By: Dani Langevin – April, 2021
As a result of the current social climate in America (and the one that has existed since its birth), many friends and colleagues have been asking my advice on how to talk to or “handle” difficult conversations with a gay person. What do you say when they come out? How do you handle a clearly homophobic sentiment? What do you do when a student tells you they want to be referred to by a new name and pronouns? Allow me to do my best to enlighten you.
First and foremost, your feelings do not matter. It is not your place to judge or let them know that you’re “okay” or that you’re uncomfortable with it. The person who is speaking to you has already gone through years of self-reflection, so check your prejudices and knee jerk reactions at the door. If someone is speaking to you about their sexuality, they trust you with their emotions; honor that trust and use sensitive language and understanding (as best you can). They’re not asking for your blessing and it’s not yours to give.
Let’s start with the big one: when someone comes out to you. I want to make it perfectly clear that this whole “coming out” thing is incredibly disconcerting and insulting. Why does this have to be done? No heterosexual has to proclaim their sexuality. It’s a complete violation of a person’s private rights and has to stop. I digress. When someone comes out to you, the ONLY proper response is: “Thank you for trusting me.” That’s it! If you are truly happy for that person, tell them. Celebrate! Hug them and tell them how happy you are for them and thrilled to be a part of this part of their lives. If you are not comfortable or happy, just say, “Thank you for trusting me.” Do NOT say, “I’m okay with that.” Your blessing is not needed. Don’t say, “Thank you for telling me. I still love you. (looking sad) I’m just concerned about the difficulty you’ll have coming from other people.” This is NOT comforting. Case in point:
A friend tells you that they and/or their partner is pregnant. Ninety-nine percent of the time, this is met with smiles, hugs, and congratulatory celebrations. I have never heard anyone say, “Thank you for telling me. I still love you. I’m just concerned about how difficult parenting is and about the difficulty your children will bring you.” This is not comforting. Celebrate someone’s coming out just as much as the announcement of the birth of a child, because that’s what it is- a birth.
Don’t ask them if they are sure. Of course, they’re sure, this is why they are telling you. They have already gone through years of handwringing, sleep loss and questioning their own self-worth before arriving at a space where they are comfortable enough to talk to – you! By asking them if they are sure, you’re sending a strong message that: there is something wrong with what they are telling you, they should doubt their own inner thoughts and voice to make you more comfortable, and finally, how would you feel if someone asked you if you were sure about your heterosexuality? This should be met with no less gratitude than someone giving you an unexpected gift.
It is imperative to know that every LGBTQ+ person, without exception, has had to go through a painful and highly personal process of self-acceptance. Nothing you say or do should feed into their doubts or insecurities. We all have already beat ourselves up more times than society could ever imagine. We have already treated ourselves with such self-loathing and doubt that we don’t need anyone else adding to it. Another case in point:
When I was dating my ex-husband, I was struggling with my sexuality and feared losing everything I loved, if I came out. I asked him one night what he thought of gay people. His response: “Put them on an island and blow them all up.” The conversation ended there and I married him a few years later. I married a man that wanted to put me on an island and blow me up and I married him anyway. This is how low my level of self-respect had fallen. This is the extreme I would go to, to try to “fit in” and be “normal.” I didn’t need to be beaten up any more by anyone when I finally began the coming out process, which really started at my birth and took 30 years to come to fruition.
If a person informs you that they now prefer to be called by a different name and pronouns, honor that. You don’t question it when a woman changes her last name after marriage or when a person adds the title of doctor before their name even though they weren’t born a doctor. Names are important. Pronouns are important. Respect them. If you forget and get it wrong, apologize, correct yourself and move on. Again, think of how annoying it is when someone simply pronounces your name wrong. What if they got it wrong every time and ignored your self-advocating or, worse, admonished you for it?
How do you handle a homophobic slur or sentiment? Don’t ignore it and hope it goes away. EVERY single one of the members of my Gender Sexuality Alliance at Methuen High School have said that the adults in their lives almost never address the issue of homophobia. Why? They don’t seem to have a problem with speaking up against other bigoted language. Why not homophobia? Is it that they attach sex to it? It has nothing to do with sex. Stop reducing the LGBTQ+ community to one minor part of their lives. Perhaps if you moved on from that as our community has, you can get past your own homophobia. So, if you hear a homophobic comment, call it out. Explain that it is not acceptable. Love is love and what they are saying or doing is not only hurtful to the person or people it is directed at, it also hurts and damages everyone in the community by creating an atmosphere of unnecessary hate and prejudice.
Prejudice and homophobia are learned sentiments and behavior. Accepting your own prejudices and homophobia is the first step to ending it. I have. I’ve also been working extremely hard at educating myself in the history of marginalized groups and the systemic racism and homophobia in our country in order to recognize it within myself to change it. Even if you don’t believe you are racist and homophobic why not explore the histories and educate yourself to end the indoctrination? Why not strive to be a better person? ◊