If peering through an archetypal lens, my closest buds would fall under the jock stereotype. They played rugby, football, were popular with the ladies, and befell every fortunate social circumstance. But when I came out as bisexual one year ago, they couldn’t have reacted further than the stereotype would suggest. They were very supportive. Better than supportive, really: They didn’t care. Having grown up with these guys since kindergarten, me being bisexual was so inconsequential that they simply accepted the news, gave me a hug, and were off to discuss how terribly William Nylander has been playing in the third period of Saturday’s hockey game.
One friend, however, tossed an unsavory comment into the mix that poisoned the well. I can’t remember what was said, but it was something along the lines of “I always knew you were gay.” This implication struck a chord. By the time I had come out to my friends, I had met so many special, diverse people within the LGBTQ community, that his singular understanding of what it meant to be gay—which he freely applied to me even when I said I was bisexual—erased the nuance of queer identities. It stung.
Granted, he’d known me while I was infatuated with the Spice Girls and Charlie’s Angels, and I understood the implications of those past fancies. From the heteronormative perspective, any interest or action that’s viewed as feminine (for men) or masculine (for women) is a signifier that someone is gay. Now, does this friend love the show Nashville and idolize Chloe Grace Moretz? Yes. Is he gay? No. He’s married to a woman and they have two kids.
Though he didn’t react appropriately to my coming out, such a response is common. I understand these people are trying to be supportive and communicate acceptance, but the implications of such a notion does the opposite.
“When someone uses these types of responses and/or doesn’t understand how these responses can be harmful, I rely on the rule of ‘intent vs. impact,’” Lisha Amin, M.Ed and sexuality educator, tells me. “Meaning, no matter how well-intentioned our words are, their impact will far outweigh our intentions.”
If someone is saying, “I knew you were (insert identity),” with an intention to convey acceptance or support, the impact of this action usually results in two things, according to Amin. One, it makes the person who is coming out feel belittled and lacks the autonomy in sharing their own story. And two, that type of response centers on the experience of the other person, rather than honoring the experience of the person who is coming out.
The only true way to know if someone else is gay (or any other identity within the LGBTQ community) is for that person to tell you themselves. There is no barometer, no set of interests, gender expressions, etc. that will help someone “detect” if that person is part of the LGBTQ community. “The reason is because that would deduce a whole multifaceted person down to stereotypes about gender or sexual identity, when there are several other biopsychosocial factors that make up who we are as people,” Amin shares.
Someone who assumes that they’re able to “tell” if another person identifies as LGBTQ is typically basing their assessment on stereotypes, which is a covert form of queerphobia. The ways in which we arrive to our identities are internal processes that are unique to every individual.
As humans, we like to categorize things in order to make sense of the world around us, and our social world is no exception. “People sometimes use stereotypes as a way to make inferences about others based on the knowledge they already have,” Amin says. “Relatedly, the primary resource that people learn information about LGBTQ identities is through mainstream media, which can oftentimes be misinformed, have limited representation, and/or caricatures of LGBTQ people and experiences. And this is how stereotypes are sometimes created and perpetuated.”
How should one react to a friend or family member coming out?
“It’s more important that you center their experience because coming out to another person requires an immense amount of trust, especially if there is a power dynamic to the relationship, such as with a parent or teacher,” Amin says. “One way to facilitate support when another person comes out to you could be responding with: ‘I recognize that may have been difficult for you to share, so I want to thank you for trusting me. I want you to know that I care about you/love you, so please let me know if/how I can support you from here on out.’”
It’s also helpful to check in with how that person is feeling in that moment, and ask how confidential this information is (e.g. "Am I the only person to know?” or “Is this a secret?”). Regardless, it’s best to err on the side of caution and not repeat what was told to you because you would never want to “out” someone without consent. And with today’s ever-growing social media echo chamber, it’s important to be mindful about what types of media we tag others in and if that could potentially out them as well.
I am fortunate that my friends were all supportive, even the one who uttered the insensitive comment. He followed his remark with words of encouragement and truly meant no harm in what he was saying. I’d like to think his misstep was due, in part, to a lack of exposure to LGBTQ people. As the only member of my friend group who identifies as something other than heterosexual, I will do my best to be a representative for my community and educate them on what’s kosher and what isn’t.
Coming out is tough and terrifying. It’s a huge moment in every openly queer person’s life. To show your support, be empathetic. Ask questions. Let your friend know you support them and keep any personal anecdotes to yourself. Above all else, remember this: It’s not your story to share.