At the end of a Pride month in which a lot of people are newly thinking about how to be a good ally, it’s a great occasion to think about how to be an ally to the queer folks in your life year-round—starting with the moment they tell you they are queer.
First, it’s important to know that there’s no singular “coming out” with regard to sexuality—it’s something that those of us who choose to come out have to do over and over again. As Tom Vellner wrote in a BuzzFeed essay, “It isn't a one-step process. I don’t have to sit down at my kitchen table with every new person I meet, like I did with my parents—knees weak, palms sweaty, mom’s spaghetti (wait…)—and explain to them that, yes, I’m queer and, no, it won’t change anything between us. But as long as I exist in a heteronormative world, where the presumption is that I must have a girlfriend because I’m a man, I’ll never stop coming out. It happens whenever I meet a new coworker, whenever I see a new doctor, whenever I talk to a friend of a friend at a party.”
Because coming out happens in so many small, often mundane ways, there’s no single response that’ll work for every situation. Tearfully replying, “I just want you to know how much I love you!!!” isn’t going to be appropriate if you’re, say, working the cash register at Bath & Body Works and a customer mentions the candle she’s buying is for her wife. And a peppy “Cool, got it!” probably isn’t the move when your best friend since childhood sits you down to tell you they are queer. Ultimately, you should try to mirror and respond to the specific individual’s emotional intensity, and to let your established relationship guide you.
When it comes to the more emotional, capital-C–capital-O Coming Out situations, aim to affirm and honor your friend.
Here are some tips to consider:
- Recognize the importance of this moment, and how vulnerable they are being with you by saying something like, “Thank you so much for trusting me with this” or “I feel honored that you chose to share this with me.”
- Say “I think this is really great!” or something else really affirming that communicates that what they are telling you is fundamentally good. And remember to smile.
- If you’re close, it’s OK to ask gentle, non-probing questions—e.g., “I have to admit that I actually don’t know what pansexual means; I can look it up, of course, but I’d love to know what it means to you, if you’re up for sharing.” (Just avoid nosy questions about their body and/or sex.)
- Maybe say, “Is there anything you’d like to do to celebrate?” Recognizing this milestone—whether that’s via drinks, going shopping for a new outfit, getting a tattoo or piercing or haircut, or having a party—lets them know that you are aware of what a big moment this is, and is a way to honor what they’ve just shared.
- It’s really important to let people share their stories on their own terms, and to not accidentally out a friend, even if it’s an attempt to normalize what they’ve told you. On the other hand, they might actually prefer if you share the information with other people in your circle so they don’t have to have really intense coming out conversations with everyone they’ve ever met. The best way to know what they want is to have a conversation about it. So if they haven’t told you how public this information is, you could say something like, “Just to make sure we’re on the same page, can I ask you if other folks in your life know?”
- If you’re not sure what to do next, go with “How can I best support you right now?” It’s really OK to not know exactly what to do or say for a friend, and to simply ask them what they need from you in this moment.
In any coming out conversation—whether it’s intense or fairly casual—what you don’t say is just as important as what you do say.
Here are some things to avoid:
- “I’m not surprised” or “I always knew.” It’s not about you right now!!! Also, it doesn’t feel good to know that other people knew something about you that you didn’t know about yourself, or to learn that the thing you were working so hard to hide was actually obvious to everyone around you. (If the person asks if you knew, you can say something honest but gentle like, “I thought that could maybe be the case, but I wasn’t really sure!”)
- “It’s no big deal!” This kind of response is often well-meaning, but can trivialize a person’s lived experience, or gloss over the fact that they just shared something that is a big deal to them. (In the newest installment of ¡Hola Papi!, JP Brammer gave advice to a reader who was hurt by their loved ones’ neutral reaction to coming out; it’s a good reminder that your friend might be expecting a little more fanfare, or at least something beyond just tolerance.)
- “I love you anyway!” Again, well-intentioned, but it inadvertently communicates that you are doing them a favor, and care about them despite their sexuality.
- “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me!!!” Trust that they had their reasons for telling you when they did. And, again, this isn’t about you.
Be sure to keep showing up for them after that initial conversation, too.
Talking to you is likely just one step in a bigger process; here are some things to keep in mind going forward:
- Follow their lead. If they call themselves a lesbian, use the term lesbian; if they say gay, go with gay. (And don’t whisper it like it's something shameful; say it.) If they refer to the person they are dating as their partner instead of their boyfriend, say partner instead of boyfriend. (And don’t call their partner “your buddy” or “your roommate.”)
- Support their efforts to make more queer friends. Yes, that might mean sometimes you won’t be invited to join a group activity, but try not to take it personally—it’s really, really not.
- If you’ve said or done anti-LGBTQ things in front of your friend in the past, seriously consider apologizing. Don’t make your guilt a Huge Thing for them to manage—they shouldn’t end up comforting you here—or pressure them to accept your apology, but it’s worth owning up to your shortcomings as a friend in this moment. You might say something like, “I also wanted to say I’m sorry for the comments I made about [So-and-So bringing a same-sex date to prom/gay marriage/homosexuality being a sin]. I’m sure that really hurt for you to hear, and made you feel less safe around me. I know it was wrong of me, and I’m so sorry.” If you said things or held beliefs that were particularly harmful, you might also say, “Here’s what I’m doing to educate myself on this topic, so I can be a better [friend/sibling/ally] going forward.”
- Continue to be supportive and affirming. A friend of mine just sent her newly-out niece a Pride care package, which I thought was really thoughtful and cute. This could also look like trying to get to know the person they are dating, or joining your school’s PFLAG group… or simply not pretending this conversation never happened (which happens more than you might think).
- Look out for them. Systemic, pervasive oppression means that LGBTQ people are at higher risk of mental health conditions, suicidality, intimate partner violence, and police violence. Just because you accept your friend doesn’t mean that their family or employer or the world at large does, so keep an eye out for signs that they aren’t doing well.
- Avoid referring to them as your “gay best friend.” You can just say “best friend.” And know that having a queer friend doesn’t give you license to start making jokes about LGBTQ people, or about your friend.
- Don’t try to set them up with the only other queer person you know, who they have absolutely nothing in common with.
- Remember to see your friend's whole self. Being queer is one facet of a person’s identity, but it’s not their entire personality.
Rachel Wilkerson Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People. Follow her on Twitter.