The best approach is to create an atmosphere where that individual can feel comfortable coming out to you. You can do this by making sure that you are open and approachable and by giving indications that you are comfortable with this topic and are supportive of LGBTQA+ concerns. If the people are already out to themselves, and they feel that you are worthy of their trust, then they may tell you. If the person seems to be in conflict about something, it may or may not be because of their sexuality. In this case, it is best simply to make sure that they know you are there if they need to talk. Remember, they may not have told you because they don’t want you to know.
Demonstrate that you are comfortable with topics related to sexual orientation and gender identity. Be sensitive to the assumptions you make about people—try not to assume that everyone you interact with is heterosexual, that they have a partner of a different gender, etc. Try to use inclusive language, such as by avoiding the use of pronouns that assume the gender of someone’s partner or friends. Be a role model by confronting others who make homophobic jokes or remarks. Become knowledgeable about LGBTQA+concerns by reading books and attending meetings and activities sponsored by LGBTQA+ organizations.
Because of the difficulty of growing up in a largely homophobic society, people who are LGBTQA+ may experience guilt, isolation, depression, suicidal feelings, and low self-esteem. As LGBTQA+ people become more in touch with their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, they may experience any number of these thoughts and feelings to some degree.
On the positive side, coming out can be an extremely liberating, positive experience, as LGBTQA+ people learn who they are, gain respect for themselves, and find friends to relate to. Coming out to others can be an anxious process, as the individual worries about rejection, ridicule, and the possible loss of family, friends, religion, and employment. For students, school life is already stress filled, and adding the process of grappling with one’s sexual orientation and gender identity to that mix can be overwhelming for some.
Remember that individuals must decide for themselves when and to whom they will reveal their sexual orientation and gender identity. Don’t tell someone to take any particular action; the person could hold you responsible if it doesn’t go well. Do listen carefully, reflect on the concerns and feelings you hear expressed, and suggest available resources for support. Help the person think through the possible outcomes of coming out. Support the person’s decision even if you don’t agree with it, and ask about the outcomes of any action taken.
Let others know that the sexual orientation or gender identity of any individual is irrelevant unless that person wishes to disclose that information. If you can, address any myths or stereotypes that may be fueling such speculation. If a particular person continues to spread rumors, talk to that person individually.
Be a role model for others by being open and visible in your support. Share your beliefs with others, when appropriate. When LGBTQA+ topics come up, talk about them, don’t simply avoid them. Show that you are comfortable talking about these issues, and comfortable with LGBTQA+ people. Remember that part of your goal as an ally is to create bridges across differences and to increase understanding. While you may be motivated to share your views with others, be careful of being self-righteous; others can’t learn from you if they are turned off from listening to begin with. Of course, your views are more convincing if they are supported by sound knowledge. Take the time to educate yourself so that you know what you are talking about.
Many people believe that jokes are harmless and get upset by what they perceive as the “politically correct” attitudes of those who are offended by inappropriate humor. Labeling a belief as “politically correct” is a subtle way of supporting the status quo and resisting change.
Most people who tell jokes about an oppressed group have never thought about how those jokes perpetuate stereotypes, or how they teach and reinforce prejudice. Someone who tells jokes about LGBTQA+ people probably assumes that everyone present is heterosexual, or at least that everyone shares their negative attitudes toward LGBTQA+ people. However, most people do not tell jokes to purposefully hurt or embarrass others, and will stop if they realize this is the effect.
Responding assertively in these situations is difficult, but not responding at all sends a silent message of agreement. No response is the equivalent of condoning the telling of such jokes. In some instances, the inappropriateness of the joke could be mentioned at the time. In other situations, the person could be taken aside afterward. Try to communicate your concerns about the joke with respect, and without shaming the person.
LGBTQA+ students at the University of Arizona were asked what ally actions they would want people to do to support them. Click here for a list of advanced ally action steps to support LGBTQA+ people.