How to Support a Loved One When They Come Out As LGBTQ+
About this time two years ago, one of my closest friends came out to me as transgender. When she told me, I didn’t 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’s new gender pronouns — “her” and “she.” 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. “Pansexual” is a sexual orientation that’s not limited to biological sex, gender, or gender identity. It’s kind of like bisexuality, but goes beyond “men” and “women.” Non-binary is a category for gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine. Since Van doesn’t really feel male or female, Van’s pronouns are “them” and “they.”
Being Van’s 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’ve become a more compassionate, understanding, and knowledgeable friend, and I give Van a lot of the credit for the advice I’m about to give. It was during one of our heart-to-heart conversations that we realized that there’s 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’s what I’ve learned:
1. Don’t make it about you. When someone comes out to you, it may or may not come as a surprise. If it doesn’t come as a surprise, don’t say things like, “I knew it!” or otherwise make the conversation about yourself. Right now it’s 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’t forget to be respectful of your loved one’s privacy. Don’t disclose any information that your loved one asks you to keep to yourself. And most importantly, DON’T push them to come out to other people; it is up to them to decide when they are ready, not you.
2. Don’t 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’T 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’s likely they’ve thought about sharing this information for years — 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’s 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’s identity, sexuality, and gender, and don’t make the mistake of thinking that you know more about them than they do themselves.
3. See them for who they are, but don’t 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’t 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’s totally normal to say the wrong name or pronoun when you’re just getting used to your loved one’s newly public identity. Mistakes mean you are trying; DON’T make your person feel uncomfortable by overly apologizing. Acknowledge the mistake and move on!
4. Be there. If an LGBTQ+ individual lives in an unsupportive community or environment, it is likely that they’ve received negative comments or messages that made them feel badly about themselves — 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’m 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’s needs. On their bad days, Van sometimes doesn’t feel like talking. On these days we sit and cuddle, both on our phones or watching a show together. We don’t always have to talk, and on bad days it can help just to have someone close.
5.If you don’t know, ask! You might have some questions about your loved one’s sexuality or gender, and that’s 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’t single them out by making them your “go-to person” for LGBTQ+-related information, unless that person has said they’re 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’t 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 — don’t 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 — if I get one at all. This used to make me anxious, but I have since learned that it isn’t personal. All it means is that Van doesn’t have the energy to talk in that moment. Respect your loved one’s needs, and follow their cues.
7. It is never too late. If you regret your reaction to someone coming out, it’s NEVER too late to apologize and try to start again. You are only human; don’t 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:
Have you ever been called on to support someone who’s coming out? Tell us about it @britandco.
(Photos via Derek R. Henkle; SolStock; Patryce Bak / Getty)