Chances are, if you know other human beings, you know someone who is queer. Since we still live in a heteronormative culture in the United States (aka a culture where it is assumed from birth that you will be heterosexual), many queer people go through the process of coming out. Coming out can be a complicated process – often, it’s ruled by fear and shame, but it can also be a celebratory time. Many people fear losing their loved ones if they tell the truth. It can be a weight off of a queer person’s shoulders to be able to tell the truth about who they are. It can be a surprise to learn something new about someone you know. Our culture is becoming more accepting of LGBTQ folks, but there is still a lot of unlearning we have to do before the stigma is gone.
Having to hide something fundamental about yourself can lead to grief. Many queer folks experience some level of homophobia on an external level, but there is also internalized homophobia to deal with. When we grow up in a culture that tells us being straight is the norm, realizing you’re not straight can cause complicated feelings to come up internally as well. Even if we don’t believe it on a conscious level, the message we get in our culture is that being gay is weird or shameful, so it’s hard to completely avoid that, even for out + proud LGBTQ people.
Understanding that there are larger cultural forces at work than just an individual’s decision might help you come to terms with why coming out can be such a struggle. The pull between being your authentic self and risking the rejection of everyone you love is agonizing.
If someone comes out to you, there are some important things to keep in mind to make sure the experience is a positive one and not traumatic. Here are some things to keep in mind when someone comes out to you:
Remember it’s an honor
When someone comes out to you, they’re trusting you with their true self. Many queer folks have to make hard decisions about who it is safe to come out to. LGBTQ people run the risk of losing their relationships, being rejected, being discriminated against, and being misunderstood when they make the choice to come out. Even if this is not how you feel, it’s important to recognize that someone coming out to you is an honor. This means they feel safe enough around you to share this important information.
Never ever out someone
There are absolutely zero circumstances where it is okay to out someone without their permission. Outing someone without permission is an act of violence. LGBTQ folks face a lot of discrimination and violence in the world, and sharing this fact about them with others can lead to more of it. They get to decide when to come out and to whom. Remember, someone who is out to you might not be out to others. Many queer folks are out in social spaces, but not at work or in their family lives. Coming out is a personal decision that should only be made by the person themselves.
Ask who knows (so you don’t accidentally out someone)
Related to the last point, when someone comes out to you, make sure to ask who knows. This is an important step to make sure that you don’t accidentally out someone. Ask if there are certain people who don’t know. Make sure you understand exactly who you can talk to about this. If you’re not sure, err on the side of caution and don’t say anything.
Don’t make it about you
Sometimes to help us understand things, we relate them to situations we’ve experienced ourselves. This is not the time to do that. Someone’s coming out is not an opportunity for you to make the situation about yourself or your reaction. If you’re having a hard time with the news, wait until you’re no longer with them before you begin to process your feelings. It’s okay for you to have your own reaction, but don’t add your reaction to their to-do list.
Remember they haven’t changed
Even after someone has come out, they are still the same person. They are just able to stop hiding their true selves. Instead of feeling as though you’ve lost something, remind yourself that you’ve gained something more precious: their trust.
Just because someone has come out to you doesn’t mean that you can let all social graces fly out the window. It’s still inappropriate to ask people invasive questions about their sex life, their body, their medical history, their plans for having children, or other private matters. Even if they’re choosing to share one aspect of their lives with you, that doesn’t mean that you have unlimited access to everything. Remember your manners!
Too often coming out is seen as a bad thing, and that’s because of our largely homophobic culture. While the tide does seem to be turning and LGBTQ folks are more accepted these days, many people still see coming out as losing something rather than fully stepping into who you are. Coming out doesn’t need to be a devastating experience but it is way too often because people see being queer as a bad thing (even if it’s subconscious). Let’s celebrate people who come out instead of seeing it as something taboo. Throw them a party! Take them out for a special dinner, or write them a card about how excited you are to know them even better. A positive loving response to coming out can go a long way to making an LGBTQ person feel affirmed and safe.