Publicly announcing your gender identity can be a stressful experience, with feelings of helplessness and worry about how friends and family will react.
But what do you do with a friend who reveals his gender identity to you?
Dr Nikki Hayfield is a senior lecturer in social psychology at the University of the West of England in Bristol, specializing in human identities and sexual orientation. We asked her advice on how to support someone who reveals their gender identity to us.
What do you do in that moment when someone reveals their gender identity to you?
If someone comes out directly to you about their gender identity, respect that they’re telling you their secret and do your best to accept their feelings, says Dr. Hayfield. Ms Hayfield explains: “Some people can be really anxious about revealing their gender identity and have real concerns about how others will react. Perhaps the most important thing is not to reject someone’s identity!”
But coming out isn’t always a one-on-one conversation. Your friend may post on social media, or make a passing reference to something. Dr. Hayfield says this factor can also be taken into account: “The best way to respond depends on how the person has chosen to reveal their identity. It helps to try to put yourself in that person’s shoes and consider thinking about the reaction you would expect if you were to share something very personal about your life with others.”
If you feel the need to do a little research on the person’s gender identity, then do so in order to acknowledge their message at the right time, so that you are ready if they speak directly to you later.
Also, think about whether you would feel comfortable asking someone questions about your gender identity. Dr. Hayfield states clearly and succinctly: “Don’t ask others questions that you may not want to answer yourself.”
Some people may be anxious about revealing their gender identity!
Some things are easier to do online, and that includes researching gender identities.
Consider what helps and what doesn’t.
Your first reaction may be to remind your friend that you still love them. After all, nothing has changed in your mind, so why is he so worried? It might be what you think he wants to hear, but it could also be misinterpreted.
“Telling someone you love them regardless of their gender identity can be interpreted as meaning you love them regardless of their gender identity,” says Dr. Hayfield. “So it can be unintentional and it seems unhelpful.”
It’s more inclusive, Dr. Hayfield suggests, if you tell your friend something like, “You are who you are, and this is a part of you, and that’s what makes you who you are. I’m so glad you’re sharing that with me.”
Also saying that you’re not surprised or that it doesn’t matter can be interpreted as dismissing the anxiety your friend went through before revealing her or his gender identity.
“Make it clear that you’re on their side and that you’re happy to support them in any way they want, if they really want to,” Ms Hayfield says.
Dr. Hayfield says there are also some specific reactions that have been reported by people who have participated in psychological research to be distressing. For example, it doesn’t help to say that maybe your friend hasn’t met the right person yet and could be straight anyway. For the same reason that no one tells straight people that maybe they haven’t met the right person yet to find out that they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or pansexual.
Likewise, suggesting that the person may simply be in a passing phase is unlikely to be taken patronizingly. Nikki Hayfield adds: “Sexual orientation is fluid, so people identify with different orientations throughout their lives. But it’s also possible for people to find an identity that fits them for a long time.”
“What one feels now is valid for now.”
Don’t assume anything, as much as there is useful information out there, there is also misinformation, misrepresentation and stereotypes that may have shaped your understanding of a certain identity or that you may simply have never heard of.
“You can support your friends by not making preconceptions about their sexual orientation!” Dr. Hayfield says. “It’s a little bit different when you don’t know a lot about someone’s sexual orientation. Educating yourself is one way to become more aware that helps in many other areas, not just when someone reveals their sexual orientation to you.”
But if you don’t know much about the gender identity your friend is referring to, Dr. Hayfield thinks it’s best to be honest. There are ways that don’t trivialize or reject his identity. You could say, “I really appreciate you getting me involved in this. I don’t know much about this gender identity, but I’m eager to learn and support you. Can I go find out more and talk again later, or should I ask to know more?”
The real answer is an open mind. Remember that a person who discloses their gender identity always knows their identity better than anyone else, and you don’t need to understand it to accept and respect them.
Make sure your friend is comfortable asking questions before you start asking… this is not a job interview!
What if you make a mistake?
You may have felt pressured and said something unsupportive. You may have joked about your friend’s gender identity in the past before they came out. If so, should you apologize to someone who reveals their identity to you?
Dr. Hayfield reminds us that “we’re all human and none of us know everything. So yes, there are definitely times when it’s appropriate to apologize for past behavior or your reaction to someone’s gender reveal.”
But instead of making it about yourself, apologize and move on. Take a step back to figure out how you can support your friend through the challenges they’re facing and think about how you can be a good friend.
Remember that your friend’s fear of revealing her gender identity may have nothing to do with you, so don’t take it personally if she’s worried about what you might think.
Despite the fact that different sexual orientations are more accepted in some countries, this is not the case everywhere and for everyone. People may still expect to face negative reactions to their sexual orientation, and in many cases they actually do.
Remember that everyone is different!
Everyone wears their identity in a different way. Dr. Hayfield says it’s important to remember that people with different sexual orientations have different experiences. How important a person’s sexual orientation is to him depends on his own perspective, his life and other identities he has.
It’s also important to remember that different identities come with different struggles, so consider what reactions might be unhelpful.
Dr. Hayfield says: “Pansexual people have reported that it’s really annoying when they tell others about their identity, and people respond with jokes about kitchen utensils.” (Here, the English word Pansexuality means omnisexuality, which some joke with the prefix pan meaning frying pan so that a pansexual person tends to pots and pans.)
“Also, asexual people have talked about how confused or disbelieving others seem in response to their disclosure. They have stated that others assume they need psychotherapy. Just because they don’t experience sexual or emotional attraction towards others, doesn’t mean they need psychotherapy.”
Normalize being inclusive in your everyday conversations and try not to take anything for granted.
What else can you do to support your LGBT+ friends?
You cannot judge a person’s gender or sexual orientation just by looking at them. This means that revealing your gender identity can be something your friend has to do on a daily basis, or they may choose not to.
Dr. Hayfield has a tip for everyday support:
“Make it clear that you’re inclusive of everyone by talking about sexual orientation in your everyday conversations, and do it in a way that shows you respect people’s different identities or orientations. Make it your normal behavior to be inclusive. It makes it easy for others to know you’re safe if they want to reveal their identity to you.”
So remember: if someone reveals their gender identity to you, don’t reject them, don’t assume anything, and above all, act in a way that makes them feel safe and supported.