What to Do When Your Friend Comes Out to You

We live in a time where people feel safer than ever to come out. A friend choosing to come out to you can be a disorienting experience when your perception of their sexuality or their gender is required to shift. But you should keep in mind that the road to that conversation was far more disorienting for your friend. Learn how to be there for them in this vulnerable time with a few helpful guidelines.

Show Gratitude for the Strength of Your Friendship

If someone is coming out to you for the first time, you are tremendously valuable to them. The friendship you share is something they want to maintain on the road to being their most authentic self.

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“What I appreciated about the positive experiences were that they taught me the difference between a friend and an acquaintance,” said Casey*, 27, about his coming out experience. “I realized everyone who I was not coming out to was a mere acquaintance because they had only kept me around so long as I was living in a way that was acceptable to them or convenient for them.”

You’re being trusted with the unfiltered version of someone you care about, so you should take a moment to thank them for their bravery.

You’re being trusted with the unfiltered version of someone you care about, so you should take a moment to thank them for their bravery. And if you suspect someone you know is struggling to come out, you can also help them be brave.

“I can sense that they’re giving me a cue that I can come out if I want,” said Malcolm Jackson, 28, of his old and new friends pre-outing. “I’m gonna open the door for you a little bit.”

That little bit of cushion can help them feel safe, whether it’s showing approval for a queer celebrity or speaking out about LGBTQ rights.

Don’t Make It About You or Your Beliefs

Personally, and for virtually all of the queer people I talked to for background, one of the quirkiest responses to disclosing a non-heterosexual identity was an impulse friends had to center themselves. These reactions ranged from worrying that the person coming out had romantic or sexual feelings for them, to being upset that their newly queer friend wasn’t attracted to them.

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On the more conservative side of the spectrum, if you really can’t reconcile someone’s sexuality or gender identity, keep your beliefs to yourself. There are ways to tactfully and respectfully remove yourself from the relationship without putting pressure on them to conform to your concept of normality.

“You could see the color go from his face,” said Malcolm regarding a rare, negative coming out experience for him. “And then after that everything just stopped. No more hanging out. No more hitting me up to party. Then, I go on Facebook and I’m deleted as a friend.”

Though this person wasn’t the most upfront about ending the friendship, these actions were ultimately less mentally or physically harmful than trying to get Malcolm, a bartender in a progressive city, to change, or engaging him in violence. Eventually, they reconnected and this person was much more accepting. Luckily, Malcolm didn’t have to add his friend’s journey of personal growth to his already emotional coming out process.

Maintain Their Confidentiality

“No matter how educated or forward-thinking someone might appear, there’s truly no way to read their mind,” said Casey about being more tight-lipped about his sexuality at work. “There’s no way to know that talking about your sexual orientation won’t somehow put you on their ‘bad list’ and they won’t thereafter do everything they can to push you out of the office. People, I find, are like the weather: Hope for the best but plan for the worst.”

Be mindful that just because someone has come out to you, it doesn’t mean they’re out to everyone.

Be mindful that just because someone has come out to you, it doesn’t mean they’re out to everyone. Coming out in certain situations can disrupt family life, lead to consequences at work, and in the worst case scenario, make someone an open target for hate crimes. More often than not, it can just make the atmosphere uncomfortable, especially in culturally stagnant blind spots.

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“The only time I can see myself performing and acting very differently is when I’m around Black men,” said Malcolm, a man of Black and Asian descent. “I feel their attitudes and their personalities change around me.”

Reassure Them

If you’re more liberal-minded, you should definitely let your friend know that your relationship hasn’t changed. Though it’s easier for people to come out nowadays, many people still lose friends and family during this experience. So talk the talk and walk the walk when it comes to nurturing your friendship. Make yourself more available for heartfelt conversations as well as regular hangouts.

New Pronouns? No Problem.

When a friend comes out as trans, they usually (but not always) will shift how they outwardly express their gender. This physical change can make it easier to remember pronouns, particularly when they rest squarely in the binary. Many people, however, are coming out as genderqueer and non-binary these days, so their gender expression might not change at all, skew towards androgyny, or only shift occasionally.

At the end of the day, having someone come out to you is an exercise in empathy. All you have to do is rise to the occasion.

They/them pronouns are particularly popular, but some people like Ze/Zir, Ey/Em, or something unique to their experience. Whatever they decide, write it down somewhere and commit it to memory. Trans and non-binary folks will expect you to mess up constantly at first, but the important thing is to show you’re actively trying to get used to the change. Approaching new pronouns with flippancy will likely hurt your friend and potentially make them feel as though their identity is invalid.

You should also hold other people accountable when they trip up or intentionally misgender your friend. This last note should be done with your friend’s permission because, as we’ve already noted, they might not want to be out to the person who misgendered them.

At the end of the day, having someone come out to you is an exercise in empathy. All you have to do is rise to the occasion.

*Pseudonym

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