This coming Friday, October 11th is National Coming Out Day, which “promotes honesty and openness about being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender on campus, in the workplace and in the community.” It is based on the belief that visibility and equality of GLBT people cannot be achieved from the closet.
Throughout the course of your life, as a manager, parent, or friend, it is likely that you will come in contact with someone who is struggling with issues around their sexual orientation. It may be your Managing Director, your Assistant, your friend, your parent, your lawyer, your child, your plumber, or your yoga instructor.
For many members of the HBS community, this may be the first time they have had someone come out to them. Like many of our modern-day occurrences, this is a place where Emily Post and the rules of etiquette have fallen silent. Here are some tips on how to respond when someone comes out to you.
First of all, what does it mean to “come out of the closet”?
Coming out means identifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. There are normally two phases of coming out – one in which you come out to yourself and one in which you come out to others.
For many people, coming out is challenging. There is a huge fear of being different from who you thought you were and who others believed you to be. But for most people who come out, it is about reaching a point where you just don’t feel comfortable not being yourself any more. Coming out is about being forthright about who you are.
And why do people come out?
Coming out to yourself or others is an act of honesty and integrity – the core of our value systems – and essential to being an effective leader. For many, it is the most challenging, yet most empowering process they can go through.
The phrase, “coming out of the closet” represents the moment at which someone decides that they will no longer live a life hidden from who they truly are, away from what they truly want, or separated from what they truly believe. As you can imagine, this event is life-changing, emotional, and above all, extremely happy.
So, what should I do if someone comes out to me?
First, feel flattered. When someone comes out to you it is sign that they trust you as someone who is supportive of them. Coming out can be an extremely disorienting and scary process. It often requires that one look at him/herself in a new way and all that seemed familiar can feel foreign. What will happen to my friends, my family, and my career? Will people treat me differently? Will I still be welcomed?
Second, listen. Often, people just need to talk. They’ve got a lot on their mind – let them let it out.
Third, ask questions. How are you doing? How can I help you? How can I be supportive of you? Gain a sense for where the person is emotionally and the level at which they are comfortable in sharing your conversation beyond the two of you.
What has changed? What remains the same?
At the end of the day, much remains unchanged. Being out does not mean that your friend has suddenly developed an affinity for opera or a better sense of dress or no longer wants to watch football or take long walks in the park. They still are who they are.
It is normal to go through an adjustment period where both the person coming out and you feel awkward, e.g., not really sure how to make conversation about certain private topics anymore – such as relationships, not sure what to ask, and what not to ask.
Eventually, even when people are supportive, one of two things will develop – you are able to fully accept the person coming out and feel comfortable discussing all sorts of private issues, or you will accept it and be ok with the concept, but uncomfortable discussing any private issues. To the extent you both can offer each other the time and are able to talk through these things, the more helpful it will be to both of you.
What resources are available to me or to my friend?
At Harvard, there are resources available to those coming out and those who support them through the HBS Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Student Association. Please feel free to contact any of the co-chairs with questions or to request more information (//sa.hbs.edu/glsa/).
On a local level, there are several groups that can be helpful to someone in the coming out process. For people in the coming out process, the Fenway Community Health (//www.fenwayhealth.org) has good resources for both health and mental health, and run support groups including those for people coming out. They have an anonymous hotline you can call and just talk to people: Gay and Lesbian Helpline 617-267-9001 / 888-340-GLBT (4528)
For friends and family of those coming out, check out the local chapter of Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), which can be found locally at //www.gbpflag.org/ or nationally at www.pflag.org. This group is helpful to those who want to be supportive of their friends as well as those may be struggling with what it means to have a person in their lives come out.
Additional local resources can be found in Bay Windows, the local Boston gay newspaper that has listings of support groups. Bay Windows is also online at //baywindows.com.
There are also tons of great books to read. Two of the best bookstores in the area are We Think the World of You on Tremont Street in Boston and New Words on Hampshire St. in Cambridge.
On a national level, groups such as the Human Rights Campaign have extensive coming out resources as well as resources for straight allies. Check out //hrc.org.
What can I do to show support of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people?
Become a straight ally. Be open-minded. Be inclusive of your gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered friends. In the workplace, support diversity efforts that include the preventions of discrimination based on sexual orientation. Support domestic partner benefits. On a larger level, help fight discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people by speaking up when their voices cannot be heard.