There are only a few more days till Pride month ends, and it is crucial that you continue to support and celebrate your fellow LGBT+ community members beyond the month of June. As a person discovers his/her/their sexuality or gender, it becomes an emotional moment for them to come out to their friends and family. And you often wonder if the other would be a supportive ally or not. Being an ally is not as complicated as you might think. It is literally being supportive and lending a friendly ear.
To learn more about coming out and being a good ally, TC46 connected with The Restory Project, a group of queer-affirmative and trauma-informed therapists, from Bangalore, Karnataka. Here they share tips on how one can come out of the closet and shed light on how to be a good ally.
1.To be ‘closeted’ & to come out of the closet
Coming out of the closet refers to the voluntary disclosure of sexual orientation or gender identity by members of the LGBT+ community. Those who not yet ‘come out’ are labelled as closeted or being in the closet. Coming out is a personal, psychological process that involves understanding and accepting one’s orientation or identity. It can be a difficult, gradual process, usually involving phases – coming out to oneself, family and friends, and finally, the larger public. Everyone doesn’t go through this process at the same pace, it can happen at different ages for different people. It can also look different for different people – some might decide to reveal their identity to all, others might disclose according to the situation. It’s important to remember that coming out might not be safe for everyone, has its origins in Western society, and might not do much for queer people of colour who have different societal factors to deal with. It also implies an expectation that queer people have to disclose personal information again and again, which is not something cisgender and heterosexual people are expected to do.
2. Coming out is an emotional moment for members of the LGBT+ community
Throughout our lives, we get messages from society about what the “right” behaviour to exhibit is. Most of us receive the message that we must be heterosexual and fit into the gender binary. Queer people thus might feel ashamed for not fitting into the roles expected of them, and afraid of facing societal backlash for coming out. After years of being in the closet, the prospect of coming out might bring with it many intense emotions, such as fear, relief, joy. The process not only involves revealing personal information about oneself to others, but also unlearning stereotypes, dealing with internalized homophobia, and accepting all aspects of oneself that were previously ignored, repressed or hidden. Coming out can be liberating, can help someone feel like they’re being true to themselves, help them feel supported and seen.
3. Prepare yourself before coming out to people you trust
When you decide that you want to come out, give yourself some time to prepare. Identify people in your life that you would like to come out to first, and try to get a sense of their reaction by bringing up related topics beforehand. Decide what you want to disclose, how you want to say it (in person or via video/phone call or text), and where (in a public place or at home). Rehearse in front of a mirror or with a trusted person such as a counsellor. Identify your support network, and let them know you might require their assistance beforehand. Be prepared for questions or negative reactions (remember not to internalize these). When coming out to friends or family, be clear about whether you want this information to be disclosed to others by them or not. Have a safety plan in place, in case your safety is threatened, keep contact numbers of helplines and NGOs for queer individuals with you. Be aware of anti-discrimination laws and policies in academic and work settings.
In the absence of supportive family members and peers, queer individuals can reach out to LGBT support groups (online or otherwise), NGOs, and helplines. Queer-affirmative counsellors can also be approached for support, and are sometimes present in academic and work settings. Social media has websites and pages dedicated to queer art, community-building and advice.
4. Test the waters and have a conversation about the LGBT+ community
Test the waters, bring up topics of conversation related to the queer community, such as a celebrity coming out. Gauge their reaction, and put across your own stance on the topic. If they have questions and would like to know more about the community, compile resources (books, brochures, Youtube videos) that you can share with them. Increase their exposure to other queer individuals in safe ways, such as encouraging them to go to a pride march or a poetry showcase for queer people. Talk to a professional, such as a queer-affirmative therapist, and share their contact with your loved ones in case they would later like to have a conversation with them to process you are coming out. Before the conversation in which you come out to them, let them know that is a highly sensitive topic for you, and you like them to first listen attentively and with empathy before reacting.
5. As an ally, be mindful and supportive of the person coming out to you
Coming out is a highly emotional process, and can take a lot of courage. If someone comes out to you, listen to them first without interrupting or making any judgements. Let them know you’re glad that they could trust you enough to share this personal information with you, and that you’re proud of them for taking this step. Reassure them that you do not view them in a negative light, and nothing about your relationship has to change. Ask questions if you would like to know more about their feelings and experiences in order to support them better, but remember to be respectful and not pry into personal issues. Be mindful of their feelings and do not make yours the focus of the conversation. If you are feeling uncomfortable or might need some time to process, acknowledge it, but do not place the responsibility of making you comfortable on them. Offer support and ask them what else you can do to show them you’re there for them. Be open to learning more about queer culture and the community, read up and ask them for resources if there are any they want to share with you.
6. As an ally, do not ask uncomfortable questions and do not tolerate homophobic behaviour
As an ally, if you suspect someone is in the closet, you should give them space and not ask prying questions about their sexuality and/or gender identity. If other people ask questions or speculate, you can walk away from the situation. If someone is being homophobic, take a strong stance and refuse to tolerate the homophobic behaviour. Create a safe environment, by being empathetic and kind. Do not imply that coming out should be a goal for them. If the individual is closeted to most people but has come out to you, keep the information private and do not disclose it to anyone else, no matter how close they are to the person. Avoid making references to their identity or topics related to the queer community in a group setting, where others might not be aware of their identity.
7. Dos and don’ts when it comes to being an ally
Things that you must avoid as an ally:
- Don’t make assumptions about someone’s gender, sex or sexuality
- Don’t make Pride all about you by making statements about queer history and struggle when there are many queer individuals who can speak about the same – it’s important to pass the mic
- Don’t let your fear of making mistakes stop you from taking action where you can
- Don’t turn a blind eye to your own prejudices and biases, an important part of being an ally is unlearning the harmful beliefs we might have unconsciously formed due to the messages we get from heteronormative society
Things that you must do as an ally:
- Do call out homophobic behaviour when you see it, be it uninformed comments about the community, or discrimination and violence
- Try to educate others about why their actions are unacceptable
- Keep making an effort to understand queer history, identities and terminology yourself, read up about them
- Keep your activism intersectional, be aware that caste and class also shape narratives, and address them while trying to make a difference as well
- Support queer activists and make space for them in your social and work circles
8. Support the LGBTQIA+ community as an ally by using their pronouns and creating safe spaces
A few ways one can help as an ally are:
- Ask your colleagues, classmates for their pronouns, not assuming anybody’s gender identity and sexuality.
- Create spaces where queer individuals can share art, opinions and concerns such as Gay-Straight Alliances.
- Have a responsive grievance redressal committee at your workplace/academic setting is important, and if it isn’t present, pressing for one is something allies can do.
- Use non-gendered communication, requesting gender-neutral bathrooms, suggesting that schools have an LGBTQ+ inclusive curriculum and incorporate information about different gender identities and sexualities into sex education are some ways allies can support the community.
- Contribute to funds for the community, working with and helping organizations that advocate for LGBTQ+ individuals, and helping other allies become aware of these.