Sometimes you see it long before it happens, but often it comes from nowhere. Your friend comes to you one day and tells you, “I’m gay” (or lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, third-gendered, or queer). Then there’s silence while they wait for you to respond. What can you do? What can you say?
If this person is not generally “out” to others, they may be coming out for the first time. If this is the case, they are probably experiencing a range of emotions from fear, to pride, to defensiveness. The decision to come out is often very difficult, and many people expect a negative reaction. That fear is reasonable. LGBT youth are often socially ostracized or even made homeless because their friends and family reject their identity. Understand that their coming out to you represents a strong level of trust and belief in the strength of your friendship. Your friend is extremely vulnerable in this moment. So how do you be the best friend you can be?
Don’t discuss your own feelings about LGBTQ identity at this time. Your friend did not come to you for a religious or social debate, and this moment is not about you and your feelings. This moment is entirely about a friend sharing vulnerability with you and seeking acceptance. If your religious views do not allow you to accept LGBTQ as okay, you can still accept your friend as a human being in need of comfort.
Don’t dismiss this. You may feel the need to end any uncomfortable feelings you have by changing the subject or making light of the situation. A joke might ease tension if it is done with great sensitivity, but it can just as easily backfire into something offensive. You can lighten the mood by being happy for your friend, who has discovered something important and is closer to understanding who they are.
Don’t grill them with questions. If they’re just now coming out, they’re probably not a font of information. Anyone outside the mainstream culture is familiar with the “fishbowl” effect, where they are expected to be the all-knowing representative of people who share their identity. This makes them feel even more like outsiders. Respect boundaries and don’t treat your friend like a new search engine for LGBTQ issues.
Don’t share with others. A person often comes out selectively to a very small group of people at first in order to control and judge public reaction and build a support network. Ask your friend whether or not someone knows before discussing or mentioning it to others. Don’t assume that close friends or family members already know; always ask.
Do tell them explicitly that you are their friend, you care for them, and that you will be there to support them. Don’t assume they already know (if they did, then they wouldn’t be nervous).
Do let them tell you and others in their own way and time. Don’t pressure someone to be out. It is a high-risk decision that has the potential to give them a lot of pain if someone doesn’t respond as hoped. A person has to take it at their own pace.
Do contact them later and daily for a while. Check in and make sure they’re doing okay, or send them a joke or an interesting link (whatever your normal communication is). This is proof that you will still be there even after the news has had time to settle in. There is a reactionary period of several days after an emotionally charged experience (sometimes known as “drop”) where the person will feel particularly vulnerable and in need of reinforcement.
Do be prepared for a shift in social dynamics. The person may feel closer to the people they are out to and rely on them for social support while they work up to telling others or deal with rejection. If you continue to be supportive and positive, your friendship may grow closer and others may drop away.
Do pursue your regular activities and reach out to your friend to enjoy them with you. If they have a partner, include them as you would the partner of any other friend. Coming out doesn’t change who they are or what they like. They will still enjoy the same movies, games, and activities as they did before. They will probably appreciate the continuing normalcy of your relationship if you treat them as just one of the gang.
Do go online. Find LGBTQ resources, forums, and publications that will help you learn about your friend’s identity and experience. This will help you be a better ally and keep up with your friend’s evolving interests and social issues. Consider joining a local chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) to meet with and learn from other allies of the LGBTQ community. Find or create a Gay-straight alliance group at your school or university, or in your community.
Whether you become a social justice expert or activist, or simply treat your LGBTQ friend as the same person they’ve always been, just being there with comfort and acceptance may be the best thing you can do for your friendship. When in doubt, don’t guess. Ask your friend directly what you can do to be supportive.