Sarah Pullman - Bodymind Counselling

Bodymind Counselling in Victoria, BC

What to Say When Someone Comes Out to You

Posted by Sarah on Apr 22, 2013
Coming Out CakeIf you know more than a few LGBTQ people, chances are good that you've heard at least one coming-out "horror story." These are the sad stories in which a person who is brave enough to tell the truth about themselves is shamed, disowned, kicked out of the house, or worse. Sometimes these people come around later, but sometimes they sadly don't. Stories like that always break my heart, and I've heard quite a few, both as a friend and as a counsellor. 
On the other side of things, if you have an LGBTQ-friendly community on Facebook, chances are also good that you've seen at least one heartwarming story, perhaps about the parents who threw their child a coming-out party, or the father who wrote this sweet note to his gay child. These are the feel-good stories that make us feel hopeful and optimistic that things are changing for the better for young LGBTQ folks. 
But in between the two extremes, what about all the other millions of coming-out conversations that don't fall into the categories above? If you are neither homophobic, nor the cake-baking coming-out party-throwing type, and someone you love comes out to you... what exactly do you say?  
I recently had a friend tell me that she found herself somewhat at a loss for words when her brother came out to her. "I just didn't really know what to say," she told me. "Because I really am fine with it, and had half-expected it for years. But it seemed like he wanted me to say more." She was sincere -- she has many LGBTQ friends, loves her brother, and had zero problem with his announcement. But she felt like she should have had more to say about it.
I've had many clients and friends tell me that they found themselves somewhat disappointed, even let down, after coming out to family members or friends. Why? Because the person didn't seem to know what to say, beyond "Oh... well that's great!" An awkward moment follows and then everyone tries to act normal. Meanwhile, the poor person who has been screwing up their courage for weeks or months or years is left standing with a pounding heart, thinking "...that's it?" Often that let-down feeling is mixed in with a sense of "Well, I should be grateful that it didn't go badly." 
So what would a whole-hearted coming out conversation - a conversation with substance and heart - sound like? What might you want to say, if you find yourself in this conversation with a person you love and want to support? The following suggestions are intended as starting points. Obviously there is no set formula to follow, for this or any conversation, and obviously you'll adapt these ideas to suit your personality, your style, and your culture. That said, I hope they'll give you some ideas for ways to take the conversation beyond "That's great! No problem. So what's for dinner?" 
  • Recognize their bravery, and thank them for their trust. Acknowledge that their disclosure is a big deal... even if they try to downplay it. That said, if they seem really uncomfortable, don't make TOO big a deal out of it!
  • Don't be afraid to make the implicit, explicit. Which means, even if you are sure that they know that you love them to the moon and back, say it anyway. Even if you think it should be completely obvious that your love and acceptance of them is in no way changed by their brave disclosure, don't be afraid to say it out loud. This is a moment when that explicit reassurance is important.
  • Remember that while most people find it nerve-wracking to come out to loved ones, this experience is different for everyone. Ask how it was for them to tell you, and be willing to hear whatever they have to say. It might have been excruciating, or it might have been no big deal at all. 
  • Remember there is no single, definitive moment of "coming out" for anyone. Instead, there is a lifelong process of constantly having to decide when, where, how, and whether to come out, over and over again. Now that your loved one has trusted you with this information, you might want to ask how you can support them in future coming-out moments. Let them lead the process, and defer to their feelings and needs here. 
  • Ask them how they want you to handle this information. You will likely find yourself wanting to share this news with someone, so before you do, make sure you know what is okay and what is not. They might be fine with other people knowing, or they might want you to keep it in the strictest confidence. Best to ask! 
  • Share your own positive feelings, but try to contain any negative ones. As much as possible, use "I" statements and take responsibility for your own feelings. Good: "I feel really touched that you would share this with me." "My heart feels really warm." "I feel proud of you for being true to yourself." "I'll need some time to digest this" is also a reasonable thing to say, if that is what is true for you. Not so helpful: "You should have told me sooner." "I can't believe you've been keeping this a secret." "Are you sure about this?" 
  • Defer to their needs in this conversation. Which means, remember that the goal of this particular conversation is for THEM to have a positive experience, and to feel "complete" at the end of it, like they were heard and received by you. The goal is not for you to feel good about yourself, or for you to have all your questions answered. (Which is not to say that you don't get to have feelings about it... just that this isn't the best moment to unpack them all.) So try to read their signals, and don't take it too personally. If they seem uncomfortable, then let them end the conversation or change the subject. You might let them know that you are open to talking about it again anytime in the future, should anything else come up for them. 

These suggestions really only touch the tip of the iceberg, and may not apply in all situations. One thing that is important is that the above suggestions assume that you really ARE basically okay with your loved one being gay/lesbian//bi/queer/trans/however they define themselves. If you are a parent wanting to be supportive but having a hard time with your child's sexual orientation, you may find this PDF from PFLAG Canada helpful. This is a good article too. 

Above all else, give yourself permission to not be perfect. This conversation may well be awkward, and that's okay! If you can handle that, it will be much easier for your friend/child/etc to relax too. Remember too that even if this conversation did not go smoothly the first time, it is never too late for a re-do. Just acknowledge that you wish you had handled it differently, and go from there. Good luck!

Update: In response to a few discussions and pieces of feedback I've received, I think it is worth clarifying who these suggestions may and may not be suited to. If someone who has been out for a long time, perhaps a new friend or acquaintance, happens to mention to you that they are gay, there is probably no need to make a big deal about it. When it IS a big deal, however, is when someone is newly coming to terms with their own sexual orientation or gender identity. These conversations are typically much more loaded in the early days of coming out, and over time, they become more commonplace. The degree to which they feel like A Big Deal will also depend on your relationship to this person, and how much anxiety they may feel about losing your approval or acceptance. So, use your discretion. Sometimes a simple "Cool, thanks for telling me" is all that is required! 

sarah irons counsellor
sarah irons counsellor