Coming out means telling someone else about your LGBTQ+ identity. When someone has come out, they are said to be ‘out’. A person may come out in specific areas of their life, but not others; for example, they may be ‘out’ to their friends but not their family. With expert advice, this blog explores how to respond to someone coming out, ensuring you make the sometimes daunting process as seamless as possible for the LGBTQ+ people in your life.
LGBTQ+ is the acronym referring to all gender identities, expressions, orientations and variations in sex characteristics that are not cisgender or heterosexual, or don’t fit within the male/female biological binary. The letters stand for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning and anything else that falls under the definition.
Even those of us with the best intentions might not know what to say if someone we know comes out to us. We at Beyond asked our LGBTQ+ colleagues to help us write this guide on how not to respond to someone coming out.
Don’t ask inappropriate or probing questions
When someone comes out to us, we may have questions, especially if we do not have personal experience with LGBTQ+ identities. While it’s OK to ask questions, probing questions can often make the person feel uncomfortable, and even unintentionally belittle their identity.
For example, asking a transgender or non-binary person whether they are going to undergo surgery is very personal, and might imply to them that we do not take their trans identity seriously unless they have surgery. They may be figuring out for themselves whether it’s something they want, have decided against it, or be in the process of working towards it. All of these options are valid, and a transgender person is not ‘less transgender’ if they choose not to undergo surgery.
Similarly, if someone comes out as gay, or is in a relationship with another person of the same sex, it is inappropriate to ask ‘who is the man/woman in the relationship?’. This question often alludes to socially-constructed gender roles, and may even be interpreted as asking about their sex life, which would undoubtedly make many people feel uncomfortable.
Even if questions do not appear too personal, it may be inappropriate to ask them. While some LGBTQ+ people may be happy to have in-depth discussions about their identity, others may not. Remember that it is not the role of LGBTQ+ people to educate us or to justify their identity to us. Often, we would be better off doing independent research rather than asking them a lot of questions. Sometimes, we may want to ask clarifying questions to show that we are or check we have understood. While these types of questions can be beneficial, it is important to ensure they are not intrusive, and that the person knows they don’t have to answer.
Don’t tell other people
Coming out is an important step for many LGBTQ+ people. They may have a set way they want to inform others, and they may only choose to come out to certain people or in certain contexts. This is up to them, and it is nobody’s place to tell anyone about someone else’s LGBTQ+ identity unless they have been specifically asked to.
Don’t make it all about you
Coming out is about sharing part of your identity with other people. However, some people take this as an opportunity to make it about them. This includes tokenism, for example saying something like ‘Can you be my gay best friend?’ or ‘Oh cool! Now I have a transgender sister!’ By doing this, we are centering ourselves in something that isn’t to do with us, instead of focusing on the person who is coming out. This also includes saying things like ‘I wish I were LGBTQ+’ or ‘I’d kiss a girl, but I could never sleep with one.’ Phrases like this indicate that we are trivialising the issue, rather than taking it seriously.
Another way we may unintentionally centralise ourselves is by bringing up how challenging or stressful it is for us to remember to use new pronouns or a chosen name. When a person comes out as transgender or non-binary, they may ask us to use different gender pronouns and/or a new name for them. This is something that often affirms a person’s gender identity. It’s really important to respect their wishes and put effort into using the correct words for them so that we can avoid misgendering them (using words that do not correctly reflect their gender identity).
While adapting to these kinds of changes can be challenging for us, just think about how difficult it might be for the person coming out for us. It is a good idea to try our best to be accommodating without complaining to them about it, as this might make them less willing to open up and share this aspect of their life and their identity with us.
Don’t express doubt
In all likelihood, the person who is coming out is not doing so on a whim; they know their identity, and they are sharing that with us. By saying something like ‘Are you sure?’, ‘how can you know if you have never kissed/slept with someone of the same gender?’, ‘but you’re so masculine’ or ‘but you’ve dated people of the opposite sex before’, we may be unintentionally invalidating their identity.
Many straight people are sure of their orientation before they kiss or have sex with anyone of the opposite sex or gender, yet they are rarely questioned on this aspect of their identity. By applying doubt to LGBTQ+ identities but not to heterosexual and cisgender identities, we are only perpetuating heteronormativity and cisnormativity.
This doubt may come from a lack of knowledge around LGBTQ+ identities, particularly those that are lesser-known. Although we may not mean to be harmful, indicating that their orientation or gender identity isn’t true can be extremely damaging to a person, and stems from a cultural history of homophobia and transphobia.
Don’t make assumptions
It is easy to make assumptions based on common myths we might have heard about LGBTQ+ people. These include:
- the idea that bisexual women are actually straight;
- that pansexual people and lesbians are actually bisexual;
- that transgender men and non-binary people are actually cisgender;
- that bisexual men are actually gay;
- and that transgender men are actually lesbians.
It is important to challenge these assumptions and the homophobia behind them, and trust that the person coming out to us knows themselves best.
Don’t say, ‘It’s just a phase’
This mentality is often applied to bisexuality, and is an example of biphobia, however it can also be applied to other LGBTQ+ identities. By saying something like, ‘you just haven’t found the right man/woman yet’ or, ‘everyone experiments when they’re your age’ when someone comes out to us, we are invalidating their LGBTQ+ identity by not believing them.
When a person comes out, they are telling us something about themselves. It is nobody’s place to disregard this or suggest that they are mistaken. Although sexuality and gender identity can be fluid, or may change throughout a person’s life, this should not be remarked upon by others, or used against someone when they come out. Coming out is often a long process, and the person will have done a great deal of thinking and self-reflection before telling us, so by immediately dismissing their identity, we are teaching them that we are not the right person to tell these things to.
Don’t respond with statistics
When some people come out, occasionally this is met with unsolicited information or statistics, for example about countries where the death penalty exists for LGBTQ+ individuals. Similarly, someone may play devil’s advocate by bringing up narrow viewpoints that are harmful to LGBTQ+ people, for example a parent saying that they ‘mourn the grandchildren they will never have’ when their child comes out as gay. Similarly, someone may respond by spreading anti-LGBTQ+ political attitudes, such as the idea that marriage is reserved for a man and a woman. This kind of response is arguably the most harmful of those explored here. It does not help or express support for the person coming out, and is often used as a way to mask underlying homophobia or transphobia.
Don’t say, ‘I already knew’
While this may be said with the best intentions, it is not always helpful, and may make the person coming out feel awkward or embarrassed. Not to mention, we cannot know how another person identifies without them specifically telling us, and assuming something about a person may actually be harmful to them. Coming out is a personal journey that many LGBTQ+ people go through, and telling them that you knew all along can actually take that moment away from them.
What Can We Do Instead?
We don’t want to give you a long list of what not to do, without giving any suggestions of what you can do. Here are some positive ways to respond when someone comes out to you:
- ask what you can do to support the person, and provide this support through your words and actions;
- check if they are out to other people, so you can avoid ‘outing’ them (sharing their LGBTQ+ identity without their consent);
- do your own research if you have any questions;
- if they want to talk about it in more detail, make sure to stick to their limits and ensure they are comfortable with the conversation.
Above all, it’s best to not make a big deal out of it. Many LGBTQ+ people just want to be treated exactly the same; they want to tell you and have you say ‘OK, thanks for telling me.’ It’s as simple as that!
Related Beyond Resources
To learn about allyship, take a look at the LGBTQ+ Allyship and Inclusive Relationships Lesson Pack.
See the RSE Display Resources category for a number of different posters, bunting and banners that you can use to show pride or allyship.