When A Loved One Comes Out
By: Dr. Amy Marschall, Psy.D., Mental Health Columnist
It’s Pride Month, a time when many choose to come out as members of the LGBT+ community. When someone comes out to you, it is important to show them love and support. Family support is an essential protective factor against depression, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation for LGBT+ adolescents, and social support is vital for mental health outcomes. Even though society has made strides in normalizing different identities and orientations, it can still be scary to come out. According to the FBI, hate crimes against LBGT+ individuals in the United States increased in 2020. So, coming out can still be rife with anxiety and uncertainty. How can you create a safe, trusting environment for your loved one who comes out to you?
If someone is coming out for the first time, they might feel scared about how you are going to respond. No matter how you behave in your day-to-day life, they could be concerned about how you will react. Some people might seem supportive but still respond poorly when someone close to them comes out. Know that any apprehension is likely not about you, but rather a reflection on homophobia and transphobia still prevalent in our society.
First, be mindful of your own biases. Do you make jokes about the LGBT+ community? Do you misgender transgendered celebrities? A friend or family member who is considering coming out might not feel like you are a safe person to be open with when they hear these things. Being a source of support means being mindful of what you say and do even if you do not think any members of the community are around.
Other times, you might not be surprised by the news. We live in a world where everyone is assumed to be cisgendered and straight unless otherwise specified, and so many people assume that they fit into this category. Things have improved, and more people are coming into their identities as teens or even in childhood, but some people don’t explore their sexuality or gender identity until well into adulthood. When someone comes out, you might not be surprised, and you might think they were already out to you.
It’s okay to acknowledge that you had a feeling your loved one was LGBT+; indicating that you had a feeling about this information beforehand can put them at ease knowing that you already accepted them as their true self. Just make sure that you do not mock or ridicule them for not realizing sooner.
It is also not helpful to make statements like, “Everyone’s a little bit nonbinary.” Not only is this simply not true, but it invalidates nonbinary people’s identities. Incidentally, this belief could be worth exploring within yourself. Many people do feel like they fit solidly in the category of “man” or “woman.” Maybe you never thought about it before, but it’s never a bad time to explore your own identity!
On the other hand, maybe the information is surprising to you. Maybe you assumed this person was cisgendered and heterosexual, and it did not occur to you that you could be wrong. We are socialized from birth to assume that everyone is straight and cisgendered unless otherwise specified, which means internal biases might cause you to make assumptions. Besides, prior to coming out, an individual might hide their identity, so it would make sense that you did not make the connection before they told you. That does not mean you are a bad friend, sibling, or relative. However, it is important to remember that each person is the expert on themselves, and it is not anyone’s place to police other’s identities.
Zachary Rinstatler, a trans genderfluid human who is working toward their degree in psychology, shared with me, “The first person I told I wanted to buy a binder & experiment with my presentation told me I was appropriating transness. … She also openly admitted to me that she was testing me to make sure I was worthwhile to have as a friend.” Apparently, this friend felt that Zachary was not “really trans” based on her perception of them. (Zachary told me that the person who doubted their transness was not transgendered.)
What if someone comes out more than once? Getting to know yourself and coming into your identity is a lifelong journey, and we might identify with one label but then shift to another later. This does not mean we were being dishonest before, just that we have gotten to know ourselves on another level. Someone might identify as a trans man and later realize that they are nonbinary. Someone might identify as gay and later realize that they are bisexual or pansexual. That is okay! We need to normalize exploring our identities, which means trying on different labels and seeing what fits.
If someone identifies with a specific label, this is fine. If someone wants to explore their identity, sexual orientation, or gender, this is fine also. When a friend or family member shares information with you about themselves, responding with acceptance and support shows them that you are someone they can trust.