“I think I might be gay,” a close friend admitted to me as we sat at the kitchen table. How courageous was she, not knowing how I would react; I was honored to be trusted enough to share such a secret. I remember responding in the only way an empathic friend could respond: that I had no right to judge her, and would be willing to help talk with her through things so she could arrive at a more concrete understanding of herself. This was years ago, before I trained as a therapist, and this friend is doing very well, having gotten her Masters Degree, a meaningful job, and maintaining supportive friends/family. Looking back at her process of ‘coming out’ (openly admitting to being gay) and accepting herself, there are things that stand out to me as significant in helping her get to where she is that so many people in the Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender/Questioning (LGBTQ) community aren’t as privileged to have.
When she came out to friends and family, she appeared to have strategy in the order of who she came out to and when. This was to protect herself by establishing a community of trust and support, including gay AND straight individuals. In too many cases, coming out is dangerous for LGBTQ folks. Some children are pushed into homelessness, due to parents’ hatred of ‘homosexuals,’ or because of the religious beliefs of family. Others are physically or emotionally abused. LGBTQ individuals statistically show more mental health issues than their straight counterparts (as well as increased thoughts of suicide), due to lack of positive support from family/friends, societal stigma, and discrimination; some become depressed/anxious, due to feeling they cannot be themselves. My friend was so fortunate to have a supportive and loving family/friend base who were/are willing to both try to understand her, and advocate for her and others like her.
Her parents and most friends understood that their feelings were valid, too, and learned it is natural to not know what to think or do, as well as to be afraid for their family member/friend. They also learned it is natural to struggle with their own values (especially religious ones), but that it is important to not condemn. This helped them in any struggle they had in accepting my friend. One of my learning experiences early on was asking if she was sure she was gay. Her response: why would I CHOOSE to be part of one of the most hated and discriminated groups? LGBTQ individuals are not choosing this ‘on purpose,’ and methods like conversion therapy (pray the gay away) not only do not work, but are incredibly unethical and harmful. I recommend family members and friends find their own support to help them adjust to the orientation/life-style of the LGBTQ person in their life.
Remember that this is the same person you have known; you just know more of their identity now. Ask questions—the opposite of hate, to me, is understanding. We seem to hate less the more we understand. Asking questions and learning about the feelings/ experiences of LGBTQ members is key to advocating for them. Validate their emotions and thoughts. Provide them (and you) with support and advocacy. Allow them to be themselves.
Please reach out if you are struggling with your own coming out process, or the process of someone else.
http://www.pflag.org/ (for family members and other Allies)
Additional resources here.
Perspectives Therapy Services is a multi-site mental and relationship health practice with clinic locations in Brighton, Lansing, Highland and Fenton, Michigan. Our clinical teams include experienced, compassionate and creative therapists with backgrounds in psychology, marriage and family therapy, professional counseling, and social work. Additionally, we offer psychiatric care in the form of evaluations and medication management. Our practice prides itself on providing extraordinary care. We offer a customized matching process to prospective clients whereby an intake specialist carefully assesses which of our providers would be the very best fit for the incoming client. We treat a wide range of concerns that impact a person's mental health including depression, anxiety, relationship problems, grief, low self-worth, life transitions, and childhood and adolescent difficulties.