Journalist Fay Barrett recalls her own LGBTQ+ coming out experience and consults a panel of leading experts to find out exactly how you can help support someone when they tell you their ‘news’. Whether it’s your son, daughter, sibling or even your ex, here’s how to react in the best possible way when someone comes out – whether they’re 17 or 70.
“The countdown has begun. Tomorrow is ‘D’ day. I’m about to go ‘over the top’ and run blindly into gunfire.”
I wrote this in my diary seven years ago, the night before coming out to my parents.
I dreaded how those little words, “I’m gay” would change my life and potentially our relationship forever.
My fears were unfounded. My parents gave the dream response. The tears were streaming down my face and my mum’s instinct was to hold me. My mum remembers saying: “Dad and I love you very much and, if this is what makes you happy, we don’t have a problem with it. We will welcome anybody that you have as a partner into our life.”
When someone comes out, there’s a palpable fear of rejection. So, how can you ensure your child or an adult in your life feels supported? I spoke with relationship coach Ali Hendry, psychotherapeutic counsellor Chloe Foster of Sussex Rainbow Counselling, and my own lovely mum, to find out.
Hendry (a relationship coach within the queer community) says a fear of rejection is very common for LGBTQ+ people before they come out. “There are too many homeless and suicidal people who can trace back their experiences to a time when they felt rejected, judged and unsupported by their family.”
S.he warns parents not to “add to that statistic” and defines a child/teen’s ‘coming out’ as “a key moment where you can have a positive impact on your child’s future.” Remember, your child “may be ultra-sensitive and looking for anything that sounds like you are rejecting them”.
Hendry says, “Listen to hear” rather than “listen to talk”. Often, we’re thinking of our own response rather than taking in someone else’s words.
My own mum’s advice is “keep the dialogue going. Always be there for them, even if they are living miles away. Let them know you are at the end of the telephone. It doesn’t matter if it’s 2am. You are there for that child even if they are grown up. You’re still their mum”.
Watch: Fay Barrett and five other LGBTQ+ people share their powerful coming out stories
Trust them and believe
Believe is a key word for counsellor Chloe Foster. “The best way to support your child/teenager who has come out as gay, bi (or anywhere on the LGBTQI+ spectrum) is to believe them. Debating or dismissing their identity is not ok. Your child needs your love and support.”
Although this is new to you, your child will have thought about it for a long time. “Recognise that where you are at on your acceptance journey is going to be different from where they are at,” adds Hendry.
Respect their right to be fluid
Many people change how they identify throughout their lives. They may identify as straight, gay, bi, non-binary, trans, pansexual, asexual etc. How can you help someone who’s navigating sexual fluidity?
Foster suggests remembering sexual identity is fluid for many people.
“We are not the same people with the same attractions at 14 as we are when we’re 19. When your child changes their label it doesn’t mean their old label was fake, it means they are taking time to figure out what word fits best for them.”
She suggests viewing this positively. They trust you and feel comfortable sharing how their sexuality has evolved.
Coming out in adulthood
While many people come out in their teens, this isn’t always the case. It can be hard when someone you’ve known as heterosexual for many years says they are gay. When I came out at 34, some of my closest friends struggled because I hadn’t shared my ‘secret’ with them.
Foster stresses the need for belief: “Because we live in a heteronormative society it is so much harder for gay and bi people to figure out who they are and share this with others.”
She says you may feel deceived but consider why it’s taken them so long to tell you. It’s likely they were trying to work out their sexuality and were scared of your reaction.
Coming out at work
If a colleague comes out to you around the water cooler, coffee machine or even on Zoom, Foster says remember this is not gossip. Instead ask how you can support them.
Go at your colleague’s speed and wait for them to volunteer information, is Hendry’s advice. Only ask questions if invited, “otherwise it can feel challenging and invasive”.
When your ex comes out
Understandably, many people have questions when an ex comes out. Was the relationship a lie? Did you ‘turn them’? Hendry says while it's common to feel lied to, angry or foolish, remember this is not about you.
“Try not to feel your ex’s actions have been 'done to you’ or are in some way attached to you. View the new information as 100% personal to your ex. Your own responses to finding out this information are totally valid. Try to unattach them from any tendency to attribute cause and effect.”
As Foster says, “No one can cause someone to be bi/gay. Try to feel happy for that person knowing they are likely to be more content now they are open with who they truly are.”
A family bond
I’ll leave you with the wisdom of my beautiful mum, who reminds us to love each other no matter what.
“There’s no way I would say, ‘I can’t take this, don’t darken my doorstep,’ because I don’t know how many years I’ve got. I want to spend those years loving my daughter as I’ve always done – caring for her, supporting her and enjoying the life we’ve got together.”
I wish everyone who came out had the same loving support as me. But by following the advice in this piece you might make a difference when someone needs it most.