5 Tips for Being a Better LGBTQ+ Ally to Friends and Family
My mom cried when I came out to her during my freshman year of college. Her tears weren't because she was upset that her son was gay; instead, she was angry that she was so blindsided.
My mom had always been proud that we were so close, and of how well she understood me. She saw it as a betrayal that I was holding such an important part of myself close to my chest.
The truth is that regardless of how good her intentions were, I felt that my mom, like a lot of older people, hadn't yet thought of being gay as normal or ordinary like young people often do. And that felt isolating. I knew that, as much as she wanted to be caring and supportive, she didn't necessarily know the best way to do that.
Being queer can be alienating—like in my case, when it momentarily put a distance between me and my mom. And care and support from allies is precisely what LGBTQ+ people need. In many cases, that sense of alienation can become dire: LGBTQ+ youth have significantly worse mental health issues compared to their heterosexual counterparts in basically every category, according to a national survey conducted by the Trevor Project, an organization dedicated to LGBTQ+ suicide prevention.
LGBTQ+ allyship can take many forms, and becoming a strong ally is not a one-and-done event, but ongoing—it's about constantly submitting to the process of listening and deferring to LGBTQ+ people.
“Allyship is an ever-evolving, ever-growing venture that requires constant and thoughtful work,” says Cierra Listermann, Ph.D., a licensed clinical LGBTQ+-affirming psychologist in Raleigh, North Carolina. “Allyship is foundationally based upon trust, accountability, and consistency in your interactions.” It’s okay if you don’t know what you’re doing at first, so long as you approach the relationship with humility and good faith.
There’s range of LGBTQ+ identities, which means there’s no singular queer experience. Different queer people may seek different forms of support from their allies. But among many researchers and psychologists exists a consensus around a handful of tenets that are universal to queer allyship. Here are five.
Be Supportive Upfront and Out Loud
Demonstrate your allyship publicly so LGBTQ+ people know it’s safe to come out to you. Even subtle signals of allyship from parents and teachers, like a pride flag pin, may help reduce suicide rates among queer youth, according to a recent study conducted by clinical psychologist Lucas Zullo, Ph.D.
When an LGBTQ+ person knows you’ll accept them for who they are, they’ll be more likely to open up to you about their sexual orientation or gender identity, and that’s the first step in building a relationship and making them feel more supported. There are many ways to signal to LGBTQ+ people that you’re an ally. You could wear a pride flag pin on your jacket or backpack, put a Human Rights Campaign sticker on your car, or share positive LGBTQ+ news to your social media.
Let LGBTQ+ People Come Out on Their Own Terms
Letting an LGBTQ+ person come out on their own terms is about creating an emotional space that empowers them to decide whom to tell, when to tell them, and how to tell them, notes Listermann. It’s a decision. They don’t have to tell anybody. There’s no correct way to do it.
Although you shouldn't be afraid to open a dialogue or ask questions, put your focus more on practicing active listening. You can accomplish this by maintaining eye contact, refraining from judgment, affirming through your body language, and making sure the other person has had the opportunity to say everything they want to say.
Afterward, remember that this person has chosen to come out to you; you’re not necessarily at liberty to disclose somebody’s sexual orientation or gender identity to other people. When in doubt, leave it to your LGBTQ+ friend or family member to come out to other people.
Be Inclusive with Your Social Plans
One measure of allyship might be how easily and often you socialize with your LGBTQ+ friends and family. When creating social situations that bring together your straight and LGBTQ+ friends, include the partners of your LGBTQ+ friends the same way a straight person’s partner would be included.
But, notes Listermann, consider whether the social situation you've created is a safe space for all to enjoy. "Ask yourself whether you’ve created a generally accepting and welcoming environment to decrease any potential judgment, criticism, prejudice, or discrimination,” she says. Don’t be afraid to let your queer friend decide the terms of the social setting. Try spending time with their friends.
Show Interest in LGBTQ+ Identity and Experience
Don’t be afraid to ask your LGBTQ+ friend about their queer experience. The Human Rights Campaign’s allyship guide underscores the importance of dialogue. To be blind to somebody’s queer identity, to pretend they’re the same as everybody else, is not inclusive. Queer people have unique experiences, and talking about them can foster closeness and understanding.
Let your curiosity guide you without being indulgent. Questions like, When did you first know you were queer? What was it like growing up? What has your coming-out process been like? can open dialogue that leads to greater understanding and connection. Be sure to always reassure them that you’re interested in their story from a point of wanting to support them rather than titillation.
But this doesn't mean that every conversation you have should be about your friend or family member's experience as an LGBTQ+ person, Listermann says. “A queer family member or friend is still a multifaceted person with varied interests, goals, and experiences that may not always intersect into LGBTQ-related topics,” she says.
Be Open to Requests for Support or Changes in Your Behavior
You should hold an approachable demeanor so your LGBTQ+ friend or family member isn’t afraid to initiate a conversation with you about how you could better support them. Being candid helps. React honestly to the conversation and don’t be afraid to tell them that it’s difficult for you to receive criticism, or that you feel a bit uncomfortable, or that you need some time to process what they’ve told you. Always reassure them, however, that you’re doing your best and want to support them.
For More Information
If you'd like more information on how to become a better LGBTQ+ ally, the following organizations can help.
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