Becoming an ally: How to support LGBTQ individuals coming out

Hundreds of cities across the country just celebrated Pride Month, and if you didn’t participate in a parade yourself, you most likely know someone who did.

For straight, cisgender people who want to show support for LGBTQ individuals, being an ally doesn’t just mean supporting people who are already out. It also means being a trusted person to people who are still working towards coming out.

LGBTQ Support

“Though there’s been a great deal of acceptance in society and LGBTQ people are more visible in television and movies, there’s still enormous stigma around being an LGBTQ person,” said Dr. Michael Kauth, a clinical psychologist with Baylor College of Medicine. “People who grow up realizing they are not heterosexual or cisgender worry about being accepted by family, friends and social institutions, which is a legitimate concern.”

Supporting LGBTQ friends and relatives

Coming out isn’t a single event. People often come out to close friends first and develop a support system – then come out to family members, classmates or coworkers.

“You may be unaware of friends and relatives who are questioning their sexuality or gender identity. It’s important now, if you’re going to be able to support anyone in the future, to demonstrate visibly that you are a person who supports LGBTQ people.”

Though you may want to encourage your friend or relative to come out sooner rather than later, Kauth cautions that pushing them in either direction can be counterproductive.

“It’s important that everyone does this on their own timetable. We may want them to ‘hurry up’ and reap the benefits of being themselves, but it takes time to become comfortable with who they are and adjust to a new life.”

Understanding the coming out experience

Knowing the risks some LGBTQ people face is important to being a supportive ally. LGBTQ people are at a higher risk of experiencing physical and sexual violence than non-LGBTQ people. Kauth says that those who are out often become more visible targets and are also at greater risk of losing their jobs since Texas does not have non-discrimination employment protections for LGBTQ people.

“On the positive side, LGBTQ people who are out tend to be happier and have a greater overall sense of self-worth because they can finally be themselves.”

Kauth says that LGBTQ people who are in resource-poor or hostile environments may be better served by waiting to come out until they can relocate or find help to improve their circumstances. Some friends and family may create a more painful experience when someone close to them comes out.

“For family and friends who are not supportive initially, it may take some time for them to understand.”

Being a better ally

Kauth says the experience for people coming out varies depending on the individual. For instance, the process can be more challenging for transgender individuals because it is a more visible change.

“If you identify as transgender and decide to be open about your gender identity and even begin transitioning, it is a more radical change for other people to understand what’s going on.”

Kauth notes that it’s also critical to support bisexual individuals because they can have a difficult experience coming out as well. In many cases, bisexual people may not get support from their heterosexual friends or their gay and lesbian friends who don’t accept their identity.

“If we’re going to be supportive of friends who come out to us, we need to accept them for who they say they are. Your behavior can demonstrate that you’re an ally.”

Participating in Pride events, supporting LGBTQ causes, and not tolerating anti-LGBTQ jokes are just a few of the ways to show support.

“Closeted friends and family members will see this and recognize you as a person who would support them.”

Dr. Kauth is a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor. He is set to receive the 2018 Gay and Lesbian Medical Association Achievement Award at the GLMA annual conference in October. Learn about resources at the Baylor Psychiatry Clinic and the Montrose Center.

-By Nicole Blanton

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