Coming out of the closet never ends for a gay person. You have to do it all the time. Constantly. For the rest of your life.
Every time you make new friends. Get a new job. Talk to people at a party.
I start every morning looking into the mirror and screaming "YOU ARE A FABULOUS HOMO."
And it's never not a little stressful.
But it does get easier, which is good. It's good that it gets easier because coming out to people at the beginning is phenomenally intimidating. I don't know if I could find the right words to really explain what that kind of fear feels like. They should make a new word to describe that feeling. Judy Garland should include that word in her lecture when she visits people as a ghost to tell them they're gay (that's how we find out).
Since I have now come out to roughly, let's see, multiply by 60, carry the one, take the square root, ELEVENTY million people, I know everything and I'm ready to mansplain it all to you so please read the below in as condescending a voice as you can muster.
(Note, I am aware that not everyone is the same and that some of the ideas below may work better for some people than others, and I welcome any of you with insight to chime in in the comments. I offer these only as general thoughts that have occurred to me over the years.)
1. Asking a possibly closeted person whether they are gay is usually a really bad idea.
This is a preliminary tip. I wish we lived in a world where asking whether someone is gay or straight could be as casual as asking them whether they are left or right handed. But we don't.
I think that asking a person who is not ready to come out whether they are gay is almost always traumatizing for the person. I don't mean that hyperbolically. I think it literally causes trauma that can take years to unpack. It also puts the closeted person in an impossible position--they either have to disclose something they aren't ready to disclose, or they have to lie about the thing about which they are the most sensitive and probably deeply terrified. They'll usually lie, and that lie will be an awkward memory for them for years to come, no matter how understanding everyone else tries to be about the reason the person lied.
I'm sure there are instances when asking this question is fine, but I really believe those are the exception—not the rule.
"But, I'm just trying to open the door and show the person they can talk to me about this!"
That's awesome. And I think there's a better way you can do that.
2. It can be super helpful to just let a person you think might be gay know in a general sense that you are someone who is safe to talk to about this.
Instead of asking a person if they're gay, making it a point to talk casually and optimistically about the topic with them can really go a long way. Talk about your gay friends with the possibly closeted person. Compliment gay relationships that you admire. Skylar said that when he was a teenager his mom would positively talk to him about advancements for gay rights she saw in the news. He believed at the time that she was trying to open the door for him to come out. I have no doubt that this sort of thing made it at least a little easier for him to finally confide in his mom a few years later. A piece of the mystery was gone: mom doesn't hate gay people, so she probably won't hate me.
I know that sounds dramatic. But you need to understand: a terrified young gay person may greatly fear that you hate gay people and therefore might hate them unless you very consciously and regularly find ways to reassure them that you aren't that kind of person.
But even if "hate" is too strong a word for what they might fear, "disappointed" or "uncomfortable" may still be appropriate.
It might seem crazy to you, but when you're young and closeted and alone and hearing atrociously homophobic statements from all kinds of people in your life, it can be very difficult to see things clearly.
3. Be enthusiastic.
Whatever you're feeling and whatever you think about the topic, I implore you, when someone comes out to you, set everything aside and just be enthusiastic and positive for them. I cannot tell you what miracles you can perform for a gay person at their height of vulnerability by communicating to them how happy you are for them.
Smile. Tell them you are so proud of them for doing something that you can tell was incredibly intimidating. Tell them you love the gay people you know because so many of them are so kind or thoughtful or [fill-in-the-blank] and that it makes sense that this person is gay because they have that characteristic too. Thank them, sincerely, for confiding in you. Tell them you feel honored that they would do so. Reassure them that you are an ally, and tell them what that means. I had a colleague once tell me that she would wield her substantial influence to protect me if ever I was mistreated in the workplace because I was gay. This was beyond comforting to hear.
4. Maybe don't tell them that you "still" love them.
Look. I hate being nitpicky about word choice when intent is clear. But I think this one matters. People frequently tell gay people right after they come out things like:
"I want you to know that this doesn't change how I feel about you."
"I still love you, no matter what."
"This doesn't matter to me."
I know these statements are coming from people who mean well, and I've never been upset at someone who has said them to me, but I really think they can do some harm. The premise or implication of these kinds of statements is "you just told me a negative thing about yourself, but my love for you is great enough to overcome it."
However you feel about the topic, your gay friend or family member is never going to be straight, no matter what you say. So the least you can do is not further validate the shame they have probably lived with their entire life.
Instead of signaling that you think they've just shared bad news with you, maybe try some more positive messaging.
"I'm so glad to hear this; I think some of the world's best people are gay."
"I have always loved you so much; this just makes me love you more. I didn't know that was possible."
See how much better that sounds? Can you imagine how much more loved you would feel if you heard something like that after sharing a very vulnerable piece of yourself? "I want you to know that I still love you" is something you say when a person has deeply disappointed you.
5. Ask questions, but read the signs and maybe don't get too specific.
This person has told you a big thing; but that doesn't mean they are ready to tell you everything about their life. Asking questions to a person who has just come out to you is a great way to show them that you care and that you are interested in understanding this big thing they worked up the courage to tell you. But getting too personal and specific can make the coming out experience more stressful.
Ask things like:
"Have you told other people, and what has that experience been like?"
"What was it like growing up knowing that you were gay but not being able to talk about it?"
"What got you to the point that you decided to tell me about this?"
Don't ask things like:
"I know a few years ago you were really close with so-and-so. Is that because you had a crush on him?"
The disclosure is not an invitation to tabloid the person's life for them.
(Note: Skylar disagrees with me on this and said he wishes everyone would ask him as many personal details about his life as possible so if Skylar ever comes out to you, ask him how his last colonoscopy went.)
6. No religious sermons. Please.
I promise you. These will not make a positive difference. Either this person has a religious background as well, in which case they have thought way way way way way WAY more about this than you ever could have (I promise. For reals.), or they don't have a religious background, in which case they really won't care about your religious sermon. In any event, it won't do any good, and it might actually do some harm.
This advice really extends to an anti-religion sermon too, by the way. Personally, I've rarely cared to hash out my thoughts about religion and the gay issue with straight people. I've got too many good things in my life to focus on to want to spend any energy being bitter or defensive about religion at this point. I've had non-religious friends assume that I was ready to rag on church with them the moment I came out. I was as uninterested in that as I've been in receiving a sermon on the topic.
Most gay people are fatigued on the religion issue. Let them have some peace.
Maybe the gay person will want to talk about their religious beliefs with you. Great. Let them bring it up. If they don't, you can safely assume they aren't interested in having that conversation with you.
And if they do bring it up, take this gentle reminder, again, that whatever you say will not stop them from being gay, but it very well might make a difference on whether or not they are able to love themselves.
7. Promise the appropriate level of discretion.
It may already be obvious, but if it's not, ask them if they want your discretion on this. If they are in the early stages of coming out, they probably will want your discretion. Respect that. The last thing this vulnerable person needs during this process is to feel like they are losing control of the process.
I also think it can be really nice to offer to help the person come out to others. They may decline, but even the offer can feel like a very meaningful gesture of support.
I never felt like I needed someone to go with me to come out to someone else. But I did have friends offer to tell their spouse or some other person in their life with whom I'm not particularly close. I always appreciated this—both that they didn't just assume that they could go tell other people and that they were offering me a way to not have to talk to every person I know about my big news, an exhausting conversation to have even just once.
8. Consider not telling them that you "always suspected" or that you knew this already and you were just waiting for them to come out.
I know a lot of people who don't care at all about these comments. But I think they can be uncomfortable for some, and they are rarely positive for anyone. These comments almost feel like the person is saying, "I have been more enlightened than you about who you are and I hoped you would eventually learn this thing that I already knew about you."
It's just kind of annoying. And it can also make the now-out gay person feel extra vulnerable and embarrassed to think back to all the times they thought they were sufficiently hiding after now being told they were doing that badly.
I think it's ok to tell a gay person that you suspected or felt like you knew they were gay for some time, but only if they ask you. If they say, "are you surprised by this news?" I think it's fine to say something like, "I don't think so. Of course no one ever really knows what anyone else is going through, but I'm not surprised that you're gay."
(By the way, I'm not referring to your many comments on my coming out post about how none of you were surprised. I opened the door there by making a joke about how me being gay was a shock to no one. Have at it.)
9. Offer to connect them to other gay people you know.
They may not be interested in taking you up on the offer, but even just suggesting it can show the person that you support them and that you want to be there for them as they go through this intimidating experience. And if they do want to take you up on it, even better. When a gay person first starts coming out, finding stable gay friends can literally be life-saving.
Notice that I did not say "set them up on dates with all the gay people you know."
I was fortunate enough that my childhood best friend came out a few years before I did. I believe he was a robot created by God and planted on this Earth to keep me from going crazy in my life. I wish every gay person coming out of the closet could have their own Sam.
10. Bring the topic back up at a later date.
The next time you see them, acknowledge the fact that they came out to you recently. Be casual about it. "Hey, last time I saw you you told me you were hoping to come out to your brother. How's that going?"
This matters. It shows the person that even after you've had time on your own to think about it, you are still supportive and positive about this. You don't have to obsessively talk about it for years to come and your relationship doesn't have to revolve around this. But this thing is a big deal, and it's good to acknowledge it.
There were people I came out to who never really mentioned the topic to me again and this was confusing and unsettling for me at times. On the other hand, friends who asked me how dating was going and what my gay friends were like made me continue to feel safe with them.
I had one friend who spent the next two weeks after I came out to him texting me roughly 50 memes of Liza Minnelli. That works, too.
Every person and situation is different, and there's no perfect script for this sort of thing. But I think you can do wonders by figuring out how to be the person your loved one needs.
~It Just Gets Stranger