Your teen or college-age kid will have a friend come out to them. Or your kid will come out to you or to their friends. One or both of these scenarios is bound to happen, and we as parents need to be prepared. We need to prepare ourselves, but we also need to prepare our kids, because there are definitely right and wrong ways to respond to someone coming out to you, and saying the right thing can mean being the calm in someone else’s storm. Saying the wrong thing can damage a relationship or traumatize the person coming out.
A mother recently posted anonymously in a parenting group looking for support for her high-school-age daughter. The daughter’s best friend had just come out to her. He told her that he and another close friend of theirs had been secretly dating for several months but had been too afraid to tell her. The daughter said she was fine with her friend being gay, but she was hurt and angry that he’d kept the fact that he’d been dating their mutual friend for months a secret from her. She thought, as friends, that they shouldn’t keep secrets between them, and she let her friend know that she felt betrayed.
Her friend, as well as her friend’s boyfriend, responded with frustration, hurt, and anger, and now her friendship with both boys is damaged, perhaps irreparably.
Allow me to play Emily Post for a moment, if Emily Post were a queer advice columnist.
What to say to a friend who comes out to you:
There is really only one appropriate response when someone comes out to you: “Thank you so much for trusting me with this.”
Perhaps you could also add a hug. And “I love you.” And “I’m always here for you no matter what.” But thanking the person for their trust is essential. Withholding comments about your own hurt feelings is essential.
The worst thing you can do when someone comes out to you, and they are at their most vulnerable, is to make the experience about you. The girl from above may truly have been hurt that she hadn’t been let in on her best friend’s secret relationship, and it’s okay for her to feel that way, but it’s not okay to put those feelings on her friend.
Being gay is not an ordinary secret. Coming out to anyone, no matter how accepting they are, always carries a risk. It’s not just that people can react badly, that they can reject the person who has come out, it’s that having that kind of sensitive information floating around leaves a person vulnerable, to varying degrees, depending on their life circumstances. For many, keeping their sexuality secret is a matter of safety.
Coming out can be absolutely terrifying, and because of that, no one can dictate another person’s timeline for coming out. Unfortunately, the young woman above only proved to her friend that he was right to be worried about telling her. The experience will now likely be imprinted on her friend’s memory as one of the many reasons why he will hesitate to come out to people in the future.
As parents, we need to prepare our kids for situations like this — before it happens — so they know appropriate and compassionate ways to respond when a friend comes out to them, and so they don’t unintentionally hurt their friends. This has the added bonus of making it clear to our kids that we are accepting in case it turns out they fall somewhere on the beautiful LGBTQ+ spectrum.
“Thank you so much for trusting me with this.” A simple phrase that conveys your understanding of the vulnerability your friend has just displayed.
When a friend comes out to you, it’s not about you
The moment a friend comes out is not the time to inform the friend of any negative feelings you may have about the friend’s coming out. It’s not the time to say “I already knew” or “I had a feeling.” For someone who’s been in the closet and terrified of coming out, telling them you suspected or were pretty sure they’re gay can make them feel they haven’t been as under the radar as they’d hoped.
It’s not the time to show your shock, frustration, or anger. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” is not an okay question to ask, not in this moment when a friend is at their most vulnerable.
In a world that doesn’t always act in the best interest of our LGBTQ+ youth, your child could be a safe place for an LGBTQ+ youth to come out — the calm in the storm. LGBTQ+ youth are at far greater risk of depression, self-harm, and suicide than their straight, cisgender peers.
According to the Trevor Project, LGB (lesbian, gay, and bisexual) youth are five times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual youth. Trangender youth are at even greater risk, with 40% reporting having attempted suicide, 92% of that number having attempted suicide before age 25. LGB youth from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide than those who have little to no rejection, and every incident of physical or verbal harassment or abuse increases an LGBT person’s likelihood for self-harming behavior by 2.5 times.
This is why it’s so important to make sure our kids know how to respond when a friend comes out to them. We have to understand, and we have to help our kids understand what a gift it is for someone to trust us with such personal information, no matter the details surrounding that coming out. In a world that still has a long way to go in accepting and affirming LGBTQ+ folks, it’s the very least we can do.
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