A licensed clinical social worker discusses the experience of “coming out” and how you can support and be an ally to LGBTQ+ family members and friends.
People don’t “come out” just once. They come out again and again, in various aspects of life, whether they’ve started a new job or made a new friend, says Christopher Huff, LCSW, behavioral health specialist at Haddonfield Primary & Specialty Care, an LGBTQ+ Affirming Practice.
If a loved one comes out to you, and you’ve never personally known someone in the LGBTQ+ community, you might feel confused in terms of how to best support them.
Whether you are a parent, friend, significant other – or even a stranger – below are a few tips you can implement into your conversations, and everyday life, to become a stronger ally:
1. Make your dialogue gracious and intentional.
“If you approach a conversation from a genuine space of wanting to understand, most people will be open to sharing,” said Huff. “Your intention should be to learn, not to judge.”
For parents, it may help to preface a conversation with the point that you’re not trying to be intrusive, suggests Huff. Try to speak in a respectful tone; create a safe, comforting space; and give them the floor to say what they need to say.
2. Avoid invasive questions; ask thoughtful ones.
More times than not, “it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it,” rings true, says Huff. However, overtly personal questions about sexual activity or genitalia – that you, yourself, wouldn’t want to be asked – are not okay.
Questions to avoid:
- Are you a “top” or “bottom?”
- Who “wears the pants?”
- (For bisexual people) Are you gay/lesbian and you’re just not ready? | Are you confused? (Questions as such contribute to “bi-erasure,” or the dismissal of the bi identity.)
- (For transgender people) But why did you transition? | Why do you want me to use those pronouns? | Did you have a sex change?
Questions that are encouraged:
- How can I be a better ally?
- How can I support you on your journey?
- What do you need?
3. Listen and validate.
Validation is incredibly important when acknowledging a person’s unique identity, explains Huff, and it further shows that you care: “Trust a person’s lived experiences – that they’re not lying to you. Know that their life is real.”
4. Do your research.
Why wouldn’t you learn about someone you love?, questions Huff. “This is someone’s life. It’s not a phase. It’s not to be minimized.”
Doing research helps us use correct language and learn why equal access to things, such as healthcare, is necessary. When you read studies that transgender youth whose pronouns are respected are nearly 50 percent less likely to commit suicide, or that more than 50 percent of LGBTQ+ people are likely to experience slurs and sexual harassment, it calls attention to why support is so important.
5. Confront your prejudices and biases.
When someone comes out to you, your primary task is to be supportive, Huff says. If you feel you might have an ingrained prejudice or bias – which many of us do – try to reflect on why you believe it and allow those thoughts to evolve.
What many don’t realize is that we have prejudices in our language that we must make a conscious effort to change, explains Huff. “‘Tolerant’ and ‘accepting’ are two words related to the LGBTQ+ community that may sound positive on the surface, but they really imply that there’s something negative about a person that you have to ‘put up with.’”
6. Watch for warning signs of emotional troubles.
Reports have shown significantly high rates of mental health complications among LGBTQ+ individuals. Warning signs of anxiety, depression, and/or substance abuse will be the same as those who aren’t members of the community:
- Withdrawal from activities once enjoyed
- Trouble Concentrating
- Using substances, such as alcohol, alone and/or in response to problems.
If you notice these signs in a loved one, you, yourself can offer to talk with them or recommend professional help, says Huff. It’s important to find a professional who is experienced with and affirming of the LGBTQ+ community.
*If you suspect someone is at risk for suicide, call 9-1-1 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
Additional Tips for Self-Support:
- Surround yourself with affirming people who understand what you are going through.
- Validate yourself. Your identity is real. Who you love is real. You are not a problem.
- Be mindful of the amount of negative news you consume. You can’t read all of it. It can and will impact your mental health.
- Talk about your mental health; don’t keep it all bottled up. Reach out for help when you need it.