First, let me explain FFAQ for anyone that's new here...
FFAQ stands for "Friday's Frequently Asked Question" and is basically a day where I open up the comments section and allow people to ask questions. Then, if you like the question, you "ditto" whatever question you like, and the question with the most "dittos" wins and I answer it. Here's the latest FFAQ poll (which was from September--got really distracted flying to Utah and LA and stuff. Legit excuse, right?)
The winner, by a landslide, of the last poll was an anonymous poster (really guys, link to something! Your Facebook page, or blog, or Pinterest or Twitter or anything. I totally want to send people to you when your question gets the most votes) who asked this excellent question:
I'm still curious about what your family and friends did "right" as they found out you were gay and what things they did "wrong"
It seems like a nice way to help many of us learn how to be the most loving and supportive as possible when we experience it in our lives.
I really, really love this question.
In fact, I have several posts in the wings that kind of indirectly answer it, as well as plans to either interview my Dad or have him write a post regarding when I outed myself to him/his perspective on having a gay son.
But because this is a FFAQ winner, I'll also write this special post all about the answer because, honestly, it's probably one of the most important things we could talk about. Obviously, this is very personal, and not everybody will perceive these things the way I do--so in other words, it can't be used as a foolproof template. Mileage may vary for the gays in your life.
Hopefully, though, it's helpful in a general way.
So, let's start with the good stuff. What did my family and friends do "right" in my perception?
When I outed myself to my Dad as a 13 year old boy, I took him downstairs to my bedroom. I told him I was gay. He did various things at that point that I think were really, really important.
1. He took what I was saying at face value and did not, out of his own fear or anxiety, tell me that I was making things up, tell me that I was probably just "going through a phase," or in any way discount my experiences. He did not tout some easy solution, or try to tell me that everything would just magically "get better." He did ask clarifying questions, and as he did so it was clear this was not just a phase or a passing thought, and that my sexual attractions were oriented towards males and not females. Put more succinctly, first he believed me, which was very important and second he didn't freak out which was also important.
2. He did not pressure me. He let me say what I was saying, and didn't try to pressure me to live a certain way or be a certain way. He trusted himself. He trusted that 13 years of consistently teaching me the things he believed were true was more powerful instruction than anything he could possibly try to hammer me with in an hour-long conversation. He did not view the moment of my outing as a moment of gospel instruction (which is what happens when people get scared and worry that "not making sure he knows that's a sin!" will somehow ruin everything.) He viewed it for what it was: a father supporting his son as his son came out of the closet as a homosexual person.
3. He expressed love. He did so verbally. That was very important. There might have been room for improvement here, as you'll see below.
4. He also told me he would respect my choices, whatever they were, and would love me no matter what. Knowing I was loved unconditionally was one of the absolutely most important parts of my own development and decision making process over the years, and allowed me the freedom to explore what I believed for myself as opposed to being an effort to obtain approval and acceptance from others, or, later on in life, a 180 degree reaction to realizing that's what I had been doing for years and years.
My other immediate family members all reacted in a similar way, so much so that I just have a warm feeling about their reactions, but don't remember much about each individual incident.
I've also outed myself to a lot of friends over the years. Here are some of the things they did that were particularly awesome:
1. It meant a lot to me when they listened openly.
2. It was significant to me when they reassured me that this didn't change anything about our friendship and in many cases explained that it had deepened our bond.
3. It was always really important to me (and still is) when friends asked a lot of questions. Having them ask lots of questions showed me that they actually heard what I was saying, realized it was important, and were processing what this circumstance meant in the context of my life. It helped me know that they were "getting it" and that they saw that this was a pretty big deal to me. It also helped me see that they weren't going into denial about it, or placing what I said on some "that's weird, but whatever" shelf, which would have been hard for me.
4. It was important that they took my requests for keeping it a secret seriously, and promised to keep the information confidential. (Funny how different that part of my life is, ha.)
5. It meant a lot to me when friends allowed me to process my own reactions to having told them days, weeks, or even months after outing myself to them. I wanted to talk about this issue, and at the time there weren't a lot of places for that. I had usually told them, at least in part, for some support. Having them offer that support was very meaningful to me.
6. Feeling unconditional love. I'm not sure how to describe it, or what to say to help you know how to have it. I think the moments when I didn't feel it had to do with fears felt by the other person. There were friends from whom I felt unconditional love (most of them), and friends from whom I didn't (sadly).
7. Physical affection was always welcome (though not essential) in those moments, especially from guy friends. A hug let me know that I was still accepted, that this information didn't freak them out, and that they didn't find me repulsive for being gay. It also let me know that they were secure enough in their own sexuality/masculinity that my sexual orientation didn't bother them or make them feel weird or uncomfortable.
Lolly gets a category of her own, but there are overlapping themes.
1. She didn't rely on me solely for her own needs. She made it clear that I could share things with her. She was one of the first people I genuinely felt this with (which is mostly my fault--I used listening to others, which is something I love to do anyway, as a defense mechanism to never have to share anything about myself with others.)
2. She was real with me as she processed her response.
3. She was concerned enough to help me explore what this meant for me. She kept asking good, probing questions that helped me process what was happening to me. Ended up being totally transformative. Obviously.
In outing experiences that were successful, I felt great amounts of love and openness, and I usually felt like I had found a "safe place" to share, especially early on. I also felt genuine concern and acceptance. Later on (more recently) when I wasn't in need of a "safe space" so much, I still found outing experiences to be helpful when people were open, real, accessible and honest, even when they had what they felt were strange questions. (They were generally not strange questions at all--but totally appropriate ones.) So, love y'all. And openness. And non-judgment. And lose the need to correct or "educate." Those were the keys for me, for what it's worth.
When it didn't go well:
Okay, here are a few things that over the years kind of hurt or were less than ideal. I genuinely hope the people I'm talking about don't read this, or seriously don't remember it was them, because I have zero desire to call anyone out here. But I do think that for the general reader this list could be important.
1. First, though my dad did an incredible job with the initial outing, no parent can be expected to be perfect in every way. One of the things that I think could have been better handled was that there were a couple of years after the initial outing where the issue wasn't brought up at all. I think talking more openly about it would have been helpful. It wasn't until I brought it up again that we started really getting into it a couple of years later.
2. I had a friend tell me that "If you had told me this earlier on in our friendship, it would have been completely inappropriate. But you waited until we'd been friends long enough that I feel okay." I'm still not sure why that was upsetting to me, but it was. It probably had to do with the fact that I had thought of telling him many, many times from very early on in our friendship--he had been one of my closest male friends to that point--and so to know that if I had he would have found it "inappropriate" was really uncomfortable for me, and didn't allow me to feel safe.
3. I had a friend say "I don't really want to hear more about this. I appreciate you for who you are, and I don't think we need to talk about this any more." This was difficult for me because what it actually felt like he was saying was that he didn't want to face the reality of who I am as a whole person. In saying "we don't need to talk about this" what I felt like he was saying was that he didn't want to talk to me about it. In other words, I felt as though he didn't actually appreciated me for who I was, but more for who he thought I was before he knew more about me, and it felt that he didn't want to have his ideas about homosexuality or me as a person challenged. This was actually pretty hard on me because, bottom line, it felt like a personal rejection.
4. I had one person who expressed being hurt that I hadn't told them earlier in our friendship. This was challenging for me. It made me regret telling them at all. Deciding to tell someone about this is very difficult, and isn't "about" the person being told. There are so, so, so many reasons a closeted person might wait to share this incredibly sensitive information. For me, it was standard procedure. Not telling was my Modus Operandi, and had nothing to do with anyone but myself. Do not take it as a personal attack if you hear after "so and so" or if you feel like you were good enough friends to have heard long before. You probably were, which is why they are telling you now!
5. My dad ended up telling relatives without me knowing. This was hard for me. At the time I'm sure he was looking for support for himself as he processed having a gay son, but it would have been helpful to me to feel some control over them knowing (though in the end, it has ended up being fine.)
Hmmmm... all right. I think that covers it. Overall, I think the message here is: believe your friend or loved one. Show them that you care about them after they've been vulnerable. Extend, perhaps, a greater measure of love so that they don't have reason to doubt your sincerity or devotion. Then listen. Also, I think a safe bet is that if you are ever wondering if you are reacting in a way that might be unhelpful, or you're just unsure how to proceed, ask the person what he or she needs. That kind of openness and willingness to engage will go a long way.
I'm really glad this was a FFAQ question. I'm so glad to see so many people are concerned about this. It makes me want to be better myself, and to react to people in they ways they need.
You guys all float my boat. Thanks for being amazing.