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How do you respond when someone comes out to you?

Updated: Mar 13

Q: Could you provide advice for how to react when someone comes out to you? What should you say at first? How to ask how to best support them? How to check in on what circumstances they are out, if there are circumstances where you should still use deadname, previous pronouns, or gendered terms (if those apply)?

S: So to start, remember the standard disclaimer that there is no singular trans experience, different people/relationships/situations require different approaches, listen to individual trans and gender diverse people about their own needs and wants, etc. If we suggest something here and you're talking to a person who asks for something else, go with that in their case.

In general, my basic script for when someone comes out to me one-on-one is something like this: "Thank you for telling me. Is there anything else you'd like me to know?"

Whether or not you use these exact words, they provide a framework for how to react. There are essentially two components:

  • "Thank you for telling me" is an acknowledgement of several things. You are letting the person know that you recognize the trust involved in coming out (which is often incredibly scary and difficult to do, given the frequency of violence and bigotry against trans and gender diverse people). You are expressing that this is an important thing to have shared, not something to be brushed off or treated casually. You are affirming that your own response is a positive one and that they don't need to fear that you will try to harm them in some way.

  • "Is there anything else you'd like me to know?" gets more into the particulars of your question. Depending on how and when you interact with the person and any number of factors related to their own situation, there may be a lot to say here or almost nothing. Perhaps they just wanted to let you know that they identify a certain way but don't need you to change anything about how you refer to them; perhaps they'd like to ask you to talk to and about them completely differently. Maybe they need concrete support in talking to others, transitioning, protecting themselves...there's a lot that can fall under this question, so the important thing is to make it sincere and to really provide space for a reply. Some people may find this question easier to answer if you get more specific, but be careful not to impose assumptions; "Would you like me to change how I refer to you?" is fine, but "What are your new pronouns?" is not (since plenty of people realize a new gender without wanting to change their pronouns).

Next steps: It's a good idea to invite them to come back to the topic if they need something else from you in future. In addition, the answers to the second question may very well change over time, so be open to the fact that someone may want one thing initially and then later realize they need something else.

K: Agreed with everything said above, as per usual. I can't think of a lot to add, but I think the question itself has some good logistical bits to cover. If they don't bring it up on their own, it's good to ask follow up questions about how you should refer to them moving forward. Being out isn't an on/off binary where you're either out or not, so it's good to acknowledge that the way you refer to your friend might change depending on where and with whom they are out. Someone might be out to just their friends, but not their work or family. They might be out to some friends, some family, and some coworkers. They might be out just to you, etc. How you refer to your friend might change based on who is around and where you are. You should ask about things like their name, pronouns, and other gendered language. It might also include gendered language that isn't necessarily about their identity, but could feel bad anyway (like if you're someone who says things like "dude" or "I don't know, man"). Once you've covered that, ask how you can support them. I think it helps to explicitly name the type of support you are willing to offer, while also making it clear you're up for helping in other ways. Types of support could include being there while they come out to others, correcting people who use the wrong name or pronouns, helping other friends practice or understand, or taking on other forms of education so that your friend doesn't have to.

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