“I think I’m going to tell my family over the holidays.”
She was sitting across from me in a small coffee shop that overlooks Pike’s Place Market. The sun glinted off Puget Sound as I looked at her hands, which were trembling slightly.
“Yesterday was the first day that I went out openly as a woman, and it felt really scary and really good,” she continued. My mind went to everything that my friend is about to experience as she begins the transition from male to female. This is a brave soul. I caught her eyes, and within them was a mixture of freedom and fear — and resolve. “It’s no longer a question of if I’m going to transition, it’s a matter of when.”
We parted ways with a hug. “I’m so proud of you, my friend,” I told her. As I walked down the stairs to the busy streets of downtown Seattle, I found myself praying for her and her family. The holidays seem to be a time when these conversations happen — and they can take a toll, especially in Christian families. Often times, we don’t have a clue how to respond when a friend or family member comes out to us, whether it be as transgender, lesbian, gay, queer, bisexual, or anything else that catches us off guard.
Here are five tips for how to respond in the best possible way when someone you know and love is courageous enough to come out to you:
1. Stay near.
Coming out is an incredibly vulnerable experience. Even if you feel like you’re the safest person in the world, the amount of fear that your loved one has to overcome to say the words is immense. Vulnerability is intrinsically attached to shame — as vulnerability grows, so will the sense of shame. Staying close to your loved one in the immediate days after the revelation will help combat that shame. Reach out. Give a hug. If it’s late at night, make a point of tracking the person down first thing in the morning.
When I first came out to one of my best friends, I immediately went into self-isolation mode. I avoided him even though he responded with nothing but love. I could not believe that he still wanted to be my friend. I am so thankful that the day after I came out to him he purposely tracked me down and gave me a big hug, and did so day after day.
2. Don’t assume your love is known.
Affirm your love. Constantly. Be obvious and be public. Your loved one may wonder if you are now ashamed of him, or if you’re okay with being seen around him. Take this time to be very vocal about your love and how that will never change. Your friend is going to need encouragement.
3. Ask questions.
Just by working up the nerve to tell you, your loved one has shown that you mean enough to trust with this information. Don’t blow that trust by immediately thinking you must explain your views and thoughts, especially if you get the urge to “speak the truth in love.” This is not the time. It may never be the time. Push down your need to be right and let curiosity take over. Your loved one will most likely be relieved to be able to talk about this in a genuine way. Allow conversation to happen — and let him dominate that conversation. It’s your turn to learn and listen.
Don’t just blow your loved one off, either. “I’ll always love you. This doesn’t change anything” is a great place to start, but don’t let that be the end. If you immediately change the subject, you’re saying that this isn’t worth spending time on. These conversations, while they can be hard, are worth every moment spent.
4. Don’t throw the Bible at him/her.
Immediately pulling out the Bible is probably not a good idea. Neither is waiting a few weeks and inviting your loved one to coffee with a Bible in hand. Defensively asking, “How do you reconcile this with the Bible?” is not helpful. Your loved one coming out is not an invitation to battle. Pulling out verse after verse will feel like punch after punch.
Part of having well developed convictions is knowing when to let them sit. The things you are saying and verses you are quoting are not new. Your loved one has most likely pored over them for years. Leave them behind, and tune into the image of God sitting in front of you.
5. Follow up.
Recently, I was chatting with a friend who came out to her best friend several months ago. I asked how things were going. Her face fell as she quietly said, “I haven’t heard from her since.” Her friend had done all the right things in the moment when she came out but never followed through.
You may not know what to say after the dust has settled. You may feel like your loved one is an entirely different person. Regardless, stay in touch for the long term. If you live at a distance, communicate more often. If you live close, initiate hang out times. It may take time for your loved one to feel comfortable around you again — she will be sensitive to any indication that you’re distancing yourself. Get past the awkwardness that you may be feeling and choose relationship.
* * *
Coming out is a scary experience. If your loved one is just beginning to step out of the closet, it has probably taken years to build up to telling you. Honor and respect that. You may be filled with many conflicting emotions — there will be plenty of time to work through those later on in your relationship. For now, hold your loved one close, affirm your love, enter into conversation, and stay in touch. Your relationship has the potential to be so much deeper because of this vulnerability.
You will make mistakes. Your loved one will understand. Keep pursuing. This is work worth doing.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.