Have you ever had someone share with you that they are LGBTQ+? What did it feel like? Did you feel nervous, awkward, or confused? Did you feel honored, relieved, grateful? Did it seem like a big deal for the person sharing? What questions did you have?
For LGBTQ+ people, “coming out” is the act of sharing one’s sexual orientation or gender identity, knowing that this identity goes against the “norm.” Non-LGBTQ+ people do not need to come out, as being straight and cisgender is expected in our current society. The term “coming out” has a long lineage of use, and is most associated with the longer phrase “coming out of the closet,” as solidified by a speech from the first Gay Liberation March in NYC in 1970 – “we’ll never have the freedom and civil rights we deserve as human beings unless we stop hiding in closets and in the shelter of anonymity.”
For many people, coming out is a big deal. It is a moment of sharing a personal part of one’s identity, and is potentially opening oneself up to the stigma, shame, discrimination, isolation, and harassment that LGBTQ+ people too often experience. Most LGBTQ+ people lose friends and/or family members after coming out due to lack of acceptance. Just the fear of losing community is enough to keep many people from sharing their identity.
So how can you immediately show acceptance and safety when a young person comes out to you? The first thing is to practice your poker face. Acting surprised, shocked, or even elated can put the spotlight on you, not on what the person in front of you is saying. Smile supportively, and thank them for sharing.
If they have come out to you using a term you are unfamiliar with, ask “what does that mean to you?” or “what is important for me to know.” Both questions allow the youth to share what they want you specifically to know, while not putting them in a position where they are teaching you about broader LGBTQ+ identities. You do not need to know the exact definition of the term to support and affirm the child in front of you.
(If you are interested in learning more about specific terminology, check out our extensive terminology page. )
After thanking them for sharing with you, asking “what would you like me to know about that?” or “what feels important for me to know?” will allow them to lead the conversation where they want to take it, and does not put any pressure on them to share more than they are comfortable sharing.
If they are coming out as transgender, non-binary, genderfluid, genderqueer, or agender – ask them if there is a different name or pronoun they would like you to use. Pronouns reflect our gender – so if they are sharing a different gender identity, they are potentially also coming out with a different pronoun. Sexual orientation is not the same as our gender, so asking if they are changing their pronouns if they come out as non-straight will most likely result in an eye-roll.
In this and subsequent conversations with the youth, assess their support system and safety. Who else have they come out to? How have people treated them? Are they experiencing any negative push-back from others? Do they need anything from you?
Some questions you can ask are:
“Have you been able to share this with other folks in your life?”
“Is your family supportive?”
“Are your friends supportive?”
“Is there anything I can do to best support you?”
“Please let me know if anyone ever treats you differently because of this, I want to make sure we know so we can stop any issues before they start.”
“Who else at school have you told?”
“Can I use the name and pronouns you just told me in places like the cafeteria, or just in my classroom?”
If you learn that the child does not have a support system, ask if they have one adult at school or in their extended community they can trust. If so, ask if the youth can set up a time to talk to that person soon about how that person can be even more of a support for them. Ask the youth if they have heard of OUT Maine, and if they are interested in coming to any of our virtual or in-person programming. Remind them that all kids need to be connected with other kids who just “get them,” and OUT’s youth groups might be able to offer them that.
Everyone deserves to come out in their own ways and on their own timeline. Young people know with whom they can share personal information safely. It is crucial to keep someone’s LGBTQ+ identity confidential – unless given permission to share – and allow each person the opportunity to be in control of their own coming out process.
Coming out can be a scary thing, but when given support, validation, and safety, coming out can be a beautiful, life-affirming, and euphoric experience.