Supporting a peer when coming out

For a young person coming out is a terrifying thing. It’s the most uncertain moment where they understand who they are and the heavy weight it can bring. They’ve already faced it in themselves and now want to engage it with the world around them. It’s a huge step for a gender or sexual minority and it never stops; they will come out to many more people for the rest of their lives. Some will be more supportive than others which makes a huge difference in their lives.

LGBTQ2+ youth are representing youth homelessness in Canada by more than 20%. They make up 20 percent of youth in shelters in Toronto but it’s believed there are even more not in shelters. 33 percent of LGBTQ2+ have attempted suicide compared to 7 percent overall. Over half have thought about it and are four times more likely to attempt than heterosexual youth. They’re twice as likely to be harassed, assaulted, called names or picked on and after each incident become 2.5 times more likely to self-harm. All of these factors make them more likely to become at-risk or engage in risky behaviors.

This is why having support among their peers in important. We all need someone around to give guidance or advice, offer condolence and compassion, to tell us when to check ourselves and be there when we need it. We all go through struggles, but some of us are more likely to face it. Coming out is becoming visible, and though it’s a necessary thing for gender and sexual minorities it’s also where most of these problems start. It’s up to all of us to support our peers when they come out, even when it gets tough. 

Here are 6 ways you can support your friends and peers when they come out.

1) Be open to who they are

Accept what they say as their truth. If you are lucky that someone trusts you enough to come out to you personally, do not give them doubt. Recognize that they have reached a new understanding of themselves and are putting it into words. They might have a name for it; gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, queer, two-spirit, transgender, non-binary, gender non-conforming, genderqueer, intersex, asexual, demisexual or even just questioning. They might have an idea of who they are already while some may still be sorting it out. Any of these is totally okay; look these terms up, ask questions and try to understand them.

2: Ask them what their pronouns are

This is less relevant to people who come out as a sexual minority. But if they come out as a gender minority get to know their identity. Ask them in private how they want to be referred. Their pronoun may be different than first thought; it could be masculine, feminine, neutral or just different. Being kind enough to check and abide by how they would like to be called is a huge way to affirm their identity and avoids an awkward situation where you might misgender them.

3: Watch the language that you use

Words we say have little implications on how we perceive the world. Don’t say words that are homophobic or transphobic. Calling someone or something gay as a negative implies there is something wrong with being gay and might make them feel unsafe or uncomfortable. Check with them if there’s other words or phrases that make an environment seem hostile. Transphobic language is also a bad move. Words or phrases that imply certain genders need certain body parts, certain bodies are somehow wrong or that certain genders are invalid. Watching out for little stumbles like these can help gender minorities feel safer among their peers.

4: Stand up for them in the face of harassment

If they are being picked on or assaulted don’t just stand by! Be there to support them, don’t let them go through it alone. Shut down insults and slurs they might be called. Remind them they’re awesome and valid and a valued friend. Don’t let them fall victim to bullying. If they are physically threatened by anyone, tell a parent or teacher, or even the police. They’re much more likely to become victims of violence than their straight and cis-gender peers. If they feel unsafe at home or at school don’t just hope it will go away; talk about it with someone who can make a difference.

5: Check in on their mental state

Ask them how they’re doing, if they feel safe in their home or school environment, at their activities or on their teams. The stresses and pressures faced by LGBTQ2+ youth make them far more likely to become anxious, depressed, afraid and overall withdrawn from things they might have otherwise enjoyed before. A poor mental state, feelings of fear, loneliness or self-doubt can cause them to isolate. They might even drop out of school which could set them back months or years in their education. Be there for them when they’re unsure or coping with fresh challenges.

6: Above all, remember to treat them like the person they are

They’re no different from before, just more honest with you about their identity. They still like doing the things they used to do before they came out. Treating them like they’re softer, more fragile or altogether changed can be really isolating. It can harm their progress as they come to terms with who they are by telling them that they are much more different than thought. It can make them feel excluded or like they’re being given special attention. Just be the same friend they always had and they’ll thank you for it.

Coming out is never an easy process. It’s scary, complicated and can leave all sorts of reactions. It almost never has the same story and often has very different outcomes. But it’s a huge step for everyone who isn’t straight or cis-gender. It’s the first step on a long road often ending with honesty and self-acceptance. It’s by no means a requirement, but it’s hugely rewarding. Let’s help make it more accessible to youth from all backgrounds; everyone deserves to feel accepted and valued, and nobody deserves to feel alone and hidden.

Article provided by Brendan Collinge