How to support someone who's come out to you
From feeling nervous and vulnerable to wondering how friends and family will react, coming out can be a pretty nerve-wracking experience.
But what about if a friend comes out to you?
Dr Nikki Hayfield is a Senior Lecturer in Social Psychology at the University of the West of England (UWE), Bristol, who specialises in human identities and sexualities. We asked her for advice on how to best support someone who's come out to you.
What do you do in that initial moment?
If someone comes out to you directly, says Dr Hayfield, respect that they have opened up to you and do your best to accept their feelings. She explains: “Some people might feel really anxious about coming out and have real concerns about how others respond. Perhaps the most important thing is not dismissing someone’s declaration of their identity.”
But coming out isn’t always a one-on-one conversation. Maybe your friend has put up a post on social media, or mentioned something in passing. Dr Hayfield says this can also be a factor to consider: “The best way to respond depends on how they’ve chosen to disclose their identity.
"It’s helpful to try to put yourself in their shoes and consider what you might want if you shared something personal about your life with others.”
If you feel you need to, you might want to do a bit of research on their identity, in case there is an opportunity to acknowledge their message, or if they mention it to you directly later on.
Thinking about whether you would be comfortable answering the sorts of questions that come into your head about sexuality is also a good idea. Dr Hayfield puts it succinctly: “Don’t ask others what you might not be willing to answer yourself.”
Consider what’s unhelpful as well as what’s helpful
Your first reaction might be to remind your friend that you still love them - after all, nothing has changed in your mind, so what are they so worried about? This might be what you think they want to hear, but it could also be misconstrued:
“Saying that you love someone no matter what might be heard by someone as meaning you love them despite their sexuality, so it might unintentionally sound unhelpful,” says Dr Hayfield. “What could be more inclusive is saying something along the lines of ‘you’re you, and this is a part of you, and what makes you who you are. I’m so pleased you can share with me’.”
Likewise, saying you’re not surprised or it doesn’t matter to you, it can look come across like you’re trivialising the distress they might have gone through before coming out: “Make it clear that you’re there for them and happy to support them in whatever ways they need you to - if at all."
Dr Hayfield says there are also some specific responses which have been reported to be frustrating by people who’ve taken part in psychological research. For example, it’s not helpful to ask whether someone might have just not met the right person yet and could be heterosexual after all, in the same way heterosexual people aren’t asked whether they have just not met the right person to have realised that they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, pan, or ace.
Similarly, suggesting to someone that they might be going through a phase is not likely to be understood as supportive. “Sexuality is fluid, and so people do identify with different sexualities across their lifetime,” Dr Hayfield adds. “But people may also find an identity that fits for them for long periods of time.
“What someone is feeling now is valid for now.”
Don’t make assumptions
As much as there is helpful information out there, there is also misinformation, misrepresentation and stereotypes which may have informed your understanding of a certain identity - or maybe you’ve simply never heard of it.
“You can help support your friends by not having made any assumptions about their sexuality, which will make you better prepared if they tell you about their identity,” Dr Hayfield says. “Opinions around what to do when you don’t know much about someone’s sexuality vary a bit, and educating ourselves is one way in which we can all become more knowledgeable - which will help in lots of contexts, not only when someone discloses their sexuality to you.”
But if you don’t know much about the identity they have mentioned, Dr Hayfield thinks it might be best to be honest:
“There’s ways to do it that don’t trivialise or dismiss their identity. You can say: ‘I really appreciate you sharing that with me. I don’t know much about that sexuality, but I’m keen to learn and to support you. Shall I go and find out some information and we can talk again later, or can I ask you some questions to learn more?’”
An open mind is key. Remember that the person coming out always knows their identity best, and you don’t have to understand it to accept and respect it.
What if you get it wrong?
Perhaps you felt put on the spot and said something unhelpful. Maybe you’ve made jokes about their identity in the past before they’ve come out - so should you say ‘sorry’ to someone who comes out to you?
“We’re all human, and none of us know everything,” Dr Hayfield reminds us. “So yes, there’s bound to be some circumstances where saying sorry about your behaviour or your reaction to someone coming out to you is appropriate.”
“But apologise and move on rather than making it about you. Move back to finding out how you can support them, any challenges they are facing and thinking about how you can be a good friend to them.”
Remember, their fears around coming out might not have anything to do with you - so don’t take it personally if they are anxious of what you might think, or take their time to do so.
“Despite sexualities being much more accepted in some countries, this isn’t the case everywhere, or for everyone. People might still anticipate facing - and actually face - negative reactions to their sexuality.”
Remember: everyone is different!
Everyone wears their identity differently. Dr Hayfield says it’s important to remember that people with diverse sexualities have different experiences. How important someone’s sexuality is to them varies based on their own outlook on it, their lives, and their other identities - which might matter more, or play a part in how they understand their sexuality.
It’s also important to remember that different identities come with different struggles - so again, consider what might be an unhelpful response.
“Pansexual people have reported that it’s really annoying when people make jokes about kitchenware in response to them sharing their identity," says Dr Hayfield, referring to the joke on pansexuality being the attraction to 'pots and pans'.
“Asexual and aromantic people have also talked about how others seem to be confused or disbelieving when they disclose their identity. They have reported that others assume they need therapy. People do not need therapy purely on the basis that they do not experience sexual/romantic attraction to others.”
What else you can do to support your LGBTQ+ friends?
You can’t tell what a person’s sexuality or gender identity is by looking at them. This means that coming out can be something your loved one has to do - or might choose not to do - every day.
Dr Hayfield has a tip to be supportive every day:
“Make it clear that you are inclusive of people by talking about sexualities in your everyday conversations, and doing so in a way which shows you respect different people’s identities. Make it your normal behaviour to show that you are inclusive of people - make it easy for someone to know that you’re a safe person to share their identity with.”
So remember: don’t dismiss, don’t assume, and above all, make them feel safe and supported if they’ve chosen to come out to you.