How should you react if someone you love (a parent, child, spouse, sibling or friend) comes out to you as being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender? Well, no matter how much of a shock it may be to you, you should try to listen, without interruption, until they are done saying what they have to say. Usually, they have rehearsed what they’re about to tell you and have chosen a place and time that is conducive to having a frank discussion. They have likely given a lot of thought to how this information might impact your relationship, and they have made the decision that they can no longer keep such an important aspect of themselves secret from you. Your willingness-up front- to respectfully let them have their say will determine how everything that is to follow will play out.
Know that this is not a one-time discussion. There needs to be a series of discussions, where you and your loved one are both able to articulate your thoughts, feelings and concerns. You will have a lot of questions. Hopefully, they will be ready with some solid answers. You may ask your loved one the same questions multiple times as you seek to gain understanding, and they will hopefully be patient and explain as many times as you need them to do so.
Unless you already suspected that they may be LGBT, it’s likely that you’ll react with at least shock if not some form of denial. You might ask if it’s a phase or an experiment. You’ll be tempted to suggest that they’ve gotten in with the wrong crowd or allowed someone to have undue influence on them. You might be so overwhelmed that you could try to shut down your loved one completely and refuse to hear them say the words. Trying to insulate yourself from the truth is understandable, but it won’t make it any less true, or less painful. In fact, it could be devastating to your loved one who is trying to come out to you.
You will want to know how long they’ve known and why they haven’t told you until now. You might feel deceived and betrayed, like everything before this moment was a lie. You will think back to certain times and situations and wonder if they may have been indicative of “something.” It’s even possible that you’ll wish they had trusted you enough to tell you sooner, so you could have helped them more in their journey. You could feel terribly hurt and angry that you were kept in the dark about what was going on for so long. Additionally, this may go against your deeply held religious values, ones that are not swayed by public opinion or statistical research. Because of the negative bias against the LGBT community, you could find yourself fearing for their personal safety as well as their souls.
Ultimately, you will experience a tremendous sense of loss, one that has been described as like a death. The person you thought you knew and loved before this revelation will have ceased to exist in the length of a conversation. You will feel a sudden separation, one that they have likely felt for a long time as they had to keep up appearances and maintain their secret from you. This is a loss you will have to mourn, especially if you are a parent or spouse.
Fortunately, it is a temporary loss. What you have lost is the “idea” of this person, and now it must be replaced with a new “idea.” The person you love is still alive and available to be a part of your life, what has changed is your awareness of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Of course, this is not a subtle distinction. It includes coming to understand that their life plan may not be what you thought it would be with regards to children, marriage, family, career, etc. Parents may have a hard time understanding that their “little boy” is gone forever. Wives may find it difficult to understand that they will no longer have a husband. After all, they married a man and had every reason to expect that he would continue to be one.
So, what do you do? Well, again, listening is most important. They likely have a lot on their minds that they’ve been longing to say. If you find you’re at a complete loss as to how to respond when it is finally your turn, reflective listening works best. For example, if they sum it up by saying, “I’ve been wanting to tell you this for the past three years, but I was afraid you wouldn’t understand and that you wouldn’t love me anymore;” you could reflect back to them, “You wanted me to know, but you were afraid of my reaction.” This may sound simplistic, but it shows that you hear them, and that you are interested in hearing more of their perspective. You could follow up with simply, “I’m listening.”
Though you’ll no doubt want to offer an opinion or an emotional reaction at this point, reflective listening should be your first response. Try your best to let them know that you are open to whatever else they might want to tell you. Allowing them to say what they need to say without judgment is a gift like no other. By not putting them on trial, you will give them the space they need to make known what has been hidden inside themselves for so long. Keep in mind that you will have plenty of time after this initial conversation is over to reflect and react to what has been said, which you will most definitely need to do. So, a statement like, “This is a lot for me to think about, I feel overwhelmed by my emotions right now. Let me process some of this and get back to you,” would be fair.
You thoughts, feelings and beliefs are every bit as important and valid as that of your loved one. Information of this magnitude can take time to process and digest. You do not, I repeat, do not have to make any decisions or come to any conclusions right away. Being put on the spot can sometimes make people feel like they are forced to decide-then and there-on a course of action, such as whether or not to sever relations. This is not so.
Ideally, your loved one will present you with printed information (books or brochures) that will help explain what they are trying to tell you. If not, it is vital for you to make every attempt to educate yourself. The more you know, the better. If there are certain aspects of being an LGBT person that you find particularly disconcerting, do the research and get the facts. Fear grows in the absence of knowledge. Also, join a support group. You are not alone. This experience is far from unique and there are plenty of people and organizations available to give you support and understanding. Your loved one may already be receiving some form of counseling, and it is a very good idea for you to consider doing the same. Having professional support through this kind of major life transition is essential to a healthy outcome for everyone involved.
It is important to note that not everyone is able to fully accept their loved one’s being LGBT. There seems to be a continuum of acceptance. Some are able to support the LGBT family member with pride and to fully incorporate their new understanding of their loved one into their lives. Others may be tacitly aware, yet do not feel comfortable acknowledging it in more than a passing way. Still others may not be able to accept it at all. Parents may find it especially challenging, as one parent may come to terms with it at a different rate and/or to a different extent than the other parent. Understanding may evolve very slowly.
Finally, if you do completely lose it and have a strong emotional reaction to your loved one’s coming out, it’s okay. Keep in mind that you’re stronger than you know and your love for this person is greater than your fear. Give yourself permission to try again, and don’t wait too long. Next time: listen, listen, listen. Remember that your loved one would probably not have come out to you if they didn’t think that you would be able to accept them for who they are and be supportive, given time. Hopefully, they know full well that your coming to terms with this will be a process and that they need to allow you to take your time. They are coming out to you because they love you and want to close the distance between you. Be sure to let them know that you love them and are willing to try.
Please give us a call at Life Skills Resource Group in Orlando at 407-355-7378, if you feel like you need support in dealing with the knowledge that your loved one is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Our staff is very knowledgeable in this matter and LGBT friendly. Best wishes. -Kim