At the Northeast Unschooling Conference this past weekend, my good friend Michael gave a talk, which he asked me to help with, on what to do when someone you love comes out of the closet. (The topic was Kathryn Baptista's idea, and a great one I think, so props to her for that!) For several reasons it ended up being a small group, which was fine, because that gave everyone who wanted to say something a chance to do so. But since I feel it's such an important topic, I wanted to write down some of the things we talked about and maybe some things we didn't get to talk about, for those who didn't get to be there.
I wanted to write that. The thing is, every time I sit down to write any kind of guide to what to do or what not to do, what comes out is this really long ungainly list of specific mistakes I've made, specific mistakes other people have made, specific things people did for me that were wonderful, specific things I did for others which went over well, etc. Accept asexuality as a valid sexual orientation. Don't say "fag" or "tranny" or "dyke". Don't ask people how they have sex. I quickly realized that if I were to make this anywhere close to comprehensive, it was going to take a year to read.
Then I caught myself. My list was becoming ungainly because I was making a list of rules. Generally, anytime a list of ways you should or shouldn't act gets to many, many items long, that's a red flag that you're approaching it from a mindset of rules rather than principles. Unschoolers tend to emphasize that the problem with rules is how constricting and frustrating they are, how they ignore the needs people are trying to express. But an even more fundamental problem with rules is that they simply cannot cover every situation that could come up. In the same way that "no hitting" still leaves you plenty of room to kick, bite, or verbally abuse, "don't ask people how they have sex" still leaves you plenty of room to ask what their genitals look like or ask their ex-partner how they have sex. Making rules, even ones designed to be adopted voluntarily, is a bit like cutting the head off a hydra. For every problem you address, several more spring up in its stead. If a guide is based on rules, there can be no workable abridged version.
So I took a step back from my list of rules and tried to find the principles behind them. Most of these could be broadened quite a bit more - "respect people" would just about cover it - but in order to show how they specifically apply to a person coming out of the closet, I've tried to find a middle ground between abstract principles and detailed examples. (This may still take a year to read, but it will be a much more helpful year *grin*).
1. Every person gets to define hirself. You know a guy who dated three women last year, but now says he's gay? He's gay. Your friend was a girly-girl in elementary school, but now identifies as a transgender man? He's a transgender man. Someone you met at a party says they're asexual, and all your biology training tells you that's a method of reproduction? Science be damned, it's a sexual orientation now. A person you know has come out as every sexual orientation under the sun, and you're not sure whether to believe them next time? Believe them anyway. Your friend has asked to be referred to using pronouns you could swear they (or ze, or xie, or sie) made up? Use them. Above all, trust that people know the insides of their own minds better than you do - even if their minds change over time.
2. Every person has a right to as much (or as little) privacy as they desire. Just because your friend is out to everyone you know doesn't mean ze's out to hir parents or coworkers. Just because your friend is extremely proud of being queer doesn't mean you should necessarily talk about it on the train or yell "homo" in a crowded theater. By the same token, I don't get to ask my friend to cover up his transgender tattoo because I'm uncomfortable having that conversation with someone who might see it. I don't get to forbid my daughter from telling grandma about her girlfriend. Disclosure is the queer person's choice to make, not yours.
3. LGBTetc. people are just people. If someone comes out to you, remember they were queer or trans before you knew, and they are still the same person now (though the coming out process may liberate or grow them in lots of ways). Knowing about a person's queerness need not change anything about your relationship with them (though your reaction may harm or strengthen the relationship). If you would never ask a question of a cis or straight person, don't ask it of a trans or queer person. Having a gay or trans friend is not a novelty or a symbol of how cool you are, anymore than having a redheaded or left-handed friend is. And remember that being queer or trans is only one aspect of who someone is. True, some people are "culturally lesbian" or "culturally trans" or whatever, and are way involved with queer stuff, but even then they are still individuals with their own habits, hobbies, interests and personalities, many of which will have not a damn thing to do with their gender or sexuality.
4. Everyone wants to feel safe. Unfortunately even in this day and age, lots of queer people, and particularly lots of trans people, do not feel safe in lots of situations, or only feel safe if their sexuality or gender identity is well-hidden. Anything you can do to make a person feel safe - whether you know them to be LGBTetc. or not - will be appreciated. This includes honoring their privacy as discussed above, but it also includes things like not tolerating homophobic or transphobic jokes, and avoiding heteronormative or cissexist language and assumptions (i.e., asking people when they're going to get married/have a baby, assuming your tomboyish friend would enjoy a free makeover, etc.) That last one takes practice, because certain assumptions are so deeply ingrained in Western culture, but the payoff in terms of the other person's comfort is well worth it, especially if the other person happens to be your child. Even if you can't change the mind of everyone you meet (and you can't), standing up for queer and trans people communicates to us that even if we're not safe with any of the other people in the room, we are safe with you. I am not exaggerating one bit when I say that there are people for whom having just one person who doesn't think they're sick or a sinner is the difference between life and death. Even if someone never comes out to you, just knowing you wouldn't condemn them if they did can quite literally save their life.
5. Everyone knows someone who is queer or trans. Michael's talk was somewhat ambiguously titled, and so lots of people came in the room, asked us what it was about, and politely but quickly left the room. I don't begrudge people one bit for choosing an activity more in line with their interests, but I also got a sense that many of these people's lack of interest in the topic came from a sense that this doesn't really apply to them. I can pretty well guarantee that unless you live in Upper Glennbeckistan, the topic of what to do when someone comes out absolutely applies to you. (And even if you do happen to live in Upper Glennbeckistan, the topic of what to do when someone is outed to the media by their former poolboy applies to you. Also, say hi to my family for me?) If you are a parent, this topic really really really applies to you. Even if your kid is two, because lots of people "feel different" from an extremely young age. The point is, no matter who you are, someone you know is not straight, or at least is questioning their sexual orientation. Someone you know is not cis, or at least is questioning their gender identity. If you wait till you know someone is not straight or not cis before you start thinking about how to accept them that way, you've waited too long. They already were who they are. I don't think it's ever too late to learn how to be kind to LGBTetc. people... but it's absolutely never, ever too early - especially, I will reiterate, if you have or are planning to have kids.
6. Every person has hir own story. I suppose this could be an addendum to #3, but I think it deserves a mention of its own. There are lots of wonderful books, movies and documentaries out there which tell the stories of queer and trans people. (There are also lots of not-so-wonderful ones, so watch out for that!) I would highly recommend the film Ma Vie En Rose and the book And the Band Played On, for example. But I would also caution anyone who seeks those out to realize they are not necessarily telling my story, or my friends' stories, or any of your friends' stories, or your kid's story. By the same token, your best friend's story, straight from the horse's mouth, is not my story, nor is my story hirs. True, another person's story may share elements with mine, and may give you a jumping-off point to understand my story. But the thing to remember is that knowing someone else's story does not mean that you know mine. Knowing how someone else feels doesn't mean you know how I feel. Accept that you don't know a queer or trans person's story until they tell it to you, just as you don't know a cis or straight person's story until they tell you.
7. People need people. Often, what an LGBTetc. person needs most is to be around other LGBTetc. people, but sometimes those who have just come out don't yet know where to find people like them. Here's a few of my personal favorite resources you could connect them with:
- AVEN - Deals primarily with asexuality, but there's much discussion of sexuality in general, and their wiki has the most comprehensive information on gender identity I've found so far.
- Scarleteen - Particularly for teens and young adults, but the advice is good for anyone.
- Genderfork - An overall celebration of gender variance and gender rebellion.
- Livejournal, which has many, many communities covering LGBT topics.
- Books: Kate Bornstein's My Gender Workbook and Kimeron Hardin's The Gay and Lesbian Self-Esteem Book are good starting points. Do use caution, however, in giving people books, particularly people whose living situation may be jeopardized if a parent or roommate found a queer-themed book among their possessions.
- PFLAG/TNET - You need support too, right? Plus, who doesn't love a PFLAG mom? You will get so many hugs.
- And of course, any local LGBT community centers, support groups, pride festivals, or welcoming religious organizations (if they're interested in that) you can connect them with would be a huge help. (If you're in the Jacksonville, FL area, I've had wonderful experiences with JASMYN.)
Lastly and most importantly: If the person coming out to you is suicidal, do not attempt to save them all by yourself. Your support is undoubtedly important to them, but it is not fair to you, or to them, for you to be their only means of support. Let them know you're there for them and you love them unconditionally, but also try to move them in the direction of seeking help from those who have been trained to help them. This isn't just for your sake, but for theirs - if you don't know what you're doing, you may unintentionally make it worse, no matter how much you love them. One resource I've found extremely helpful is Metanoia's suicide page, which has probably saved my life more than once. In the United States, there are also several hotlines a person can call, such as the Hopeline (1-800-SUICIDE) (which also saved my life) and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK). Finally, Metanoia's guide to helping a person who may be suicidal and their list of suicide warning signs are excellent. It would be a good idea in general to post some or all of these resources near your phone or computer so you can easily give them to someone in the event of a crisis.
I don't pretend that this list covers everything you could possibly need to know in order to deal with someone coming out. Every person is an individual, with individual needs. Every person has their own idea of what a perfect coming out would look like - some people will want you to sit and talk with them for a long time, others may prefer more of a "That's cool. Can you pass the salt?" response. Follow their lead. If they seem uncomfortable, think about what you could do differently. Ask them if they'd like to talk about it. Respect it if they'd rather not. Above all, know that even if you make mistakes, your support means the world to the person you love. Knowing that someone is at least trying to make me feel loved and safe will always make me feel more loved and safe than if they just didn't try at all.
Update: Even more trans-specific resources (thanks Michael!)
T-Vox (which lists many, many other resources)
A list of gender-related communities on Livejournal
I kind of wish I knew more gay and lesbian specific resources, because my interests and my immediate circle of friends tend to skew me heavily toward the transgender, bi/pan/queer, and asexual sides of things (which is a lot of sides of things, as it is! Phew!) So if anyone knows any really good resources for gay men and lesbians, please contact me and I will be happy to add those.