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One of the most quintessential moments of queer life is the act of coming out. It’s such a life-changing event that we have entire day devoted to celebrating it every year. While the coming out process and experience is different for just about everyone, the actual act of coming out is often a unifying concept for the LGBT community. At almost any queer event, you’ll probably overhear some folks discussing how and when they came out, whether it’s about their sexual orientation, gender identity, or both.
We come out to lots of people, of course. We come out to ourselves, our friends, our family, to our cats (who are universally the most accepting, of course). Often the coming-out moment that gets made the biggest deal of is coming out to your family. This makes sense; some of the most emotional coming-out stories, whether heart-warming or hear-wrenching, come from the family talk, and the risk — of being disowned or rejected — is often greatest. But, for many of us, myself included, a more important (and scary) reveal is when we tell our friends. Don’t get me wrong, I was scared to death when I told my parents that I’m trans and queer. However, I have a complicated family history, so it’s my friends have long made up the vast majority of my support system, so their rejection would have been so much more devastating than any blood-family rejection could have ever been. I think that’s the case for a pretty large swath of queer world. And really, the content of the conversation with your friends is so much different than with family.
So just how does one go about coming out to their friends? The Autostraddle team held a roundtable to impart our vast wealth of queer experience to help you through this big step.
For me, I came out to my friends in stages. I knew early on that my social network has going to be critical in survivingmy transition, and I wasn’t prepared to risk all of it in one big shout. It started with my very closest friends, who were actually the first people I came out to at all. It was probably a little overwrought and dramatic, but I sat each of them down individually and started with that cliche line “I have something important to tell you…” and just let the words flow out. Oh, and then I cried (the crying is totally optional). After the closest of my friends were taken care of, I started picking particular friend clusters that I felt ready to share my journey with, then picked out one or two people from that group that I felt would probably be supportive and told them first, followed by a broader announcement to the larger group later on. Wi. With some groups, it was easier to make the announcement by email. With others, it was easier to catch everyone at a big gathering and talk to the stragglers afterwards. Once I had taken care of all of the “friend groups” and individual people that I felt it was important to have one-on-one conversations with, I just made one big final Facebook announcement along the lines of “Hey everyone, this is what’s going on. I’d love if we could still be friends, but you can’t deal, you can see your way out.”
I knew early on that my social network has going to be critical in surviving my transition, and I wasn’t prepared to risk all of it in one big shout.
So that’s the process, but how about the words? Well, I found that there was a basic set of information that every talk/speech/email needed to cover. The first was the obvious: that I’m trans and what being trans really means. I found it really helped people relate better if explained how emotionally painful dysphoria really is. Second, people needed to hear the really practical stuff, like how my coming out would affect them. This is where I explained my new name, my new pronouns, that I would “look different,” and all of that. Third, I wanted people to know what was expected of them (which wasn’t much). I let them know that what I cared about was their friendship, and that I didn’t expect them to automatically become a champion for trans issues, just that I expected them to respect me as a person. Fourth, I gave them permission to feel whatever they were feeling, and to make mistakes. Adjusting to a trans friend is complicated, and I wanted people to know that I wouldn’t get angry at them for making mistakes. It’s also a pretty huge change, and sometimes people have pretty strong reactions or take some time to process the information, and I wanted them to know I was cool with that and wouldn’t judge them for it. Lastly, I offered them resources. Sometimes, it’s easier for people to grasp things when they’re explained in alternative ways, or when they’re outside an emotionally-charged conversation with a close friend. So, I linked helpful resources from groups like PFLAG that explained transgender concepts and language.
Nowadays, I find myself having to come out in the “opposite” direction at times. I have a pretty cis-normative appearance, so people generally don’t know I’m trans unless I actually tell them. I’ve become a little more casual about those moments. I treat being trans as basically one more incidental fact about me, like where I went to college, or when I got my driver’s license. If it comes up in the context of conversation, then that’s how they find out.
I don’t think I ever sat anyone down with the intention of having a serious “coming out” conversation. Like, I didn’t even do that with my mother. I just started slipping, “my girlfriend, M,” in casual conversation. And watched people’s wheels spin as they tried to act cool.
It’s bullshit that I would need to come out as bi when I never came out as straight… I’m not going to create high pressure situations that make me feel awkward about my queerness, when it’s other people who should be feeling awkward about their heteronormativity.
This approach worked really great for me! I think only two people asked any follow up questions, and it was to clarify how long I’d been seeing my girlfriend. I’m pretty sure some people still think I’m using “girlfriend” to mean “chummy female best friend,” but like… I’m fine with that. They’ll definitely get it if they ever check my Facebook or look me up on Google, you know?
I guess my main feeling on this is: why should it be my responsibility to baby people as they work through their own mistaken assumptions? It’s bullshit that I would need to come out as bi when I never came out as straight. I’m going to take care of my own feelings, and they should take care of theirs. I’m not going to create high pressure situations that make me feel awkward about my queerness, when it’s other people who should be feeling awkward about their heteronormativity.
I came out to most of friends long before I came out to my family. I distinctly remember coming out to two of my gay male friends first, and I was terrified. I was (and still am) navigating what my identity was exactly — I knew I liked girls, but I had a boyfriend — so I was really scared to tell them what was up.
It doesn’t get less scary for me, per se, but the more times I do it, the better equipped I feel to deal with the backlash (if there is any).
The first two were the hardest, and they were really accepting and didn’t question me even though it was all very new. I spent my teenaged years in the suburbs, in a closed-minded, conservative environment. This queer/lesbian/gay realm was all very, very scary to a little conservative girl like me. After breaking up with said boyfriend, my dating wasn’t limited to a specific gender, so I had to slowly start telling my other friends as well. It doesn’t get less scary for me, per se, but the more times I do it, the better equipped I feel to deal with the backlash (if there is any).
I officially “came out” to my entire network of friends, so to speak, when I posted a link to my Autostraddle interview for Straddler on the Street on my Facebook profile, and on my blog. It was the first time I had spoken publicly about being queer, and I was SO nervous. Again, I was very afraid of the outcome, but I also knew that hiding away this important part of myself was slowly eating at my well being. The reaction was far more supportive than I thought it would be. People that I hadn’t spoken to in years sent me messages saying that they were happy to see a person like me — someone who perhaps doesn’t necessarily fit the stereotype of what a queer person “looks” like — come out and be proud of their identity. I suppose I’ve learned that the friends who support you are the ones who were worthwhile, and who gives a fuck what the others say?