About this time two years ago, one of my closest friends came out to me as transgender. When she told me, I didn鈥檛 know much about what being transgender meant. I had never learned about gender or sexuality at school, and no one close to me had ever come out to me before. I wanted to make sure my house was a safe place for her as her family struggled to adjust to her new gender identity, and I made sure my family knew my friend鈥檚 new gender pronouns 鈥 鈥渉er鈥 and 鈥渟he.鈥 I used her new name every time I talked about her so that my family got used to it, and did extensive research on gender and sexuality. As I learned, I realized how much my friend inspired me. Little did I know that my new understanding would come in handy much closer to home.

About six months after my friend came out, my best friend and youngest sibling, Van, came out as pansexual and non-binary at the age of 13. 鈥淧ansexual鈥 is a sexual orientation that鈥檚 not limited to biological sex, gender, or gender identity. It鈥檚 kind of like bisexuality, but goes beyond 鈥渕en鈥 and 鈥渨omen.鈥 Non-binary is a category for gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine. Since Van doesn鈥檛 really feel male or female, Van鈥檚 pronouns are 鈥渢hem鈥 and 鈥渢hey.鈥

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Being Van鈥檚 older sister changed the way I view the world, and seeing the obstacles they are faced with has made me want to help change the way other people view sexuality and gender. I鈥檝e become a more compassionate, understanding, and knowledgeable friend, and I give Van a lot of the credit for the advice I鈥檓 about to give. It was during one of our heart-to-heart conversations that we realized that there鈥檚 a need for people close to LGBTQ+ people to understand how they can support those they love.

Looking back, there are a lot of other things I wish I had said to my friend and to Van when they opened up to me. But in the time since, here鈥檚 what I鈥檝e learned:

1. Don鈥檛 make it about you. When someone comes out to you, it may or may not come as a surprise. If it doesn鈥檛 come as a surprise, don鈥檛 say things like, 鈥淚 knew it!鈥 or otherwise make the conversation about yourself. Right now it鈥檚 important to listen and support this person, so let them have the floor and finish what they have to say.

If the news comes as a surprise to you or conflicts with your religious beliefs, keep that to yourself for now. There will be time for you to process the information later, and you can both discuss and share beliefs when you are ready. Through my meaningful and open-minded discussions with Van, I have found that sharing beliefs with your loved one can allow you both to expand your horizons and grow closer together. But with that in mind, don鈥檛 forget to be respectful of your loved one鈥檚 privacy. Don鈥檛 disclose any information that your loved one asks you to keep to yourself. And most importantly, DON鈥橳 push them to come out to other people; it is up to them to decide when they are ready, not you.

Portrait of a Pre-Op Transgender Woman

2. Don鈥檛 make it a big deal. After someone comes out to you, thank that person for telling you and trusting you. Know that coming out is a difficult thing to do and that it takes a lot of courage. Keep in mind that this person needs your support now more than they likely have before.

Coming out is scary, especially if an LGBTQ+ individual lives in a LGBTQ+ -unfriendly environment (and especially in our current climate). While it is good to acknowledge what a big step it is to come out, try not to be dramatic about it. Let your loved one set the tone of the conversation, and DON鈥橳 question their sexuality or gender. Questioning if someone is really LGBTQ+ or not will only hurt that person. Remember that when someone comes out, it鈥檚 likely they鈥檝e thought about sharing this information for years 鈥 probably most of their life.

Like Van, who was just a young teen when they came out, most LGBTQ+ individuals have gone through difficult struggles with their identity and done endless amounts of research in an attempt to understand themselves. Realize that gender and sexuality are experienced differently by everyone, and that that鈥檚 okay. Some people experience gender and sexuality as fluid, while for others the experience is more fixed and definite.

Also consider that sometimes LGBTQ+ individuals will have tried to fit themselves into heterosexual/binary roles in the past in an attempt to fit in (or for their very safety), and it may seem confusing to have to alter your thinking afterwards. Some people may still seem to fit into these roles after coming out; remember that some people experience gender and sexuality fluidly, and that that those experiences can change throughout time. Either way, respect your loved one鈥檚 identity, sexuality, and gender, and don鈥檛 make the mistake of thinking that you know more about them than they do themselves.

3. See them for who they are, but don鈥檛 change how you treat them. Coming out does not change who a person is. Sexual orientation and gender do not really define anyone; rather, those things are only a part of who a person is. The only real difference between before and after coming out is that afterwards, an individual is more free to be themselves and accepted for who they really are. Remember this, and don鈥檛 change the way you act toward this person.

Since Van came out, we have grown closer than we ever were before. We still have our old inside jokes (and even some new ones), and of course, Van still reads fan fiction 24/7, loves anime, and sleeps in a room with walls covered in art. Van has the same loving personality that they have always had and we have the best time snuggling, laughing, and being silly when we are together.

Also, keep in mind that you might not always get it right. Using the correct names and gender pronouns is SO important, but it鈥檚 totally normal to say the wrong name or pronoun when you鈥檙e just getting used to your loved one鈥檚 newly public identity. Mistakes mean you are trying; DON鈥橳 make your person feel uncomfortable by overly apologizing. Acknowledge the mistake and move on!

We can get through this together

4. Be there. If an LGBTQ+ individual lives in an unsupportive community or environment, it is likely that they鈥檝e received negative comments or messages that made them feel badly about themselves 鈥 and, likely, afraid for their safety. Make sure you always stand up for the people you care about, and try to de-escalate any stressful situations. Try to reach out to them when you can, and remind them that you are there always for anything they might need.

Van knows that I鈥檓 only a phone call or text away, and that I am always here to listen and support with their best interest in mind. I encourage Van to do the things they love, and make sure I am at every big event in their life, cheering them on. My partner and I spend a lot of time with Van, and have even started going to rallies and walks in support of LGBTQ+ organizations.

Respect your loved one鈥檚 needs. On their bad days, Van sometimes doesn鈥檛 feel like talking. On these days we sit and cuddle, both on our phones or watching a show together. We don鈥檛 always have to talk, and on bad days it can help just to have someone close.

5.If you don鈥檛 know, ask! You might have some questions about your loved one鈥檚 sexuality or gender, and that鈥檚 okay. It is important to always communicate with the people you care about, and this includes asking questions you might have. But be careful not to bombard your loved one with questions, and definitely don鈥檛 single them out by making them your 鈥済o-to person鈥 for LGBTQ+-related information, unless that person has said they鈥檙e okay with it. Google exists for a reason!

6. Check in often. It is common for LGBTQ+ folks to experience bullying, discrimination, and prejudice, and mental health conditions like anxiety and depression are an unfortunately common result. Frequently check in with your loved one about how they are feeling, and listen to them when they need you to. Show them that what they think and feel matters to you, and if they don鈥檛 feel comfortable talking you about certain things, offer to help them find a good LGBTQ+ therapist that they can talk to.

Some transgender individuals choose to undergo hormone replacement therapy or to change their names on legal documents. You can offer to help them research these processes. Taking on tasks like this can be hugely helpful, but only when your help is wanted 鈥 don鈥檛 be overbearing.

Since we live apart, I text Van at least once a day to see how they are doing. When Van is having a bad day I might only get a short reply 鈥 if I get one at all. This used to make me anxious, but I have since learned that it isn鈥檛 personal. All it means is that Van doesn鈥檛 have the energy to talk in that moment. Respect your loved one鈥檚 needs, and follow their cues.

Transgender dad plays with daughter in the kicthen

7. It is never too late. If you regret your reaction to someone coming out, it鈥檚 NEVER too late to apologize and try to start again. You are only human; don鈥檛 beat yourself up for not getting things right the first time. No matter what, the most important thing is to do your best to show this person that you care. The rest will come with time.

For more information on LGBTQ+ related issues, visit:

http://lgbt.foundation/

https://lgbtchat.net/

Have you ever been called on to support someone who鈥檚 coming out? Tell us about it @britandco.

(Photos via Derek R. Henkle; SolStock; Patryce Bak / Getty)