Oct. 11 is National Coming Out Day, which makes it a great time to consider how you’ll respond if someone in your life comes out to you now or in the future.
Whether you consider yourself an ally or are in the LGBTQ+ community, here’s advice for what to say (and not say) so your friend feels supported, seen and heard — because no two coming outs are the same.
How to support someone who comes out
No two coming out experiences are alike, just as no two queer or trans people are the same. The other aspects of someone’s identity — such as age, ability, race, economic status, which language(s) they speak, and more — will likely impact how and when they come out, says Genya Shimkin, an assistant teaching professor for the UW School of Medicine who specializes in LGBTQ+ education and health justice. Shimkin uses she/her and they/them pronouns.
It’s important to recognize that no one owes you information about their sexual orientation or gender identity. If they do decide to confide in you, that means they trust you, but not confiding in you doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t trusted, it just means the person may not be ready or interested in doing so.
How you respond will depend on those things as well as your relationship with the person. That said, there are some universal things that are good to do.
Let the person know you appreciate them trusting you. You can say something like, “Thank you for trusting me with this information.”
“If someone decides that they feel confident enough and they trust you, it’s a gift,” Shimkin points out.
She adds that you can also ask the person how they’re feeling about sharing.
Remember, the person is still the same person you’ve always known — now you just know a new facet of their identity.
Ask what pronouns they use
Especially if someone comes out as transgender, nonbinary, genderqueer or gender diverse in some way, it’s important to ask what pronouns they use. Say “use” rather than “prefer” because the latter assumes correct pronoun use is optional rather than critical to identity.
Pro-tip: When possible, it’s also great to ask people in everyday situations about the pronouns they use, even if they didn’t just come out to you. Feel free to offer yours, too.
There are a few ways to do this: First, you can ask the person how they want to be supported. Some people may want support and others may just want to tell you and then move on.
“And don’t ever act surprised: That tells us you assumed we weren’t queer or trans; that it hadn’t occurred to you as a possibility. Practice your poker face,” Shimkin says.
It’s also fine to ask someone what this process — of coming out, of self-discovery — has been like for them.
Offer them a way out
If you want to ask someone more about how they identify, make it clear they don’t have to answer. Ask them, “Is it OK If I ask you about this?” or “Are you comfortable sharing this?”
“If someone feels pressured or obligated to answer, that might be a difficult conversation for them to feel comfortable in — this is especially true if there’s a power dynamic at play,” Shimkin says.
Giving context as to why you’re asking can be helpful, too. For example, if you’re curious how the person’s family supported them (or not) because one of your kids just came out to you, make sure the person knows that (instead of them thinking you’re just being nosy).
Use ring theory
If you’re struggling with someone’s coming out, that’s OK. But it’s important you don’t burden the person who came out with your own emotions.
Shimkin cites a psychological theory called ring theory that proposes during any major life event there are rings surrounding it of people who are closest to them and the event, then people who are further out, and so on, like ripples in a pond.
“When something happens, you have to consider your proximity to the pain and big feelings. Whenever you’re talking to someone who’s closer to that significant event, process your feelings on your own or with someone who is further away from the event,” she explains.
Shimkin uses a personal example to illustrate this point. When they came out to their mom, their mom offered support and affirmation, and processed her complex emotions by talking with a therapist.
“It’s OK to miss the person you thought they were and to have complex feelings and need to work through it,” they say. “When something big happens, you are allowed to have whatever feelings you have about it but not allowed to make them the queer or trans person’s problem.”
What not to do when someone comes out
There are a few things to avoid saying or doing after someone comes out to you — and important reasons why they should be avoided.
Don’t out them to someone else
Assume the person has only come out to you and no one else. It’s also OK to ask if they’re out to anyone else or in other areas of their life. Some people may be out with friends but not at work or with family, for example.
This is a matter of safety for the person. They may have people in their life who would mistreat them for being in the LGBTQ+ community — and you don’t want to break the person’s confidence or put them in a dangerous situation.
If other people who know the person spread rumors or try to pry information out of you, don’t give in. Just say that it isn’t your business and gossiping about someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity isn’t cool.
Remember the “no one owes you information” thing? That applies to the details of their experience, too. There are plenty of reputable sources on the internet — such as the Human Rights Campaign, Trevor Project, Them, and the Center for LGBTQ Health Equity — that offer helpful information about many different types of LGBTQ+ experiences and aspects of the culture.
Don’t make it all about sex
Even if someone is coming out to you about their sexual orientation, that doesn’t reduce the conversation to being just about how they like to have sex — despite what some people may believe. Queerness goes much deeper than that.
“Straight cis people sometimes reduce coming out to be only about sex, but it’s actually about history, culture, politics and the way queer people want the world to be,” Shimkin says.
Don’t assume it’s a phase
This is especially important when children come out or express feelings other than heterosexual, cisgender ones.
“Don’t assume they’re too young to know. We know some kids have an inherent sense of self from 2 or 3 — I absolutely have friends who knew they were queer at 5 and they’re still queer as hell,” Shimkin says, who also knew they were gender nonconforming at a young age.
It’s also essential not to make assumptions about adults. No matter what age someone is when they come out, they may still have more to discover about themselves or they may not, and either is fine.
“These things can be fluid and change over time, and that’s fine, but they don’t need someone questioning if it’s just a phase — don’t trivialize their experience or knowledge of self. Even if it is a phase, that’s fine. And for most of us it’s not a phase. It’s an important time of exploration,” they say.
Does someone have to come out?
Finally, not everyone can or wants to come out. Some people might not be in a living situation where it’s safe, others may still be figuring out their identity and others may feel it’s private information.
Though coming out can be a meaningful experience, it is also a social construct based on a society where being heterosexual and cisgender is the “norm.”
“People come out to correct inaccurate assumptions. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the default was not to make those assumptions in the first place?” Shimkin says.