How to avoid putting your foot in your mouth!
I was raised in a Conservative, Mennonite home – in my home, my church, my school, my entire life, homosexuality was a sin. To my knowledge at that point, I’d never had a friend who was gay, much less anyone coming out to me. After I moved to California, I was forced to put a face and a heart to the thing that I’d been taught to believe was one of the worst things someone could do. For the first time, I actually knew LGBTQ+ people personally. It didn’t take long for me to connect the dots and understand the inhumanity of looking down on anyone – we are all just people. All different, all just wanting to find love and happiness.
This past week, my best friend came out as gay to her Facebook friends and family. This is a big step for her – she is accepting it more every day, and I see the effect it’s had on not just her love life, but her life in general. She is happier because she can be herself, and it means so much more to her than whomever she might date, or marry one day. She is not the first friend to come out to me, and I have not always been proud of the way I’ve handled what I’ve said – it’s never been with the intent of being ignorant or angry or hurtful, but I realize now how subtly aggressive what I said was. With that in mind, I got my bestie and we brainstormed, using her experience in coming out, as well as helping others come out, for a list of things not to say.
Where coming out is concerned, there are often a lot of negative emotions that keep people feeling trapped in the closet – certainly one of the biggest of those emotions being fear – particularly fear of judgment and loss. It’s often difficult to know exactly what to say to our friend or loved one when they come out – even if we are completely accepting – and it can be difficult to convey the support we intend to offer. Even as supportive as I am of my biffle, I still find myself saying things that come out completely opposite of the way I intended them – it’s all about learning and hearing our loved ones! Here are 5 things NOT to say, and what to say instead:
- “You’re too [masculine or feminine] to be gay!”
I understand that in the moment, if this comes as a surprise to you, this could be one of the first things that pop into your head – after all, you are seeing this person that you’ve likely known for awhile in an entirely new light. However, not only is this sexist, but it implies that their sexuality (which they’ve spent years digesting and arriving at this point has likely been a painful journey) is a matter of opinion.
Instead of coming across as argumentative about something as personal and intimate as someone’s sexuality, keep in mind how vulnerable they feel and instead say something like, “I’ve always been attracted to [opposite sex], I can’t imagine how difficult this must have been for you!” This offers support to their decision to let you see who they really are, and also brings yourself down just a little bit too, enough to hopefully make them feel a little more comfortable and less vulnerable.
- “You’re a good person, anyway!” or “I love you, anyway!”
This one is often one that gets overlooked, and one I see all the time. The “anyway” in this sentence implies that their newly accepted sexuality is somehow damaging to their character, or somehow a nullifying quality to their relationship with you – that it’s something to be overlooked. As with all of these, the intention is usually not to say that, or insinuate that, but that’s how it is usually read by the one coming out nevertheless.
“I’m so happy for you!” is much more supportive and neutral in nature, and offers them the respect of deciding what is best for them. Hopefully you don’t, but even if you do think that it’s a sin, the least you can do is support them in their hard times and not judge them for anything you might disagree with. Respect is both given and earned.
- “But you dated [member of opposite sex]!”
Folks, I hate to disappoint you here, but there are many gay people in marriages because they believe that the way they feel is wrong, much less more insignificant relationships. And sometimes that works – some people manage to suppress those feelings, no matter how unnatural that must seem – but not everyone can. But most LGBTQ+ people have felt pressured to be “straight” and “normal” at least one point in their lives.
Honestly, there really is no tactful way to bring up their past hetero relationships, and they are probably sensitive, painful subjects for them to begin with, so they should probably be just avoided altogether. Instead of talking about past relationships, maybe ask about future (or current) relationships, or ask how they’re doing with the dating scene. “Is there anyone special in your life?” or “Have you met anyone interesting lately?” are much less combative ways to ask about their dating life.
- “When did that happen??”
Even I’m confused on this one. I never understand what they mean, but I see/hear it a lot. The point is, it’s probably been happening their entire lives, and it’s not often just one brilliant stroke of rainbow genius that a person feels when they realize they’re gay. You’re straight? When did that happen?? See, kind of a dumb question, right?
“I’d love to hear about your journey sometime!” or “I’m so glad you felt comfortable enough with me to tell me!” are much kinder options – it shows interest in the inner workings of their mind, and makes them feel cared for, which is likely the reason they told you to start with! This also buffers the person coming out – if talking about their journey is too painful to do right then, they don’t feel obligated to drudge that back up again, but you are still showing interest and support.
Not saying anything at all speaks volumes as well – it communicates that you want no part in their life as a result of this change. Whether or not you agree with homosexuality, I don’t think it can be denied that you would not be a part of their life if your loyalty to them was that shallow and easily broken, right? By coming out, they are affirming to themselves that it’s okay to be exactly who they are – that is a difficult step to make, and is one that should always be supported and celebrated regardless of what the epiphany may be. Coming out takes courage for a reason!
Instead of staying silent, I hope you’ve found some helpful things to say instead and maybe understood why wording is so important in such an occasion. We should always offer our fellow human beings with a certain dignity and respect, especially when they accept something as life-altering as this. The difficult decision to come out can be made either excruciating or significantly easier if they are just shown compassion and love for what they have to offer the world.
Go to: http://www.rucomingout.com/ or http://lgbt.foundation/information-advice/coming-out-support/ or http://hrc.org for more on coming out, as well as touching testimonials of those who have been on the other side.
How about you guys? Do you have any ideas to add? How about ideas on what to say instead?