The Three Best and Worst Ways to Respond When Your Kid Comes Out to You
National Coming Out Day is coming up on October 11 and is often celebrated all week. October is also LGBTQ+ History Month. For many of us within the community, this is a celebratory time! We get to reflect on the joy we have found in coming out to ourselves and our loved ones, allowing us to live beautiful, authentic lives.
If you have a child that has been trying to figure out how to come out to you, the most important person in their life, National Coming Out Day might be the nudge they need to share their sexual orientation and/or gender identity with you.
If your kiddo is anything like mine, they told allllll of their friends and even social media, before they told me. Their Mother. Yeahhhh. Just kidding, it really is fine now. But at the time, I remember feeling pretty upset that I didn’t get to hear about it first. Then I quickly realized that I’m the most important relationship for them, hence telling me meant taking on a huge amount of risk. While they knew I’d be fine with it (I am a pretty public lesbian, friends) my kiddo was still worried about the conversation itself. What if Mom asked a lot of questions they didn’t know how to answer? What if Mom was angry for some reason they couldn’t even think of? What if Mom accused them of being trendy? Even in coming out to their LGBTQ+ parent, there was still anxiety. So for my friends who are hetero parents, please don’t be upset that you’re probably the last one to hear their coming out story.
Regardless of when or how it happens, the way you respond to your kiddo coming out to you will determine if your relationship will be stronger or weaker afterward. And if you screw it up, it’s not the end of the world. Understanding WHY your response wasn’t the best is the most direct path to an even stronger relationship.
Also, your kids need this information, both the queer and the hetero ones. Every LGBTQ+ individual knows there are other queer people that do a horrible job of responding when you come out to them. So these tips aren’t just for my hetero parents, they’re for everyone.
While the “coming out” process is nuanced and individual, there are some universal truths. Understanding them can go a long way in your authentic allyship so let’s get you ready for National Coming Out Day and every day!
Let’s start with the worst ways to respond when a co-worker comes out to you:
We need you to care that our basic rights are being threatened literally around the world. We need you to care that 40% of unhoused youth are LGBTQ+. We need you to care that most LGBTQ+ adults experience discrimination and harassment at work. We need you to care that our next generation of LGBTQ+ leaders is at risk. Who we are needs to matter to you.
When an LGBTQ+ child has shared their identity with you, you are being enlisted to defend their basic human rights. Immediately? No. It takes time to first, identify where you are on the allyship spectrum and second, decide where you want to be headed.
The idea is like you’re going to a house party and on the way up the front porch, your foot falls through a missing stair, and you’re seriously injured. As your friends patch you up, they apologize for not warning you to avoid the stair. When asked “Why doesn’t someone repair it?” the response is “It’s just how it is.” Or “It’s too much hassle, a lot easier to just avoid it. We don’t want to deal with all the drama.” Whether at work or in our families, we all know some Missing Stairs.
First, we don’t “out” our children, ever. We stand as their support as they navigate their relationships. We can ask our kid how they want to proceed. They may choose to be fully out and just deal with the consequences. They may choose to wait. They may choose to hide it from certain members forever. We can offer perspective, but not even advice unless it’s specifically asked for. This Missing Stair family member is only the first of many, many sticky conversations your child will navigate.
We don’t protect our children by avoiding the Missing Stair. We protect our children by building the critical thinking skills and resilience they will need to deal with the many Missing Stairs throughout their lives.
While dealing directly with the family member is not your job, you do have the power to use your voice. When you overhear bigotry in the family, narrate the moment. “Grampa, what you just said about the LGBTQ+ community is hurtful.” And if your gut says it’s important for your child to hear you speak up, make it happen.
While this list is certainly not exhaustive, the concepts cover the majority of ways that co-workers can unconsciously create harm. So, what are some of the BEST ways to respond when another employee comes out to you regarding their sexual orientation or gender identity?
Let’s count down to the Number One Best Way to Respond when someone you value comes out to you.
2. “Thank you for telling me. It’s an honor to know more about you.” - This response comes from a dear friend, Dr. Amy Harth, they/them. I love what they said: “I like this because it’s not a question. When someone is opening up, asking them any questions, even supportive ones can be a lot.” So true! If you sense this moment is A LOT for your kid, this is a great response!
And now for my absolute favorite way to respond when someone I value comes out to me, whether it’s at work, at home, or in the community is….
If this feels intrusive, let me sign a permission slip for you. If you’re an older Millenial/young Gen Xer like me, there’s a good chance that to you, “respect” means giving people space to figure it out. We hated when the adults in our lives hovered, we still hate it if our bosses try to do it. So when we have a teen in front of us, it’s easy to feel like “Well, I wouldn’t have wanted my parents all up in my business, asking a million questions. So I won’t do that to them.”
In my day job, I’m an HR consultant, and here’s what I know. Gen Z experiences 10 hours a week LESS social connection time a week, than we did at their age. They actually report wanting to have face-to-face time with their managers. (Can you imagine?! No Gen Xer would ever!) They want and need real-life people involved in their lives.
And you’re the parent. It’s always your right, and even your responsibility to make sure your kid is feeling safe. To do that effectively, don’t do it all at once and definitely, specifically ask about all the different areas.
Basically, when we respond to vulnerability with a desire to make sure they’re feeling safe, we are communicating how much we value them, that we understand a little bit of their day-to-day life and we have their back. What an incredible way to strengthen the connection we have with our children.
Now are all of these suggestions applicable and appropriate in every situation? No! Just like every coming out experience is individual, every response is too. Your job is to stay present, don’t assume anything, and truly listen. Stay rooted in respect, and a desire to know more about their individual experience, be clear about your concern for their safety, and you will navigate through that moment just fine.
And Happy National Coming Out Day!
P.S. One final tip. Please don’t respond with something like “It’s so trendy! Maybe you should get off social media so you can remember how to be straight/a boy/a girl.” The reasons why these are hurtful are vast but it comes down to this. Don’t we want our kids to figure out who they are early in life? How much drama could we have avoided in life, if we had built the skills to figure out exactly what works for us and what doesn’t? Marriage number one, anybody?
It’s totally possible that our kiddo will change their mind. It’s also totally possible that this moment of vulnerability paves the path to mental wellness for the rest of their life. Proceed accordingly.
About the Author:
Elena Joy Thurston (she/her) is an inspirational LGBTQ+ speaker, trainer, and founder of the nonprofit Pride and Joy Foundation. A Mormon mom of four who lost her marriage, her church, and her community when she came out as a lesbian, Elena’s viral TEDx talk on surviving conversion therapy has been viewed 45,000+ times and landed her media and speaking opportunities with ABC, CBS, Logitech, Michael’s, and more.
Elena Joy launched Pride and Joy Publishing, the only publisher of solely LGBTQ+ empowerment and business books. Their first book, Thriving in Business: Strategies for the LGBTQ+ Entrepreneur, hit #1 in LGBTQ+ Studies its first week out, along with #3 in Women in Business.