There are few things I have found more singularly terrifying in my life than coming out as a lesbian at age 40. Parallel parking on my driving test? Nope. Giving a welcome speech in front of hundreds of incoming families in college? Not close. Hitchhiking on a potato truck to the rain forest and hoping I wouldn’t get abducted and forced into a lifetime of peeling? No comparison.
Do I Have to Come Out?
Coming out as queer was scary, even to those I knew would love me no matter what. And each time I had to come out (which seemed like a daily occurrence given the number of folks I interact with), the fear never lessened. Because the truth is, at that moment of sharing my truth I feel like a raw, open wound; extra sensitive to the reaction I am about to receive. And while nearly everyone’s intentions have been good ones, there are some words that heal more than others. Here’s my short list of the words that positively impacted me the most. If you have more, please share them in the comments so that we can grow together.
“Thank you for trusting enough to tell me. I’m so glad you shared.”
Hearing this is like a verbal hug. I share something scary and get a “thanks” in return?! When somebody responds to my truth with this, it always makes me feel less like I am burdening them with information, and more like we have strengthened our bond as friends. This response feels like an acceptance and a celebration, wrapped in one. It's a VIP ticket to my inner circle of friendship.
“That must have been really hard” or “That was really brave of you to share.”
This was another one that threw me for a loop and felt like a cup of comfort. Being queer is hard. Being acknowledged for having gone through something hard (that most likely the person has done completely in private), feels validating. Struggle becomes strength. For the late-to-gay crowd, this one can be particularly heartwarming, as for many of us, coming out means completely changing every aspect of our lives. Acknowledgment that we put a lot at risk to live our truths further corroborates that our hard decision was the correct decision.
“Congratulations! How are you feeling?”
This sets the tone as positive and accepting right off the bat while giving the sharer time to process the emotions at that moment. It also invites more conversation and sharing, which feels so good after sitting around in a dingy, dark closet for so long. When I would hear this response, it would often help solidify in my mind that coming out was a positive thing. It would also remind me that coming out can feel good and empowering. Having the ability to verbalize that with someone after sharing myself felt like further proof that everything was going to be gay-okay.
What NOT to Say to a Friend
And what’s the number one phrase from a friend that felt like a punch in the gut after coming out? When people respond with, “Are you sure?”
Ouch! Am I sure? Am I sure I know what I like? Am I sure I know who I'm attracted to? Am I sure I know what turns me on and what doesn't? When a straight person divulges that they're dating someone of another gender, do we question them about the nature of their attraction?
"Are you sure" is more of the question you ask when a drunken friend orders a fish fillet sandwich from McDonald's in the wee hours of the night. That choice has consequences they may regret. However, ordering a fish fillet is a choice, not the core of who they are as a person.
On the contrary, coming out is not some flippant decision that people figured would be fun to try. Although there may be a sparse few that are “playing gay” because they feel it’s trendy or are queerbaiting for attention, the majority of people who have the courage to come out DO actually fall somewhere on the LGBTQ+ spectrum.
Questioning the validity of someone’s feelings and calling their fears into question is not appropriate, and especially not in the moment of coming out. Any questions you have regarding your own curiosity about their situation may potentially be discussed at another time if they’re up for it. For now, though, just savor the fact that you were special enough and wonderful enough for them to share their truth. Your support matters.
Treating our LGBTQ+ Allies Well
Perhaps the hardest thing about being an ally (or working to become an ally) to the LGBTQ+ community is that we don’t always have the language to know what to say. That’s okay. A willingness to learn and ask questions will carry you so much further than making assumptions or avoiding conversations. In today’s hyper-sensitive society, some people prefer to stay silent than risk saying the wrong thing or offending. The best thing we can do as members of the LGBTQ+ community is to offer everyone grace and space to learn and grow. We will all be better off in the long run.