I’ll give you a hint: It’s not “I knew it!” or ‘Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
Quarantine has forced us all to dig deep and get reacquainted with that person in the mirror. If you’ve experienced a spring awakening this summer or fall, you aren’t alone. Former Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum, rapper DaBrat, and actress Niecey Nash are among the slew of celebrities to step out of the proverbial closet in 2020. In February, Zaya Wade came out as transgender, spurring actress Gabrielle Union and athlete Dwyane Wade to publicly advocate for transgender rights.
As the public becomes relatively less violent towards LGBT+ individuals, the likelihood that someone in your community may, at some point in time, come out to you steadily increases. Coming out isn’t an isolated event; it’s a process that happens in stages. Whether it happens at the dinner table or in the cereal aisle at Wal-Mart, there are several ways to make sure your reaction is, at least, supportive and harm-reducing.
Don’t over react.
Now isn’t the time to make jokes, or take offense that you didn’t know sooner, or to offer to take them to the nearest gay club. Discomfort may urge you towards other distractions, but stay focused on the moment you are having with this person and remember, it’s not really about you.
The decision to come out is based on perception of safety and comfort – thank them for telling you, it’s an honor. Apologize for anything you might’ve said or done that made them feel uncomfortable telling you sooner. Even if you don’t think you have, isn’t it better to be considerate? If you’re a parent, tell your child you love them unconditionally, and then do it again. If you have homophobic beliefs, now is not the time to express them. Don’t go halfway with your support.
It’s not about sex.
The process of coming out is more about identity than preference. Don’t ask invasive questions, or make assumptions about that person’s sexual experience. Don’t assume they came out to you because they are attracted to you, or want to sleep with you. Respect the person’s privacy; not every question deserves an answer.
Offer your support.
Make sure they know you are there for them; everyone may not be as accepting of their identity. If the person comes out to you as non-binary or transgender, ask what pronouns they prefer and use those. It may feel different at first, but repetition makes it easier. When you use someone’s requested pronouns, you demonstrate respect for their personhood.
Ask who else knows.
Some people are “out” in some spaces and not in others. You don’t want to accidentally out your loved one to others if they aren’t ready, so find a mature, respectful way to ask. Never take it upon yourself to tell others – just because you know, doesn’t mean it’s your business. Ask about the level of confidentiality they expect from you.
They are still the same person they were before they came out to you. Take the opportunity to support and affirm them, make sure they’re comfortable, and move the conversation along. Bombarding someone with questions about how or why they identify the way they do is disrespectful and dehumanizing.
After the initial reaction, the real work begins. Listen to diverse voices within LGBT+ movements and acknowledge how oppression can be worse for LGBT+ members of other marginalized groups. Educate yourself on LGBT+ history to understand why and how the community has been oppressed, and do what you can to make life easier, better, and safer for LGBT+ where you live. For more information about how to support loved ones in the LGBT+ community, check out The Center for Black Equity, the National Black Justice Coalition, or the Black Trans Advocacy Coalition.