Tuesday, April 26, 2011

What to do When a Friend Comes Out to You

So I'm watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer through for the first time (I'm on season 4, and I know, I'm dumb for never having watched before now) and have recently gotten to the point where Willow comes out to Buffy.

yay, BFFs!

After getting over her ex-boyfriend, Oz, Willow meets Tara through her Wiccan group and the two become really close friends and it's fairly obvious that they have an even deeper connection than simply friendship. And than just being witches. But when Oz comes back and says he's cured from werewolf-dom and wants to get back together, Willow has to confront all these emotions, and does the obvious thing, which is tell her best friend that she thinks she wants more from Tara.

And like a good best friend, Buffy is supportive. After she has a minor brain-fart trying to find something to say, she says, "I'm glad you told me."

That is pretty much the right thing to say when someone you know comes out to you. Watching this scene reminded me of two really distinctive conversations I had in high school when two really good friends came out to me. (Separately... we all went to different schools.) For both of them, I ended up being fairly high up on their lists of people who were privy to this information, but both conversations happened on AIM. That was partly because I didn't go to school with either of them, so the majority of our contact happened long-distance, and in the days I was in high school, I had neither a texting plan nor the invention of facebook chat, and people communicated on AIM. Basically rock-and-chisel by today's standards. I digress. But having the conversation over AIM was actually a good way to have a conversation that I'm sure, must have been sort of difficult to start for them.

Reading back on the conversations (I saved them), I sort of groan at myself for the amount of babbling I did (much more so the first time it happened when my friend came out to me in 10th grade and I was the 2nd person she had come out to). But... at the same time, it is really sort of the same way I talk all the time, and definitely how I talked when I was 16, and ultimately what responding to someone coming out to you necessitates is affirming that you are their friend and that you support them. My first response to my friend shyly admitting that she was dating and in love with a girl was, "hey, cool!"

As we continue talking about it, I ask her genuinely-interested questions about her (then-) secret relationship, tell her I'm happy for her, and reference Marissa's same-gender relationship on The O.C. as an example of someone defining their own sexuality (something my friend was ambivalent about). So basically... the kinds of things you would imagine a 16 year old saying to anyone, not just to a possibly-lesbian-or-bisexual-friend. Because the sex or gender of the partner of your friend doesn't change the person you know. You’re probably friends for a reason… and you should look at a friend coming out to you as simply acquiring new information about them, which is something that happens all the time. (I mean, this is often not so simple, but this should basically be your attitude.) There is no reason to treat your friend any differently than before. Duh!

This was a part of our conversation (reproduced with her permission):
Friend: i feel amazing with her. and i can't see enough of her. and i'm afraid of telling our friends
Me: that's understandable
Friend: do you think they'll be ok with it?
Me: I don't see why they wouldn't. but I don't know. One of my friends came out this year, and she had a pretty good response from her friends, but I don't really know the fine details since she lives in another state.
Friend: ok
Me: I know that's she's received some flak, but her good friends are really supportive.
Friend: i just...i never thought any of this would happen. and i thought i was completely sure about myself. and then she came and i have changed so much
Me: that's so cute
Friend: haha. so you're great with this?
Me: yeah. did you think I wouldn't?
Friend: no i knew you would. But i wasn't sure how ok you'd be
Me: How OK I'd be? What did you think I'd do? haha, I'm totally fine.
Friend: it's just a big deal for me
That "it's just a big deal for me" I think is a really important point. I mean, it's kind of a "duh"-point, but my reaction was really important at that moment to her. And even though I was like initially a little taken aback that she was even the slightest bit doubtful of how I would react to her news, the reality is, America is not so friendly to the gays. We're a little better than the past, and social conditions for LGBTQQIA people are improving, but ... hello! It's pretty damn difficult to come out as anything other than heterosexual in America, let alone do so as a teenager! So her being a little reserved about sharing this with me was not necessarily a reflection of her fears that I was a secret homophobe, but that getting negative reactions about her relationship, which made her really happy and excited, were a real and distinct possibility.

About a year later I had another coming-out conversation with another friend, and this is a funny one to read back on because he tells me in a really incidental way, just as a "by the way, thought you should know"-thing and I tell him, "Oh, ____, I'm so proud of you!" and then we basically just move on to talking about other stuff... like it was no big deal! Everyone deals in different ways, and as a friend, your job is to be there for what is needed. And all he apparently needed from me at that moment was a quick approval, and that was it.

I feel honored that my friends felt good enough about our friendship that they trusted me with really intimate information about their lives at some kind of rocky times of psychological transition. Keeping information private that your friends want to be private is also really important, and especially with sexuality. It sucks that there are some sexual preferences that are privileged above others, and that get attention and time while others are stigmatized and seen as "deviations" from "normal" (ew, normal is really not a good word at ALL), and especially in a country where LGBTQQIA people face an actual, real threat of violence and discrimination (not fun fact: it's legal to discriminate against someone based on their sexuality in many a state in the "land of the free"), respecting your friend's wishes about privacy and support are really, really, really important. Really.

As teenagers especially, it can be kind of daunting when a friend comes out to you because often, you might not know any other (out) queer people. (Again... I'm using "queer" in the academic sense, as it has been claimed as an all-encompassing term of the LGBTQQIA-identifed people... I will someday write something on queer theory which I'm totally getting into and enjoying, but that's going to take a significant amount of brain power to convey.) I read somewhere recently that one way to approach the "I don't know any gay people"-mindset that many people share, is that ... you probably know a left-handed person. Lefties make up about the same percentage of the population as gay people. (There is no known connection between handedness and sexuality... just to clarify. This is about numbers.) If you don't "know" someone who identifies as LGBTQQI or A, then it's likely that you don't know anyone who's out. Or at least out to you. It would just be a statistical anomaly. You know a leftie. And probably a couple of them.

Since high school, the amount of queer people I know has pretty much grown exponentially. (A couple of my gay, male friends call me "the fairy gaymother" as a joke because of the disproportionately large amount of gay friends I have.) I definitely have a better grip on vocabulary and ways to talk about sexuality than I did five or six years ago when I was in high school, but one of the terms I continue to have trouble with is "ally."

"Ally," as defined on the GLAAD website, is "... someone who is supportive and accepts the LGBT person, or a straight ally can be someone who personally advocates for equal rights and fair treatment." I think I first heard the term "ally" in college when someone (probably a girl,) introduced herself at a meeting of mostly LGBT people as "an ally," and I was immediately annoyed. I guess it's a kind of useful term, but the way I see it, I do not need to assert my own sexuality to be supportive of someone else's. And so, when someone says that they're an ally as a primary identifier of who they are, I just always feel like it's unnecessary. Usually, people don't go around announcing their sexual identities anyway, like, "Hello, I'm Liz and I am a heterosexual but I totally support the queer community as well."I identify as a feminist because that is an actual political identity and movement, and I will definitely identify myself as someone who supports LGBT issues, but my sexuality is rarely relevant information in talking about anything. Okay, well, occasionally it is relevant. And perhaps it’s relevant quite often for me because I am a women’s studies minor and taking 4 women’s studies classes this semester and am fairly regularly involved in activism on behalf of civil rights for all sexualities---but it's not something I need to regularly announce by any means. And it’s just been my experience that self-identified “allies” overuse this term and it always comes off as annoying to me. I think the definition of an ally is important insomuch as I think straight people should support and fight for their queer friendsies and family members, but I don't think there should necessarily be a vocab word for it. That's really just what good friends and good family members do.

In any case, if someone you know comes out to you, you should feel grateful that they trust you enough to share that kind of information with you. You should give them the kind of support that you’d give any friend, and be respectful of their wishes as they navigate the world in the process of coming out. And definitely do not do as Oz did on Buffy and turn into a werewolf. Just be your regular, fun self for your regular, fun friend. Who might be queer. Your friend probably does not expect you to shower them in glitter and blast Tomboy when they come out to you... although now that I'm thinking about that, it sounds kind of fun and actually something a few people I know would appreciate...

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