Coming out to loved ones can be one of the most vulnerable and nerve-wracking experiences of a person’s life. Though there are many families and loved ones who are supportive and loving throughout this process, there are plenty who react poorly—saying hateful things or even disowning their loved ones for being queer, which has a seriously detrimental effect on their mental health.
For some, coming out and deciding to live in their truth is a joyous and freeing experience. However, the stigma around queerness in society can quickly sour those feelings with fear, anxiety, or self-doubt.
Even if you’ve told them repeatedly that you love and respect them, your loved one still may not have an easy time coming out to you. That being said, here’s some advice on good things you can do—and things to avoid doing—when a loved one comes out to you.
How Can You Support a Loved One When They Come Out?
These conversations can be nerve-wracking, but leading with empathy is key. There are many simple things you can make sure to do to show your support to a queer loved one who’s coming out to you, such as:
One of the best, most immediate things you can do to support a loved one who is coming out is simply listen—silently and respectfully. It has likely taken a lot for them to get to this place of acceptance and trust, and even if they know you love them unconditionally, it is still a very vulnerable and delicate process to reveal something so close to their heart to you.
Evan Csir, Licensed Professional Counselor with Thriveworks in Pittsburgh, PA, advises you to, “Let them tell their story at their own pace. Just listen to them. Let them choose who they feel comfortable coming out to, as it is their truth to share with the world.” Give them the space and opportunity to complete their thoughts and allow them to do this exactly how they want.
Similarly, being open-minded is also an imperative part of offering support. Kerri Marsh, Licensed Professional Counselor at Thriveworks in Philadelphia, PA, and Krys Mangandi, Licensed Clinical Social Worker at Thriveworks in Cornelius, NC, agree that you must be open to what they have to say, in spite of any doubts or worries you have. “The most important thing anyone can do is listen with an open mind,” Marsh states. “Allow them to share their thoughts and feelings without interrupting or interjecting with your own thoughts or beliefs.”
Educating yourself on LGBTQIA+ issues, people, and other aspects of the community is another good step to take, according to both Csir and Mangandi. Csir recommends books, articles, and even social media outlets as great tools for learning.
“There are tons of books out there on how to be a great ally, as well as PFLAG (parents and friends of lesbians and gays) which is a support group,” says Csir. “PFLAG can be a great support for yourself. TikTok and YouTube have lots of great creators[, and] there’s an inactive channel called ‘Out Late but Great’…for older adults who come out later in life.”
Offering Safety and Support
Finally, Csir asks you to be a safe and loving support for them. As Csir states, “There are tons of people out there that will discriminate against them just for being queer.” It isn’t easy being an out LGBTQIA+ individual, and the discrimination and lack of support experienced by many queer individuals can make them feel lonely, depressed, anxious, and even hopeless.
You can’t prevent discrimination from happening to the ones you love, but you can make sure that the support and love you give them is a haven from the worst the world has to offer.
How Should You Respond to a Loved One When They Come Out to You?
As previously stated, listening silently is the first thing to do. “Listen to what they’re saying without interrupting,” Mangandi says. Quietly listening gives the other person control of the space and conversation, helping them feel comfortable and more at ease than they would be if they had to balance your opinions as well as their declaration. It’s also a sign that you respect how they’re feeling and what they’re going through.
Body language is important, too. Whether the conversation starts happy or serious, your loved one wants your approval and acceptance, and they’ll be looking for it in your expressions and posture. It’s best to look open, positive, and supportive, so try to make good eye contact and face your body toward them when they’re speaking.
Once they have stopped speaking and have shared their story, it’s time for you to respond. You may have a variety of feelings racing through you, but remember that this is about them, first and foremost. To make this a good experience, their vulnerability needs to be acknowledged and respected: Thank them for being brave enough to share something so important and sensitive with you.
“Thank your loved one for sharing with you and for trusting you with such an important part of themselves, “ Marsh says. “Let the person know that you love and support them no matter what.”
Along with expressing your love and support, it’s important to let them know that this information doesn’t affect how you see them. One of the scariest parts of coming out can be the worry that people in your life will start treating you differently, or that the relationships you have with their loved ones will change. Make sure to assure them that you still see them the same, and try to act as normal as possible when interacting with them.
How Should You NOT Respond to a Loved One When They Come Out to You?
It’s excellent to offer your loved one support and acceptance when they come out to you, but while you do this, there are a few things you should make sure not to do or say. Our experts have some key points that they recommend you avoid.
Krys Mangandi asks that you:
- “Don’t contradict or undermine their feelings”: It’s important to affirm and acknowledge your loved one’s feelings during this time, even if you personally might have doubts about the validity of their identity. Respect their truth and work to reconcile your misgivings on your own.
- “Don’t center yourself in the conversation”: As previously stated, this conversation is wholly about your loved one and their experience. To avoid hurting them, try to take your personal feelings and experiences out of the conversation—keep them to yourself and assess them in your own time.
- “Don’t say things like ‘I’ve known this about you for years’”: Though this can feel like an affirming or accepting thing to say, it can come off as discounting the difficulties and challenging emotions your loved one has had to work through in order to come out. It may not be received negatively by everyone, but may be best to avoid saying it.
- “Don’t use your own personal beliefs as a way to make them feel guilty or wrong”: In this moment, your loved one is being honest with you. If you love them, you need to respect that honesty, whatever your personal feelings may be. If you have qualms about what they’ve told you, those are for you to sort out on your own, not place on your loved one. Making your loved one feel like who they are is morally wrong to you can do severe damage to the relationship you have, so think before you speak.
According to Kerri Marsh, it’s important to:
- “Avoid making it about your thoughts and feelings”: Stay away from talking about yourself and derailing the conversation. There will be time to discuss how you feel later—right now, the focus should be on them.
- “Avoid asking a lot of personal and/or invasive questions”: Just because your loved one has accepted who they are doesn’t mean that they have all the answers. Do not ask them questions about intimacy, their future, their relationships, or anything else that could seem invasive or presumptuous. They aren’t an expert or a resource—just a person.
- “Avoid making assumptions based on stereotypes or even [your] own experiences”: Every queer experience is unique. Don’t assume that one queer relationship or experience will mirror another—allow them to be who they are with no expectations or presumptions.
Evan Csir also adds:
- “Do not dismiss their experiences or tell them that they’re not a particular gender”: It’s not for you to doubt who they say they are. If you deny or dismiss them, you may well break their trust in you and show them you are not a safe person to be themself around.
- “Do not out them to others”: This is an important boundary. Just because they told you does not mean they have told others, nor does it give you license to share that information as you please, as it may not be safe for them to be completely “out” for a variety of reasons. Unless they explicitly give you permission to talk to others about their identity, exercise caution and do not tell others.
If you have difficult feelings about a loved one coming out to you, it’s best to keep them to yourself until you’ve been able to think them over and process what happened. Mangandi says that you need to be honest with yourself about how it makes you feel and reflect on why those feelings are present. When a loved one came out to her, she says that she “was supportive and present with her during the conversation but deep down I was also very angry.” However, when she explored those feelings on her own, she, “realized I was in fact frightened for her safety and future, and my cover emotion was anger.”
It’s okay to feel angry or scared or confused, as long as take responsibility for them and make sure not to put the weight of those emotions on your loved one.
Csir adds that, “The main thing to remember when a person comes out to you is to keep their safety centered in your mind.” This involves both emotional and physical safety. Show them that they can be vulnerable and find safety with you through your words and actions.
It’s likely that you might make a small mistake or two when someone comes out to you, but as long as you do your best to be respectful, accepting, and supportive, you’ve given them what’s most important.