by Hermia Lyly
Coming out of the closet is almost always a frightening and awkward experience. It’s hard to know what to say when you’re coming out to someone, and it’s likewise hard to know how to respond when someone is coming out to you. Among Mormons, the coming out process can be especially difficult. As a queer Mormon woman who has come out to her family and several of her friends, I have often wished that there was a “guide” for my Mormon friends and family to follow when I came out to them. Because I couldn’t find such a guide, I decided to write this post, which is geared specifically towards the Mormon experience and is meant to provide simple guidelines to follow when someone comes out to you.
Even if you’ve never had the experience of having someone come out to you, odds are that you have at least one friend or family member who is LGBTQ–which means sooner or later, they’ll probably come out to you. Here’s a brief guide to what to say and what NOT to say when your Mormon friend comes out to you:
What to say (and do):
“I love you.” Express your wholehearted, unconditional love to them without hesitation. Resist the urge to say something like: “I love you, even if I don’t like your choices,” or “hate the sin, love the sinner.” These phrases may sound loving, but they aren’t. They focus more on sin than on the person, and they assume that a homosexual person is automatically wicked, which is simply not true. A simple “I love you” keeps the focus on your friend and your relationship with them.
“Thank you for trusting me.” Every single time that someone comes out to another person, they are taking a huge emotional and social risk. If someone willingly comes out to you, then they are showing you that they trust you. Remember to thank them for having such a firm trust in you. And don’t forget that you must continue to earn their trust.
“I’m here for you.” Offer your support to them. Even if you feel like you don’t agree with their beliefs or actions, you can still be their friend and listen to them when they need someone to talk to. There’s no commandment that says you can’t love someone who doesn’t agree with you.
*Listen to them and let them set the tone* Sometimes people are very serious about coming out. Other people like to have a lighter or more casual mood. It’s their coming out party, so they get to set the tone. Remember, they’re the one taking the risk, so it’s your job to make them feel comfortable–not the other way around.
*Imagine yourself in their shoes* This is pretty straightforward: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Or better yet: “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).
What to avoid saying:
“I’m sorry that you’re gay.” When I tell people that I’m queer and they respond with “that sucks,” or “that’s so sad,” I’m always confused. Being queer doesn’t “suck.” What sucks is living in a society that marginalizes and discriminates against me. When you tell someone you’re “sorry” that they’re LGBTQ, you’re telling them that being LGBTQ is a defect. One’s sexuality is a blessing, not a defect. Our Heavenly Parents have blessed us to be queer, heterosexual, homosexual, trans*, intersex, two-spirit, asexual, SGA/SSA, pansexual, bisexual, etc. Even if we might disagree about what these sexualities mean, it’s harmful to value one sexuality over another.
“You know that apostles and prophets condemn homosexual behavior, right?” Really? Of course they know. If you’re LGBTQ and Mormon, you can’t help but know! In fact, for most LGBTQ Mormons, learning about the Church’s evolving stance on homosexuality becomes an obsession. I know just about everything that every modern prophet and apostle has said publicly about homosexuality. And when they have said hurtful words out of ignorance, I remember those the most. They are seared into my heart. So of course your LGBTQ friend knows what the apostles and prophets have taught about homosexuality, and unless your friend wants to discuss that, I suggest you don’t bring it up. If your friend does want to talk about the Church’s teachings about homosexual behavior, then please tread carefully and be aware of your friend’s beliefs. Ephesians 4:15 tells us that we should speak the truth in love: if you’re tempted to speak in half-truths or folk doctrine, or if you’re tempted to speak out of self-righteousness or self-defense, then maybe it’s time to take a break and pray for love and understanding.
“So are you going to leave the Church?” This question is far too invasive: in the end, a person’s decision to stay in the Church or leave is between them and God–no one else. Furthermore, this question exposes the false concept that you have to pick between being Mormon or being LGBTQ. This is not true at all. While being non-heterosexual may influence the relationship that you have with the Church, it does not determine whether or not you are able to be a member. According to an LDS SSA study conducted by BYU and Utah State professors, the majority of LGBTQ Mormons leave the Church at one time in their life. But from my experience, they leave because they feel unwelcome and stigmatized in their wards, not because they feel it’s impossible to be Mormon and LGBTQ.
“It’s okay if I tell so-and-so, right?” Unless your friend tells you that it’s okay to tell other people about their sexuality, then DON’T. Many people are very private about their sexuality, and would feel very betrayed if they found out that you told someone about their sexuality without their permission. You might assume that it’s okay to tell your spouse/mother/best friend/sister/bishop about your friend’s sexuality because “don’t worry, I tell my spouse/mother/best friend/sister/bishop about everything.” But it’s not your secret to tell. If your LGBTQ friend wants someone to know about their sexuality, then they will tell them. If they want you to keep it a secret, then respect them and keep it a secret.
“Do you have a crush any of your friends? Do you have a crush on me?” Not only is this an invasive question, but it’s extremely vain. I once came out to a friend who immediately asked if I was attracted to her. I fought back the snarky urge to tell her, “of course not–you’re not that attractive.” (eventually I broke ties with this girl because she wrongly assumed that I was only coming out to her because I wanted to date her). It’s possible–though unlikely–that the person coming out to you might be attracted to you. But unless your friend tells you that they’re attracted to you, don’t make any assumptions.
“Wait, so have you ever had sex with a guy/girl?” It’s great to ask questions about your friend’s experience so you can understand them, but sometimes questions can become too invasive. Before asking a question, ask yourself if you would be comfortable answering that question. If the answer is no, then don’t ask!
“Duh, I’ve known that you’re gay for years… why didn’t you tell me earlier?” The decision to come out to someone is very personal and private. Although you may think that you’re being supportive by telling your friend that you already know about their sexuality, a comment like this often sounds like you’re reprimanding them for choosing to come out when they did. The reason your friend didn’t tell you earlier is probably because they didn’t feel right about coming out earlier. It’s not your responsibility to push someone into coming out, and it’s certainly not your responsibility to chide someone for not coming out on your own timetable.
. . . . .
Regardless of our differing beliefs about homosexuality, we should all try to follow Elder Cook’s admonishment to “be at the forefront in terms of expressing love, compassion and outreach.” By being sensitive to the vulnerability of our LGBTQ family and friends when they come out to us, we can provide a safe place for them to feel loved and accepted. Of course, talking about coming out is just the beginning of discussing LGBTQ identity and the Gospel, but if we can start creating a safe haven for our recently-uncloseted Mormon friends and family, then maybe we won’t lose so many of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. Maybe they will stay with us, and maybe we can listen to each other and learn from one another.
That’s all I’ve got for now. What do you think? Do you disagree with anything I said? Do you think I should add more to my list? If you do, let me know in the comments!
(photo cred: firstname.lastname@example.org)