Coming out is when any person reveals an aspect of their identity to another person or a group of people. An LGBTQ individual must choose if they will come out, when and to whom. Sometimes, this decision can be dangerous, depending on the climate and acceptance of LGBTQ people in their community.
When a LGBTQ youth decides to come out, they are taking a risk that they might be rejected, ridiculed and/or harassed. It is important to understand that everyone’s decision to come out is their decision alone. You should never force or convince an LGBTQ person to come out to you or anyone in your Club or Youth Center.
As a trusted Club professional and role model for LGBTQ members, a youth may come out to you, or look to you for support in the process of coming out to others. Coming out is different for each person. Some may simply say, “I am gay/lesbian/ transgender” etc. For others, it may be a deeply emotional process and they might need a lot of support.
It is also important to understand that a LGBTQ youth can be “out” in some places, but not out in others. For example, some youth may feel comfortable and safe enough to be “out” in the Club environment. However, that doesn’t mean they are “out” at home, school or anywhere else outside of the Club. Just because someone felt comfortable coming out to you, doesn’t mean they are ready to come out to the Club. Be extremely careful that you do not disclose a youth’s identity to anyone. Be sure to find out if anyone else knows and is supportive, how you can support them, and if they have plans to come out to others. Find a free Coming Out tip sheet from The Safe Zone Project here.
There are a few things you can do when an LGBTQ youth comes out to you.
- Express your support, but do not assume they need your help. As mentioned earlier, the “coming out” process is different for every individual. Not all youth will need your help and support. Simply express that you are supportive of their decision and who they are as a person, and remind them that you are available to help. Sometimes, this support can be enough.
- Acknowledge their courage. Coming out takes an immense amount of courage for a LGBTQ youth. Be sure to thank them for being brave and trusting you, and thank them for sharing their identity with you.
- Be a role model of acceptance in your Club. This might involve providing resources to youth, or it could be openly addressing anti-LGBTQ remarks made by a staff member, adult or member. It’s important to be a visible pillar of support for everyone in your Club to see.
- Listen. Coming out can be a long process for some. Simply being there to listen without judgment is a great way to show your support
- Be confidential. Make sure youth who come out to you know that anything they tell you will be kept completely private. If they want anyone else in the Club or outside of it to know their identity, it is their choice to make.
- Ask questions. To better support a youth coming out, it may be helpful to ask questions to ensure your commitment to providing a safe and affirming environment. Below are a few example questions you might ask.
- Have you felt comfortable coming out to anyone else?
- Have you told your family? And if so, have they been accepting and supportive?
- Do you feel safe in the Club? What can I (staff) do to ensure the Club is a supportive place?
- Is there anything I can do to support you?
- Do you have access to any resources?
- Remember, a person coming out is still the same person. Coming out doesn’t have to change your relationship with someone. The person coming out is still the same person as before. Reassure youth that you are around to support them, just like you always have been.
- Validate. If any LGBTQ youth come out as transgender, validate their gender expression by using the correct name and pronoun. If you are unsure what those are, ASK! It is important that you affirm their expressed identity, or it can be harmful and negatively affect their experience in a Club.
Here are a few things NOT to say when someone comes out to you.
- “I knew it!” Saying you knew only implies that you made an assumption based on a stereotype. This only affirms your beliefs (not what they are going through), and does not act as a supportive statement for the person coming out.
- “Are you sure?” or “This might just be a phase.” This statement assumes that the youth is unaware or unsure of his/her own identity. Most times, coming out requires a lot of thought, preparation and courage on his/her behalf.
- “You just haven’t found the right guy/girl yet.” This statement makes the assumption that all people should be heterosexual. Sexual orientation, gender expression and gender identity are not a choice, they are a part of who someone is. Rejecting the natural aspect of someone’s identity can be extremely disheartening and hurtful.
- “Don’t tell anyone.” This comment implies that there is something wrong with being LGBTQ. If there are safety concerns, due to the community’s climate or a specific situation, thank the person for telling you, and explain that you want to discuss the level of tolerance within the Club or community. This might affect who they come out to and when they decide to come out.
- “But you’ve had relationships with someone of the opposite sex.” Someone’s past behavior does not have any relation to who they are now. They may have felt pressured to act a certain way because it is more accepted by peers or the community.
For more resources on serving LGBTQ youth, visit BGCA.net. This content was adapted from GLSEN’s Safe Space Kit.