When I decided to start coming out a few years ago, it was difficult to determine who would be safe people to tell. This wasn’t because I lacked close friends or family members I could trust; it was because I was in a conservative Christian setting, an environment where it’s often difficult to gauge who might be prepared to handle a coming out with sensitivity and grace. Over the course of my lifelong journey through churches and the Christian school I attend, it’s been exceedingly rare (but increasingly common) to hear people discussing LGBT issues, and it’s been even rarer to hear people discussing them with any noticeable air of comfort or familiarity. Many people in these settings are relatively unexposed to LGBT issues or people, so they’ve never had any opportunity or real motivation to learn what to say or how to say it. Nevertheless, I’ve learned that one’s level of familiarity with LGBT issues is often entirely unrelated to how effectively one can respond to a coming out or love and support an LGBT person. People’s eagerness to learn and understand always pleasantly surprises me, and I’ve grown to admire those people whose gut reaction to something unfamiliar (like a coming out) is to love first and ask questions later.
National Coming Out Day is October 11. It’s meant as a celebration of coming out and of the visibility of the LGBT community, and it often provides impetus for those who are considering coming out to take that important step. I’ve written before about my experiences coming out, but I thought it might be helpful for me to speak to those on the other side of the coming out conversation. More specifically, for those who desire to walk with their LGBT friends and family but don’t know how to make themselves known as available and ready to listen, I want to describe the qualities I’d look for if I were a closeted gay person seeking safe people. I write this because I’ve talked to closeted LGBT people who feel completely alone at Christian schools, and I’ve also talked to Christians who want to support LGBT individuals but don’t know how to advertise themselves as such, and it breaks my heart to think of the beautiful opportunities we’re missing for connection and sharing between those people. Unfortunately, it’s still impossible to predict with perfect accuracy who will be safe—it’s an art, not a science, and many of the people who have treated me best didn’t fit these descriptions initially—but the people I’ll describe here are the people I would probably feel most comfortable seeking out as confidants and friends.
(I should point out that when I say “safe” people, I’m using it informally to refer to people I’d feel comfortable sharing with as peers and friends. The word “safe” is often formal, technical jargon, particularly at schools and universities, to identify certain professionals who have completed training to know how to best respond to LGBT individuals; but in this post, I’m mostly talking about those who would serve as nonprofessional allies. I hope it goes without saying that if you mean to present yourself as an ally to LGBT individuals and invite their openness, it’s absolutely essential that you do so from a place of humility, compassion, and empathy and never out of a desire to manipulate, coerce, or control.)
1. They aren’t afraid to raise the issue.
If you’ve ever been disoriented or lonely in a culture where your language wasn’t the native tongue, you’ve probably experienced that peculiar jolt of affection and familiarity you feel when you overhear a stranger using words and phrases you actually recognize. As a youth group student and even a freshman in college, I often went weeks or months without hearing Christians mention homosexuality or the gay community, so my ears perked up whenever anyone even vaguely alluded to LGBT issues. Without a doubt, someone’s willingness to broach LGBT issues in any sort of positive or empathetic tone is the clearest and most visible indicator they might be prepared to listen to me talk about my sexuality. They may do something as noticeable as leading a Bible study about homosexuality or as simple as posting a link on Facebook to a story about sexual minorities; but in environments where nontraditional sexuality receives no attention, even the tiniest statement of knowledge or interest can communicate a loud-and-clear message (accurate or not) that this person is the safest person in the room. It’s helpful but not essential that they use current, appropriate language when they do bring up the issue; to be honest, many of the people who might be coming out in Christian settings won’t be familiar with current, appropriate language (or may even intentionally reject such language) anyway, so getting a certain phrase wrong probably won’t turn people off.
Unfortunately, when these people intentionally raise questions about or draw attention to the LGBT community, they’re often victims of aggressive backlash from those people in the community who aren’t comfortable with LGBT-related discussions. (In many settings, this population comprises the vast majority.) Introductng the topic requires enormous courage and may involve offering oneself up as a target for an entire community’s animosity or fear about a broader social movement, and in some settings, the person who’s willing to broach the subject may even become fodder for LGBT-related rumors. Nevertheless, in particularly silent contexts, an action as small as posting on Facebook can be a beacon of hope and solidarity for those sexual minorities who feel hopelessly alone, and I can’t overemphasize how helpful it might be for certain people to discover proof of the existence of others around them who care about these issues.
2. They avoid making assumptions.
This is much more subtle, but I usually expect people who avoid making assumptions about me, my life, and my desires and expectations will react well to my coming out. If you’ve never attended a conservative Christian school, you may not fully understand how palpable and ubiquitous is the pressure for students to find a spouse and marry him/her as soon as possible. The pressure for me as an undergraduate was palpable at church, too, where conversations with older Christians would inevitably lead to questions about my romantic life, with the assumption that, as was the case with many of my peers, romance was really what I was hoping to discuss anyway (or that advice was really what I sought). I have no doubt these Christians who asked about my dating life were well intentioned and genuinely concerned with helping me obtain something that obviously brought immense joy and satisfaction to them (i.e., a spouse and children), but implicit in their inquiries was an apparent lack of openness to the possibility that my life would move in a different direction.
When I started coming out, I naturally migrated to those people who seemed aware that forming a heterosexual nuclear family was not every person’s immediate goal. It seemed more likely those people would be capable of discussing nontraditional sexuality well, and I expected they possessed the imagination necessary to explore with me what my life might be like as I discerned God’s will. Sometimes, this meant I gravitated toward people who were single or who themselves identified as less-than-heterosexual, but it also meant I noticed those who didn’t default to questions about dating and marriage, people for whom romance seemed uninteresting or unimportant. I never felt like I had to explain (or, to be more accurate, make up excuses) to them why I wasn’t pursuing anyone, and I appreciated the lack of pressure I felt from them. People who avoid making assumptions about others—about what they desire, about what they expect, about what’s “normal”—send the message they’re conscious of the variety of shapes a person’s life might take.
3. They (mostly) don’t ask invasive questions.
I include the “(mostly)” qualifier because I’ve heard a few anecdotes from people who were thankful someone else had the boldness to ask, but the general consensus seems to be that it’s not a good idea to inquire into the sexuality of someone who may be LGBT. It’s not uncommon for someone to have strong suspicions about a friend or family member’s sexuality and to wish that friend or family member felt safe coming out so that they could receive support and love, but it’s dangerous to force someone else to come out (or to force them to be dishonest in order to avoid coming out) before they consciously decide they’re ready to do so. The woman who asks her friend if he’s gay out of a genuine desire to know him more fully might encounter a reaction of shock, offense, or embarrassment that damages trust rather than opening a door for self-disclosure, regardless of whether he is actually gay or desires to share that part of his life with her.
So, safe people generally won’t ask invasive or direct questions like, “Are you gay?” or, “Is there something you want to tell me about your sexuality?” They also won’t rely on heavy-handed or leading references to nontraditional sexuality, since those indirect allusions can often be more unsettling and frightening to the closeted LGBT person than direct questions would be. Instead, those safe people who suspect a loved one is LGBT will lean into both qualities I describe in the above paragraphs. First, they’ll find subtle, natural ways to bring up nontraditional sexuality or to mention other relationships with LGBT people, not only in that individual’s presence but as an ongoing passion and interest. Second, they’ll avoid making any assumptions about that person (either that they’re straight or LGBT) in order to be unfazed if and when that person does begin to open up about sexuality. They’ll regularly express unconditional love and invite self-disclosure by practicing self-disclosure. Those actions lay a foundation for trust and open-mindedness, and they avoid making the other person feel pressured (“I guess I have to come out to her so she’ll quit bringing it up!”) or too self-conscious (“Is it that obvious I’m a lesbian?”).
I hope it’s been clear throughout that these qualities are valuable for any Christ follower who wants to support and walk with other people gently and compassionately in any situation. I believe Christians should be proactive in addressing difficult issues, open to the diversity of narratives that can honor God, and gentle with the tenderness of others’ lives, and I believe such an empathetic posture demonstrates an abiding joy and peace resulting from trust in God. When LGBT individuals make the weighty decision to come out, they may find themselves naturally drawn to those individuals who, in their qualities of joy and peace, embody the very nature of the God who loves us as we are.
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