"How should I respond if a friend comes out to me?"
I’m straight, but I have some gay friends, and twice now people I’m close to have chosen me to be the one they tell first. I get tongue-tied and am not sure how to be helpful or what they want me to say. Any suggestions?
Since friends are singling you out to be the recipient of this news, I’m going to guess that you’re a trustworthy and supportive sort of person. Which is a great contrast with what happened when I told my best straight male friend in college that I was gay. He turned away and we really never spoke again. Believe me when I say I was hurt — and angry.
This past summer I visited more than thirty cities and towns, on the coasts and in the heartland, talking about my new book on gay and lesbian life and heard again and again how challenged many straight moms and dads, friends and co-workers, neighbors and siblings are when someone they care for says, “Yep, I’m gay.”
More than anywhere, I was touched by the dozen mothers who ventured to Schuler’s Books & Music in Lansing, Michigan — in the midst of a tornado warning, no less — wanting desperately to know more so that they could do right — and not become a victim of “foot-in-mouth” disease. One feared that her husband would "lash out in anger" at their son; another didn’t know how to explain to the rest of her extended family that her daughter is a lesbian.
By and large, the straight folks I met this summer had big hearts — but many harbored all kinds of fears, misinformation, and prejudices. Some of the questions I heard, included: "Is it a phase?" (No.) "Can they become straight?" (No.) "Will I have grandchildren?" (There are millions of kids in same-sex families today.) "Is being gay a choice?" (Try asking yourself when you chose to be straight and you’ll understand why the answer is "no.")
For all of you who may be part of someone’s coming out talk this week or sometime soon, here’s my collected advice called “Do This/Not That:”
THANK THEM FOR TELLING YOU: Someone just told you the biggest secret of their lives. Think about that before you do or say anything. Your first reaction matters. They’re likely terrified you’ll reject them or lose respect for them. Then, when you’ve caught your breath, thank them for sharing and trusting you with this deeply personal information. Smile, or if it feels right, give them a hug. By the way, it’s ok to have the exact reaction you’re having – whatever it is.
BE CIVIL NO MATTER WHAT YOUR BELIEFS: Even if words of support or encouragement aren't in your heart or vocabulary right now, put yourself in their shoes. If you’re confused or upset, explain that you need some time to digest the new information. It’s far better to say, “Can you give me a minute or a couple of days” than to show anger, disappointment, or worse. Did I mention they’re terrified of your reaction?
FEEL FREE TO ASK QUESTIONS: If “congratulations” or a hug doesn’t feel right to you, or if your head is spinning with the news you just learned, go ahead and ask questions. The person coming out to you has done their homework and set the stage. They’re ready; you’re not. It’s entirely natural to have inquiries – lots of them. Questions like “Who else knows” and “Are you seeing someone special” are vastly more appropriate than “Is it a phase?” or “How do you know?”
OFFER TO BE A SOUNDING BOARD: Believe me, it will be appreciated. Are there other questions to address, like, “Will your parents continue to pay for your education?” or “Is your job safe?” Be a resource for them as they build the strength to tell other friends, co-workers or family members. Sometimes just being a supportive ear is the best thing for someone just coming out. Every time someone comes out it gets easier; you can help them with that.
LEARN ABOUT PFLAG: If you find that you need more support or resources yourself, find a local chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), which has been inviting moms and dads of gay kids to cry on its shoulders, find support, meet others like themselves, and become more educated about the LGBT people in their lives. There are chapters in all 50 states and overseas. It may take you time to assimilate the news. Give yourself a break, but find out the facts and connect with others.
DON’T TELL OTHERS: Until you ask and get permission, don't share the news of someone's sexual orientation with others. It’s not your business – even if you’re asked. For gay people, there are many degrees of being out -- some teens are out to their parents, but not at school; to their closest friends and online, but not at home. Others may be out in their personal lives but not at work. Don’t make assumptions. Always ask whether this information is private or can be shared, and if so, with whom. Once someone is outed they can’t go back in. (And be careful about revealing someone’s sexual orientation on Facebook. Ask before tagging.)
DON’T LET OTHERS BULLY LGBT PEOPLE. If friends or co-workers make anti-gay jokes or are bullies, call them out on it. You don’t need to humiliate anyone, but we all need to speak up on behalf of each other. You can say: “I really don’t think that’s funny” or “That offends me” or “You know better than that.” Remember: Bullies take strength from those who don't stand up to them.
DON’T BE TWO-FACED: There’s nothing worse than telling a friend who’s come out to you that you’re a supporter – and then mocking or disparaging them behind their backs – to other friends or on social media.
DON’T USE AN INCORRECT PRONOUN (for someone who is transgender): If someone comes out trans, don't continue to refer to them by their 'old' pronoun or former name. For instance, Chaz Bono is now Cher's son (he's no longer Chastity nor Cher's daughter) and it's proper to refer to him as 'he.' This is a sign of respect -- address someone as they wish to be addressed. Sure, it may take you some time to get it right – fortunately, good intentions do count.
Confused about coming out, dating, sex, and love? Find all the answers here - makes a great reference guide for you, and a great gift for the straight people in your life who need a little guidance.
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