An Open Letter to The Friends and Family of LGBTQIA+ Individuals
Do you have a loved one who identifies within the LGBTQIA+ community? Or has someone recently come out to you? Maybe you don’t know what to say or do. Sometimes we are so focused on saying the “right thing” that we miss the true essence regarding the vulnerability and humanity within the conversation. It is normal to feel a little awkward, so try to approach your own feelings with compassion too.
If someone is coming out to you for the first time, I invite you to think of it in this way: “they are telling me because I am important to them, they value me, and they want to be honest with me.” Remind yourself that as a friend or family member, this person has chosen to come out to you and acknowledge the role you play in making them feel safe, supported, and validated. They want to share their life with you. Wow, what an honor!
Coming out can be a very scary experience, therefore, support is incredibly important. There are many different ways you can be supportive. These will apply to those who are just coming out and to those who have already shared their identity with you. Below I will list tips on how to be a good support/ally to the LGBTQIA+ community.
Be Open to Learn and Listen
Coming out doesn’t just mean that you are entering into a space of acceptance and well-being. Sometimes, coming out is worse than holding that information in. “Coming out” is the common term we use; however, I want to shift your thinking to the perspective of being “invited in.” By using these words, we are recognizing the role language plays in giving the impression that people who do not identify as cis-gendered (a person whose personal identity and gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth) are hiding something.
It is so important to acknowledge the role that (both internalized and externalized) homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia have in making a very unwelcoming and fearful environment. If we think of this as others “inviting” us in, we can also see this as someone extending an invitation to learn more about their identity.
Part of being supportive to your LGBTQIA+ friends and family means developing an understanding of what life is like for them. How the world views and treats them. Asking individuals about their personal experiences and listening. As simple as this may sound, it is so meaningful.
How do I start a conversation? What if I say the wrong thing?
Be honest. Tell them you feel a bit uncomfortable if you do. Tell them that you are completely new to this and want to learn more about their experience.
Golden rule: be as open and supportive as you would like for them to be for you. It is important to ask for a little time to process the information before speaking further about it if you need to. It likely took this person a very long time to be okay sharing this with you. Allow yourself some grace as you adjust and process the news.
It’s okay to ask questions. This shows you’re interested and that you are taking them seriously. Do your best to stay curious without trying to change or pressure them.
When exploring privilege, we can think of race, class, education, being able-bodied, or being cis-gendered. Being privileged doesn’t mean that you haven’t had your own fair share of difficulties and judgment in your own life - it just means that there are some things you won’t ever have to think or worry about because of the way you were born.
Understanding the ways in which you are different and how that impacts how you see the world, how the world sees you, and the treatment you receive from others helps one to recognize and have empathy and compassion for oppressed persons.
Here are a few examples of cis-privilege:
I can walk in public and hold my partner's hand, hug, and even kiss my partner in front of others without disapproval, comments, laughter, harassment, or the threat of potential violence.
My sexual orientation is not used to exclude me from any profession or organization (medical care, employment opportunities, the military, etc.)
I can easily find a religious community that will welcome me and my partner.
I can be sure that my sexual orientation will be represented often and accurately in movies, TV shows, and music.
Being an Ally
The role of being an ally is more than just its term. An ally will typically do things such as: defend against discrimination, bullying, harmful jokes, and advocate and/or protest for LGBTQIA+ rights.
Being a good ally often entails advocating for LGBTQIA+ rights and defending individuals even when they are not around. Being a good ally also means being open to the idea of being wrong and still having the willingness to work on it.
It takes the effort of many to create an environment of acceptance and change - to continue pushing towards it, even when it is uncomfortable. To be consistent in being an ally is to create a safer future for those in the community and for all to come.
Check Your Assumptions
Don’t assume someone is cis-gendered. Be careful in assuming someone’s gender or pronouns. By not making assumptions we are actually holding and creating a safe space for individuals to be their authentic selves. LGBTQIA+ individuals don’t speak or look a certain way.
A few examples of harmful things to say are: “No way you can be a (insert sexuality) and look (insert characteristic of appearance),” “have you ever even tried to be with (insert someone of the opposite sex)?” or “you are too pretty to be gay.”
It is important to be intentional about what we say and what we mean by it. We are surrounded by members of the LGBTQIA+ community all of the time and are bound to know at least one person who identifies as a member of the community. This is why it is so important to practice these things not only indirect interactions but in your daily life.
In fact, approximately one in every four families in this country has a family member who is LGBTQIA+. You may be interacting with individuals who have not come out yet, don’t feel safe to come out, or individuals with loved ones who identify within the community.
There is no perfect way to be a friend or family member to someone who identifies as LGBTQIA+. If you accidentally assume, misgender someone or use the wrong pronouns - it happens. Be compassionate to yourself while you are learning. You can apologize and even share with that person “I want to be good support and I am learning; I am still working on it. If I say something wrong, know that I didn't mean it from a place of harm. Please correct me if I do this again.”
To have someone express a desire to want to learn how to provide support and safety is so meaningful. Even if mistakes are made, it is the intention that means so much. Each person is different, but honesty and effort don’t go unnoticed. If you took the time to read this blog today, you are in the right place.
If any of this resonates with you, if you are wanting to learn more, or begin your own journey to being supported, please reach out to me (Alex Steiner, LCSW) today. I offer complimentary consultations so we can ensure we are a good match for each other so call me today to schedule at 954-391-5305.
I look forward to hearing from you and supporting you along your journey!