When a friend or loved one comes out to you, whether in-person or through social media, it’s normal to feel a whirlwind of emotions. You may be surprised (or not surprised), struggling with judgment, worrying about their safety, feeling proud and supportive, or brimming with questions.
But first things first: pause.
This person has just told you some personal information that may have been difficult for them to relay. It’s possible that leading up to this moment, they were feeling stressed about how you would react.
"Thank you so much for trusting me and sharing this with me. I love you.”
So take a breath, pause your spinning mind, and offer up the most important statement you can make: “Thank you so much for trusting me and sharing this with me. I love you.” If your loved one says they’re okay with it, this might be a good time for a hug or hand-squeeze. If they’d rather not have physical touch, that’s obviously okay, too.
At this point, you may have some questions floating around your mind. Before you dive into them with your loved one, there are two things you need to ask. The first question is for you: “Am I asking to satisfy my own curiosity or so I can better support my loved one?” The second question is for them: “Can I ask you some questions, or would you rather not talk more about this right now?”
“Am I asking to satisfy my own curiosity or so I can better support my loved one?”
If your loved one says they’re not into answering questions right now, that’s totally fine. They just spent a lot of emotional energy telling you a thing, and they might want to leave it at that. Tell them: “That’s okay, I understand. What would you like to do now?”
Other people may want to talk more in depth about what they’re experiencing. If they do, these are some questions to ask—and some to avoid.
What To Ask When Your Friend Comes Out
- “Who else are you out to? Should I keep this between us, or is it more common knowledge?”
This lets them know that you’re being thoughtful about their boundaries and safety.
- “How can I support you?”
Open-ended questions let people describe what they’re needing or looking for from you. They might say nothing, but asking it alone lets them know that you’re there for them.
- “What language feels good for me to describe you?”
Language is complicated. Someone might prefer to call themselves “queer” (a historical slur that many have reclaimed as a chosen label), but only want you and others to call them a lesbian. Or they might not know the answer to this yet. Either way, reflect back the language they use when speaking to your friend and others.
“What pronouns and name should I use for you?”
- “What pronouns and name should I use for you?”
This is a question you would ask to a loved one who is coming out as transgender. They may have already shared this information with you, or they might not know the answer. Whatever they tell you, be thoughtful and always mirror their language.
What Not To Ask When Your Friend Comes Out
- “So how long have you been _____ for?”
Maybe they’ve known this about themselves forever, maybe they just realized it 30 minutes ago. Either way, this question opens up Pandora’s Box and invites a whole lot of existential dread and self-doubt. This is because our world tells people that they’re “straight by default,” which can lead to a lot of confusion and questions that LGBTQ+ people internally face regarding who they truly are. And ultimately, it doesn’t matter how long they’ve known—what’s relevant is that they’re telling you now.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how long they’ve known—what’s relevant is that they’re telling you now.
- “Aren’t you scared of what people will think or do? I’m so worried about you.”
Your loved one may indeed experience discrimination or be treated differently because of their gender or sexuality. However, they’re probably happier being able to live outwardly as they truly are, rather than having to hide a piece of themselves.
- “So how do you have sex?”
Unless you’re about to have sex with someone, it’s best to avoid asking this. Everybody’s sexual desires and behaviors are different and personal—regardless of their gender or sexual orientation. If you are about to have sex with the person you’re talking to, then reframe the question to, “So, what types of play are you into?” or “How do you like to have sex?”
Unless you’re about to have sex with someone, it’s best to avoid asking, “How do you have sex?”
- “Are you going to get the surgery?” (or “Have you had the surgery?”)
This is a question that transgender people often encounter. It’s not great to ask for a few reasons: First, there is no one medical procedure that trans people may pursue, if they decide to pursue any at all. Second, this question implies that if a trans person doesn’t have surgery, then they aren’t really transgender. On the contrary, many trans people do not want or pursue surgery, and they are no less trans for making such a decision. Third, this question is rarely asked from a place of support. It’s usually coming from a place of curiosity, of wondering what a transgender person’s genitals look like. In plain terms: It isn’t your business what someone’s junk looks like.
- “Oh, I’ve known that for ages.”
This one isn’t a question, but it is still in the no-go zone. That’s because even though you may have had your own thoughts about your friend’s gender or sexuality, they don’t need to know that you’ve been contemplating it for the past 10 years. Or, they may not have realized it themselves, and this statement can lead them to think there’s something wrong with them or to worry about the judgment of others.
With these suggestions in mind you’ll be ready to show up as your most supportive self and say the right thing to your loved one. High five for being a good friend and LGBTQ+ ally.
For more resources, check out:
The LGBTQ Center of UNC Chapel Hill’s website
BookRiot’s list of 20 books for parents of LGBTQ kids
TSER’s bank of helpful infographics
GLSEN’s school-focused resources for students and educators
PFLAG’s “Our Trans Loved Ones” guide