Let’s be clear: coming out exists because you assumed we were cishet until we told you otherwise. Coming out exists because invisibility is erasure. Coming out exists because our current society deems anything outside of cis-heteronormativity1 as “other” at best and “deviant and condemnable” at worst.
In his June 25, 1978, Gay Freedom Day speech “That’s What America Is,” San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk2 asked every LGBTQ+ person to come out. He did not side-step the harsh realities of coming out and linked it directly to what coming out is: a political act.
The political is the personal when your personhood was not included in your nation’s founding laws. When your humanity and rights are debated and legislated in the public square3, you face the real consequences. Civil rights are not a cutesy problem of wedding cupcakes and websites. It’s the economy, stupid, when you can be fired from your job, evicted from your home, denied medical care, and a thousand other pieces that allow a person to function in society because you’re queer or trans.
Milk correctly identified that “There will be no safe ‘closet’ for any gay person” under far-right fascism. There is no “acceptable” way to be queer to cishet bigots.
I’ve come out to a lot of cishet people over my life.4 I’ve been violently outed. I’ve had cishet people shrug their shoulders and not care. I’ve had many cishet people be shocked. I’ve been called every anti-LGBTQ+ slur and dragged to conversion therapy. I’ve been out for the majority of my life, and I still too often brace myself for the worst.
In my experience, cishet people, even those who consider themselves allies,5 do not know how to behave when people come out. So let’s talk about that.
Coming out is a joyous celebration!
Queer people are excited to be queer! If we come out, celebrate us and celebrate us accepting and loving ourselves. Tell us: CONGRATULATIONS!
Recently, upon coming out as nonbinary to a ~20-person professional group, one cishet man congratulated me, and I realized just how rarely someone has celebrated my coming out.
There are obviously ways people prefer to be celebrated, so pay attention to those personal boundaries. Use your emotional intelligence here, but celebrate the queer person in your life!
Coming out is someone trusting you enough to share something personal.
The above is more for newly out people, but what about routine coming outs, like someone telling you they’re celebrating their 20th anniversary with their partner? Definitely not the first time this person has come out.
The closet teaches queer people to obfuscate our language and behavior and hide our personal lives. I’m not talking about sex here, by the way. Queerness includes sex but is not just sex. We have an entire culture with trends and ways of being (history, performance, fashion, music, film/TV, books, slang, clubs/bars, neighborhoods, community groups, etc., and yes, sex) that cishet people don’t know about and we queer people have to learn and expand upon.
When someone shares that they are queer, they trust you with that information. You are NOT entitled to it. It is NOT a secret hidden from you specifically. You are being allowed to peek into a person’s life and a type of queerness. You are a privileged guest.
Coming out is about the person coming out, not you or your feelings.
Deal with your own homophobia and transphobia in your own time.6 Process it with your other people or your therapist, not the person who came out to you. The person coming out is not responsible for coddling your feelings.
At age 15, I was violently outed7 as bisexual to my unsupportive natal parents. My parents could’ve written a guidebook on what not to do with your queer kid. From telling me they were worried I’d have a harder life and that I might catch HIV/AIDS8 to banning me from contact with my friends, barring me from the GSA9 I’d helped organize, confiscating books, and taking me to a “Christian” doctor and a therapist to “fix” me. No one ever asked me what kind of support I needed.
Statistically, 28% of unhoused youth are LGBTQ+ and have likely either been kicked out of their homes for their queerness or ran to escape familial violence. The Trevor Project’s 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that 45% of LGBTQ+ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth.
One supportive adult in an LGBTQ+ youth’s life lowers the young person’s suicide risk by 40%. I did not meet an openly queer adult (not in my peer group) until I was 18 and in college.
No matter the age of the person coming out to you, are you centering your own feelings? Are you making a fool of yourself? Are you showing your ignorance as my mom did when she worried about HIV/AIDS? Are you actively harming someone?
Coming out is not a time to question the person’s journey or demand to see the flow chart of how they discovered their queerness.
Queer people do not owe you neat little narratives about their queerness. They don’t have to have known they were trans since age 4 or gay since they hit natal puberty.
Western society conditions us to be cisgender and heterosexual before birth. Blue is for boys; pink is for girls.10 She’s got a baby onesie that says, “Daddy’s little princess,” and his says, “Lock up your daughters.” And this is all before you can hold your head up on your own. Queer people have to dismantle this and discover alternative ways of being.
Life isn’t linear. You aren’t owed a queer person taking you on their journey; you are blessed if they share it with you. If you’re surprised by someone’s queerness — or just in the shock of deep denial — that’s your own feelings to deal with on your own time.
Coming out is not permission to ask invasive personal questions.
Is someone coming out to you sharing something personal? Yes. This doesn’t mean you can take the opportunity to lose all sense of your relationship with that person and now have permission to ask invasive personal questions.
You’re a coworker whose last name I don’t know. You’re an extended family member who we’ve only had 3 conversations in the last 10 years. You’re my bank teller, and I just need a new debit card.
You do not get to know what positions and sexual acts queer people enjoy in their sex lives. You do not get to know how queer people “got” their children. You do not get to know what genitals are in a trans person’s underwear. You do not get to know what “surgeries” a trans person has had or wants/plans to have.11
Yes, cishet people ask those questions. Upon learning I’m trans, a cishet extended family member immediately asked if I was “getting a penis.” I haven’t seen this man in-person since 2016. Now, I’ve just added transphobic creep to my opinion about him.
Don’t leap over relationship boundaries. Don’t ask a queer person something you wouldn’t ask a cishet person in the same type of relationship with you.
Check yourself before you stomp on a queer person’s joyous coming out and permanently damage your relationship with them.
Queer people deserve to be surrounded by people who love and support them for who they are. That’s not the same as “tolerating” someone.
Because of our society, when a queer person comes out to you, they are forever altering your view of them. But your reaction to their coming out will forever alter their view of you.
Many queer people offer too much forgiveness to cishet people, especially family members, who botched coming out reactions to varying degrees. In many ways, we have to in order to function in society. If you mess up, take ownership of it and offer a real apology.12
Queerness is joy. So, if you’re invited in, come to the celebration.
1. Definition from the HRC — “This term refers to the assumption that heterosexuality and being cisgender are the norm, which plays out in interpersonal interactions and society, and furthers the marginalization of queer and gender diverse people.”
2. Harvey Milk was a queer rights activist, the unofficial “Mayor of Castro Street” (San Francisco’s gayborhood), a politician, and one of the first openly LGBTQ+ people elected to US public office. He was assassinated on November 27, 1978.
5. Ally is a verb, not a noun. You do not get to call yourself an ally. Being an ally is an action. This applies to any support of oppressed people, including but not limited to queer people. For more on this, listen to the Fanti podcast episode, Okay Allies, Now Let’s Get in Formation! (ft. Jarrett Lucas).
8. HIV is an STI that anyone, regardless of orientation, can get. At the time, the sex my mom worried over was sex with 2 people who had vulvae, the statistically lowest HIV risk compared to all other couplings, including cishet pairings. Since becoming sexually active, the highest HIV-risk sex I’ve had is with cis men. Why wasn’t HIV a concern when I had sex with cis men?
9. That’s a Gay-Straight Alliance, which is what student groups were often called in the 1990s/2000s. The “straight” part often covered questioning or still closeted youth (or educators who could not be out) and made straight people feel included. Dominate groups tend to toss a fit when they’re not “included.”
11. It may be none! Spoiler: you can be trans with or without medical changes. Which cishet people never think of because they are obsessed with trans people’s gender-affirming care and do not consider their own gender-affirming care. (Why do you think Joe Rogan or Kim Kardashian look like that? Why do you think Trump and Elon Musk have hair transplants?)