? Here's how you can help support a friend who's coming out.
What To Say When Someone Comes Out
If your friend drops the news that they're gay casually into conversation and appears to want to minimize fuss, now is not the time to scream, draw attention to it, or throw them a party (however much you might like to). An "Oh, really? Cool!" is all that might be required or appreciated. Follow their cues here. This is their moment, not yours.
“One thing you can do to help a friend coming out is simply to acknowledge this truth with them,” Liatt says. “Naming the courage and vulnerability it takes to be public with your authentic self can be very validating.” If they've clearly gone through a huge process to get to this point and have made a big deal of telling you, some fuss and celebration may be in order.
A lot of support during the coming-out process should center around letting them express how they're feeling and what the experience is like. “For many, one of the most important aspects of coming out is the ability to begin to live life authentically — as the person who they were meant to be,” Dr. Rachel O'Neill Ph.D. LPCC-S, a therapist with Talkspace, tells Bustle. “Giving your friend space to talk, to share with you what they want you to know about who they are, is perhaps the single most important strategy to support them through the coming out process.” Validate their identity by using the terminology they choose — gay, lesbian, queer, bi, asexual, or whatever else.
Ask Sensitive Questions
If they want to talk about how they got to this point, ask sensitive questions, like 'So how are you feeling?', or 'How long have you known?' “Asking questions can communicate interest and support of their coming out process,” O’Neill says. “However, try to avoid asking invasive or overly personal questions; instead, let your friend be in control of what they choose to share with you.” She suggests questions that communicate your interest in being a supportive part of their life, like ‘How can I support you?’ and ‘What do you need from me right now?’
Don’t Divert Or Diffuse
This is not the time to tell them about your amazing uncle Ben who came out in the '80s and has had a delightful husband for 30 years. If they ask about the gay people in your life, go ahead and tell them — but until then, keep your trap shut. This is also not the time to ask get upset at them for not telling you earlier, or to be smug about the fact that you’ve known for 10 years.
Be Respectful Of Them & Their Trust
You've been involved in the intimate details of this person's identity and personal life, at a massive and sometimes very scary time. That's a huge honor. Thank them for it, and don’t tell them that they might be confused or need more time. Remember to keep your social boundaries in check. Excited or curious enquiries about their love life, sex life, how their family reacted, and other intensely private things are no-nos. You might be curious, but if it wouldn't be cool for straight friends, it's not cool now, either.
Build Their Chosen Family
If their family of origin is unsupportive of their identity, Liatt says, you can assist. “Help build a chosen family with them,” she says. “Offer to accompany them to queer events or meetups they may not feel comfortable going to alone. These events are where they will likely find support, mirroring, and community. If your friend is too shy to go alone, accompany them!” There are, obviously, certain bits you can't help with, but a friend at their side encouraging them might be what they need.
Ask What Level Of Openness They’d Like
O’Neill advises letting your friend be in control. “Coming out as LGBTQIA+ is a uniquely personal and individualized process. Don’t assume that because they have chosen to come out to you, that they are necessarily ready to come out to others.” Liatt says this is particularly important for transgender people. “Referring to your trans friend with the correct pronouns to strangers may feel like the respectful thing to do, but without consent from your friend, you may be putting them in an uncomfortable situation,” she says. And it can also be dangerous. “Don’t out your friend to others without permission.” O’Neill also says you shouldn’t assume their coming out will be like other peoples’ processes; they may be faster, slower, and more or less open.
Offer Resources (If They Ask For Them)
If they seem to be struggling, have some resources on hand — on-campus LGBTQ+ collectives, helplines, online support communities, even TV shows — that they might appreciate. Use your judgement on this one, though, and don't force a flyer down their throat. “One type of therapy I think is wildly underrated is friendship therapy,” Liatt says. “Going to a queer and trans centering practice can offer a space for your friend who has just come out to vocalize how to best support them.”
Beck Liatt LMSW
Dr. Rachel O’Neill Ph.D. LPCC-S
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