Image: IStockPhoto.comLast summer I visited more than thirty cities, from Ann Arbor to Washington D.C., talking about my new book on gay and lesbian life. While I was out and about, I heard from a lot of straight folks and got their side of the story - and one thing I heard repeatedly was how confusing and challenging it can be for them when someone they know says, "Yep, I'm gay."
By and large, the straight people I met had big hearts -- wanting to know more so that they could do better, and not become a victim of "foot-in-mouth" (or what I call "faux pas") disease. But many harbored all flavors of fear, misinformation, and prejudice. Some of the questions I heard included: "Is it a phase?" (No.) "Can they become straight?" (No.) "Will I have grandchildren?" (There are millions of kids in same-sex families today.) "Is being gay a choice?" (Try asking yourself when you chose to be straight and you'll understand why the answer is "no.")
Over the next two weeks, as Gay Pride is celebrated from coast-to-coast, someone you know may come out to you - or you may see firsthand the fresh exuberance of a newly out friend or family member. Take some time now to review this handy-dandy "Do This/Not That" cheat sheet to help you - and your friend - get through it .
- Thank them for telling you: Someone has just told you the biggest secret of their lives - think about that before you do or say anything. Your first reaction matters. They're likely terrified you'll reject them or lose respect for them. When you've caught your breath, thank them for sharing and trusting you with this deeply personal information. Smile, or if it feels right, give them a hug. By the way, it's ok to have the exact reaction you're having - whatever it is.
- Be civil, no matter what your beliefs: Even if words of support or encouragement aren't in your heart or vocabulary right now, put yourself in their shoes. If you're confused or upset, explain that you need some time to digest the new information - after all, they've been planning this moment and are ready for it, but you've been caught by surprise. It's far better to say, "Can you give me a minute (or a couple of days)" than to show anger, disappointment, or worse. Did I mention they're terrified of your reaction?
- Feel free to ask questions: If "congratulations" or a hug doesn't feel right to you, or if your head is spinning with the news you just learned, go ahead and ask questions. It's entirely natural to have inquiries - lots of them. Questions like "Who else knows?" and "Are you seeing someone special?" are vastly more appropriate than "Is it a phase?" or "How do you know?"
- Offer to be a sounding board: Believe me, it will be appreciated. Are there other questions to address, like, "Will their parents continue to pay for their education?" or "Is their job safe?" Be a resource for them as they build the strength to tell other friends, co-workers, or family members. Sometimes just being a supportive ear is the best thing for someone just coming out. Every time someone comes out it gets easier; you can help them with that.
- Learn about PFLAG: If you find that you need more support or resources yourself, find a local chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), which has been inviting moms and dads of gay kids to cry on its shoulders, find support, meet others like themselves, and become more educated about the LGBT people in their lives. There are chapters in all 50 states and overseas. It may take you time to assimilate the news. Give yourself a break, but find out the facts and connect with others.
- Don't tell others: Until you ask and get permission, don't share the news of someone's sexual orientation with others. It's not your business - even if you're asked. For gay people, there are many degrees of being out -- some teens are out to their parents, but not at school; to their closest friends and online, but not at home. Others may be out in their personal lives but not at work. Don't make assumptions. Always ask whether this information is private or can be shared, and if so, with whom. Once someone is outed they can't go back in. (And be careful about revealing someone's sexual orientation on Facebook. Ask before tagging.)
- Don't be two faced: There's nothing worse than telling a friend who's come out to you that you're a supporter - and then mocking or disparaging them behind their backs - to other friends or on social media.
- Don't use an incorrect pronoun (for someone who is transgender): If someone comes out trans, don't continue to refer to them by their 'old' pronoun or former name. For instance, Chaz Bono is now Cher's son (he's no longer Chastity nor Cher's daughter) and it's proper to refer to him as 'he.' This is a sign of respect -- address someone as they wish to be addressed. Sure, it may take you some time to get it right - fortunately, good intentions do count.
- Don't let others get away with bullying: If friends or co-workers make anti-gay jokes or are bullies, call them out on it. You don't need to humiliate anyone, but we all need to speak up on behalf of each other. You can say: "I really don't think that's funny" or "That offends me" or "You know better than that." Remember: Bullies take strength from those who don't stand up to them.
Steven Petrow is the author of Steven Petrow's Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners and can be found online at gaymanners.com. Got a question? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact him on Facebook and Twitter.