I cherished growing up in the 90s, yet I remember feeling as if certain conversations were considered “off-limits.” More specifically, I recall a particular friendship that was disdained by classmates but no one would tell me why.
It wasn’t until that person said to me, “they don’t like the fact we’re friends because I’m bisexual,” that I realized certain aspects of people were not fully accepted by others. The tension over how they identified was confusing to me. To make matters worse, it seemed like anyone who dared to accept others was judged.
By the time I realized some of my family members were also part of the LGBTQ+ community, it didn’t seem out of the ordinary to me. In my young eyes, and presently, I believe in loving people for who they are and not what I or society wants them to be. Despite my personal views, I know some people still struggle with being supportive when someone they love is part of the LGBTQ+ community. Here are some ways to better support your LGBTQ+ family members and friends.
Be Aware of Unconscious Biases
As much as we may consider ourselves to be good or open people, it’s possible to have unconscious biases about others. Based on our upbringing and experiences, we may not even be aware that we have them. This doesn’t mean you’re a terrible person. It does mean, however, that you have an opportunity to get to the root of your biases and begin the unlearning process.
In the case of a loved one who identifies as LGBTQ+, your unconscious bias may sound like the following:
- “Wow, I would have never assumed you identified as _____. You don’t act like the ‘other’ people.”
- “You always dress so nice! You should be my fashion stylist.”
Understand It’s Not Your Job to Change Someone’s Identity
In 2020, 1 in 3 LGBTQ+ Americans faced discrimination along with more than 3 in 5 transgender individuals. Medical discrimination, workplace discrimination, and microaggressions can greatly impact a person’s quality of life.
Societal “norms” and individual communities can make us feel like we are meant to live identically with each other. However, that isn’t true. When someone we love identifies as LGBTQ+, it’s not our job to try to shape them in our image of what’s deemed ‘acceptable.’
Listen to Your Loved One and Be Respectful When Responding
If someone decides you are a safe space for them and they choose to be vulnerable, genuinely listening to them is paramount to the relationship they have with you. They may express their fears and frustrations with you or they may simply tell you who they are. Interrupting them because you may feel uncomfortable will only hinder your relationship.
When you have the opportunity to speak, use that time to be kind. Even if you feel you don’t understand something that was shared with you, you can say, “I’m having a hard time understanding ______, but I love you and want to be supportive.”
Educate Yourself to Become an Ally
While your loved ones may tell you who they are, it’s still helpful to educate yourself about what they’ve shared with you. Additionally, realize the LGBTQ+ community is diverse. A few resources you can utilize are:
- PFLAG for LGBTQ+ people, their parents, families, and allies
- Human Rights Campaign
- National LGBTQ Task Force
- Safe Zone Project
- Stomp Out Bullying: Making Schools Safe for LGBTQ+ Community
- National Center for Transgender Equality
- Anti-Violence Project
Speak Up Against Hate Speech or Inflammatory Language
People will always have their opinions, but it doesn’t give them the right to be rude or disrespectful. If someone, whether it’s a family member or a stranger, directs a discriminatory comment toward your loved one, you can speak up. The more you set this boundary, the more you send a message that you are not a safe space for others to share their derogatory or hateful rhetoric about LGBTQ+ individuals.
Use Their Preferred Pronouns
Along with educating yourself, be willing to listen to your loved ones, and if they share their preferred pronouns, use them. Should you ever misgender them for varying reasons, apologize and correct yourself. While some people feel pronoun use is “too much,” using your loved one’s preferred pronouns signals you care. Plus, everyone deserves respect. What one person feels isn’t a big deal may matter deeply to someone else.
Don’t Ask or Say Invasive Things
This goes without saying, but how someone chooses to identify should not make you feel as if you have a right to know about their romantic or sexual relationships. Even if you don’t mind talking about your sex life, assuming someone who is LGBTQ+ is the same points back to unconscious biases and stereotypes. Unless someone decides to share details about their romantic relationship with you, it’s not something you should ask about. It can feel invasive, especially if your loved one is still coming to terms with how much of themselves to share.
It can be tough for some of us to understand when someone we love identifies as LGBTQ+, but this doesn’t mean we have to stop loving them. Unfortunately, some friends or family members allow our personal beliefs to create a rift in their relationships.
“My advice for how people can be more supportive is to meet people where they are and see them as human,” said my own family member who is part of the LGBTQ+ community. She also shared something that’s helped her be comfortable with her identity and decisions: “No one can die for me, so why would I choose to live my life for anyone else? I’m not going to make choices because I need to fit in a box that will leave me miserable. I’m not going to let anyone tell me how to live.”