By Kelly Huegel Madrone, author of GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Teens.
These days, kids are “coming out”—telling others about their gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning, or any number of other nonheterosexual or gender nonconforming identities—at younger ages than ever before. Two decades ago, when I was in my early twenties, most people came out in their late teens or early twenties. Now, largely due to increased visibility, some young people are voicing their nontraditional identities as early as elementary school.
So how can you support kids or teens who come out to you? To some extent, that depends on your role in their lives, as well as in their coming out processes. If you’re a trusted friend, a family member, or an educator, you may be one of the first people (if not the first person) that a child comes out to. Or you may be further down the list. Either way, there are some common things you can do to provide a safe space during this process.
Don’t talk. At least not right away. Listen to what these kids are telling you, and as much as possible, do so without judgment. Depending on your feelings about the person or the news, you may feel an internal push to start asking questions, such as “Are you sure?” and “How do you know?” Questions (asked in the right spirit) can come later. For now, let the kid do the talking.
Some people think it’s helpful to tell the person that they already knew. I know people, myself included, who’ve come out to others only to have those trusted people say something akin to, “Duh!” The intention behind that kind of response might be positive or trying to be funny, but it can have the opposite effect and instead shame or demoralize the person out.
Even if you did suspect, just let the person talk. If you want to say something, “Okay, I’m listening” is a great response.
For Now, Focus On the Kid
It’s human nature to focus first on ourselves and how someone else’s news might affect us. This is more common if the person coming out to you is a close friend or family member. But try to remind yourself that this isn’t about you. You will have time to process the information, but right now there’s a person in front of you (or on the other end of the computer or phone) who is telling you something incredibly important to him or her, and being very vulnerable in the process. Try to keep the focus on this person’s experience, and on demonstrating empathy and compassion.
Keep Questions Respectful
A question like, “How do you know?” might seem innocuous to you but can come across as challenging to the person coming out. Questions like “How does that feel for you?” and “What is that experience like for you?” can be more supportive. Also, “How are you feeling?” and simply, “What can I do to support you?” are more positive.
Young people who come out as transgender or gender-nonconforming may wish to go by a different name and/or use pronouns other than the traditional she or he (such as their/their, or ze/zie/sie). It can be confusing if you aren’t familiar with the issue of pronouns, so simply ask, “What would you like me to call you?” and “What are your pronouns?”
Link the Person (and Yourself) with Resources
For some young people, especially those in rural areas, GLBTQ-positive resources can be difficult to come by. Asking them what resources they have access to and where they are getting support is another good idea. If they don’t have any resources (or any good or reputable ones), you can help by connecting them. (And it wouldn’t hurt to do a little research and get some support yourself.)
Here are some of my favorites for young people and their loved ones.
- The Trevor Project: If the young person coming out to you is (or might be) in crisis, this organization can help. The Trevor Project is a crisis intervention and suicide prevention program for GLBTQ young people that provides services via phone, text, and online chat. Their website includes a link to the online chat service. The Trevor Lifeline (which operates 24 hours a day) is 866-488-7386. The Trevor text number is 202-304-1200.
- GLSEN: The Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network provides extensive resources for young GLBTQ people as well as educators.
- Sex, Etc.: As the name implies, this website provides more than sexuality education, but that is one of its keystones. Operated out of Rutgers University, Sex, Etc. is comprised of articles written for teens, by teens, so it provides helpful information (for GLBTQ, cisgender, and straight teens alike) on current topics in language that’s accessible.
- PFLAG: Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (which also includes transgender and gender-nonconforming people) is one of the nation’s oldest support organizations for GLBTQ people and their loved ones. They are a great resource with chapters all across the country as well as a central national organization. They also operate in-person support groups.
And, of course, there’s my book: GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Teens. It includes a variety of information on what it means to be a young GLBTQ person these days, has a large resource section, and can answer a lot of your basic questions.
Keep an Open Mind
Our understanding of our sexual identity and orientation is something that develops and evolves over our lifetimes. That means that this may not be your last conversation. For example, a person who first comes out as gender queer or gay may later identify as transgender, bisexual, or something different altogether. (Just think of how many adults come out or whose sexual identities change later in life.) Therefore, it’s helpful to keep an open mind and realize that anyone’s declared orientation can change.
If a young person does come out to you and you forget all of these things, don’t worry— just remember to stay calm, stay open, and listen. In the moment of coming out, these young people don’t need you to say something grand or do the perfect thing. Just being there and supporting them means the world.
And if all you can remember to say is these two words, you’ll do just fine: “I’m here.”
Kelly Huegel Madrone is a freelance writer, editor, and educator. She has worked for the Metropolitan Washington, D.C., chapter of PFLAG where she helped provide support and educational services to GLBTQ people and their families. The author of two books and more than one hundred published articles, Kelly holds a degree in secondary education. She lives in Colorado with her wife, Margaret, and daughter. Kelly welcomes readers to follow her on Twitter at @GLBTQguide or visit her website at www.evolvedanimal.com.
Kelly is the author of GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Teens.
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