October 11 is National Coming Out Day in the United States. For people who have realized their gender identity or sexual orientation is not what others have assumed it to be, Coming Out Day can be a time to stand up with other brave people and share who they are.
When someone comes out to you – even on a day dedicated to just that – it can still come as a surprise. To prepare you to respond in a respectful, positive way, here are a few easy Do’s and Don’ts for what to say if and when someone comes out to you.
Do Acknowledge the Courage it Takes
Even within open and supportive families and communities, coming out to another person can be scary. When someone comes out they risk much more than rejection. They may receive strong emotions like shock, disgust, anger, denial, hurt, and disappointment from people they love or rely on. They may be subject to prying or inappropriate questions, or be forced to rebut false stereotypes or mistaken assumptions.
Some may even find themselves in physical danger.
Therefore, when someone comes out to you, take a moment to appreciate the hope and trust they feel toward you. Tell them you understand coming out takes courage. Congratulate them not just on sharing who they are, but also on the journey of self-discovery that brought them to their Coming Out Day.
Don’t Assume They’ve Come Out to Anyone Else
When someone comes out to you, the information they share should stay between you and them unless they tell you otherwise. Ask how they would like you to treat what they’ve told you. Maybe you’re the only person they plan to come out to for a while, or maybe they’d like your help telling friends and family. Every coming out process is unique, but it always involves personal and private information that deserves to be treated with respect.
Don’t Make the Moment About You
Many people are tempted to say something like “I always knew!” when someone comes out to them. At first, that might seem like a supportive and affirming thing to say, but it can actually feel pretty hurtful. It might bring up anxiety that their identity is known or suspected by unsupportive or hostile people in their life, and it might make them feel ashamed of the preparation and thought they put into the conversation they’re having with you.
More importantly, if you’re not sure how you feel about what they share with you, save those feelings for later. Unless someone clearly expresses interest in you or asks for your involvement in their life in a new way, your personal views or emotions aren’t what’s important: on this day, theirs take precedence. Tell them you might have questions you’d like to ask later, then do some research on your own and find a respectful way to discuss those topics in the future if you need to.
Do Let Them Lead the Conversation
Some people want to have a long conversation when they come out, and some people just want to say what they need to say and move on. When someone comes out to you, ask if they want to talk about how things have been with their family, coworkers, or friends, but don’t push them to share any more than they want to. The same goes for details of their dating life or transition plans: if they’d like to talk more, ask if you’re curious. But if the answer is no, respect that boundary.
Do Ask How You Can Help
For some people, coming out triggers big changes in their life right away. They might need to find new housing or a different job. Relationships they’ve had with people for their entire life might suddenly end. Be sure to ask if there are any immediate needs you can help them meet.
One of the biggest worries people have about coming out is that they’ll lose the relationship they have with the person they come out to. Check in with them a little more often in the weeks after they come out to reassure them you still value your relationship and care about their well-being.
Coming Out is Only the First Step
When someone shares their gender identity or sexual orientation with another person, that isn’t the end of their journey. Coming out is something that many LGBTQ people have to do over and over throughout their lives. But if you take the opportunity to affirm their courage, focus on them, and ask what they need from you, you’ll be doing your part to make their coming out day something to celebrate.