“Remember that it’s not about you,” says Telaina Eriksen, a creative-writing professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing, who wrote a book about her daughter’s coming out as a lesbian. No matter what kind of relationship you have with the person, don’t immediately turn the conversation to yourself by saying something like “I knew it all along!” or “How could you do this to me?” If you are in a position of authority — a parent, teacher or coach — be extra careful; what you say will be imbued with that power differential. “Whatever you do,” Eriksen says, “don’t say, ‘Are you sure?’ ”
Eriksen learned what not to do as a preteen in rural Michigan in the early 1980s when her mother raged against and demeaned her older sister when she announced she was a lesbian. “To be so utterly rejected and threatened by the person who has brought you into the world profoundly impacts your sense of self,” Eriksen says. If someone comes out to you, make that individual feel heard, seen and respected by saying something like “Thank you so much for trusting me and telling me that.” Reiterate your care and love. Ask what you can do to provide support. Protect the person’s privacy; before the conversation ends, ascertain whether it’s O.K. to tell other people. If you have religious beliefs against homosexuality, this is not the time to bring them up. “Judging people isn’t loving,” Eriksen says.
If you say something you regret, apologize right away. “Most people are pretty open to sincere efforts to try to get it right,” Eriksen says. While it is true that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people suffer more stigma, violence, prejudice, depression and suicide, don’t tell the person coming out how worried you are. Eriksen’s daughter came out 10 years ago, when she was 12, and Eriksen still frets about her emotional and physical safety. “My responsibility isn’t to tell her, ‘Don’t hold hands with your girlfriend in public,’ ” Eriksen says. “My responsibility as a straight person is to work to change our society so that my daughter can walk down the street safely holding her girlfriend’s hand if she wants to.”