Sister in the closet: how to be good to someone coming out.
October 25, 2010 7:05 PM   Subscribe

How to be a good friend to someone who may be coming out.

My boyfriend and I were at his parents' house this weekend and his younger sister was home from college with a friend; various things led both my boyfriend and I to independently think that this friend might be her girlfriend. (they were very cute together). If she is indeed gay or bi, she's not out to her parents or family. Is there a way to let her know that there are at least two people who are LGBT-friendly and that they'd be happy to give her a big hug when she chooses to come out. Neither he nor I want to be aggressive about this - it is her life and we're not looking to make any drama. We see her approximately once a month, usually in the context of family. Get some rainbow pins? Mention a gay friend or two? She's in her first year of college and is close enough to us that we can drag her out for pizza easily.

Am I bean plating? The recent suicides in the news are probably encouraging me to over think. If I should just go and let her live her life and not consider bugging her, tell me. I don't want to be well-meaning but clumsy and screw up.

If you are gay and came out to friends and family, what did your friends and family do that was good and what was bad? Would you have welcomed knowing that on your list of people to tell, there were a few who were going to be happy for you? I know that different people want different things, but I'd like to get an idea of what would have been good for you.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
from my experience?

don't assume every same sex friend is their partner, even if they are gay (some of my family still thinks my best friend from my early 20s was my girlfriend and i just didn't want to tell anyone - seriously, just. friends.).

don't tell anyone your suspicions until she comes out to them. my very well meaning sibling outed me to some of my family and it was pretty upsetting to me.

i would probably have your boyfriend, her brother, pull her aside and say "hey sis, i might be way off base, but if you're bi/gay, you can tell me and trust i won't tell anyone that you don't want me to. i love you no matter what."
posted by nadawi at 7:16 PM on October 25, 2010 [5 favorites]

don't out her! seriously. It's none of your business.

On the other hand, make it clear that you are not homophobic and that homophobia and heteronormativity are not okay. Don't use "gay" as an insult. Everyone should be doing this already, but, you know, they don't.
posted by wayland at 7:22 PM on October 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

I don't think you should say anything to her about her own situation, but if you can mention gay friends or otherwise indicate support for gay rights or marriage or what-have-you, do so. Not just to help this one young woman, but others as well.
posted by ldthomps at 7:22 PM on October 25, 2010

You could totally be right about this, but based on the amount of information, my gut instinct is that you are wrong. This is, likewise, based on my own experience. My sister, the only straight one among my siblings, had very close female friends in college, and this seemed fishy to me and mine, but mostly because my sister was not one to have very many close friends in high school. She and her female friend then seemed, by comparison, very, very "cute together." This was seconded by the fact that neither of them had any boyfriends nor seemed to have much interest in guys.

But in the long run, we couldn't have been more wrong. They were very close friends, but we didn't know they had any interest in guys because they didn't talk about stuff like that with us.

So my advice, if you are very concerned, is to stay close to her. Not weirdly so. Rather than dragging her out, just be there for her.

It's also quite likely that if she is a lesbian - or at least is in a lesbian relationship - she's at a lot less of a risk for suicide because she's not alone. That's not to say it couldn't happen, but with a (possible) friend and an understanding (non-pushy) family, she's light years ahead of those you've been reading about recently.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 7:36 PM on October 25, 2010

(I meant "dragging her out" in your reference to pizza, not the closet -- though I guess I mean it both ways.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 7:37 PM on October 25, 2010

It's typical for straight girls to have swoony friendships at that age, so, you really can't tell based on how cute they are together. Since you aren't sure that she's sure that you guys would be supportive, it's easy enough - with DADT and gay marriage in the news - to make some comments about politics in her company that demonstrate that you are GLBT allies.
posted by moxiedoll at 7:42 PM on October 25, 2010

As a young college student, I was mortified that my family approached me about my possible gayness.


Not because I'm straight, but because it's none of their business unless I want it to be. And really, how many adolescents do you know that want to talk about potential sexy times within a six mile radius of their older siblings?

Please, make it clear that you're an ally. (and if youre able, support LGBTQQ organizations openly- and I don't just mean with dollars. You can be a pen pal, you can volunteer for a hotline, and you can organize other stuff) But don't do it only for your boyfriends sister.

Do it because it's the right thing.
posted by bilabial at 7:47 PM on October 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

I have an aunt who is gay, and openly so. She has a wonderful partner who we all consider part of our family.

My aunt-in-law, I suspect, is gay. However, she has never declared that she is. She has lived with another woman for many many years whom she refers to as her "housemate." Hmmm.

When I started to suspect that aunt-in-law was gay, I wondered why she never said anything. Perhaps it has to do with our religion and that she thought that we were not ok with it.

So, whenever I could, I'd mention my aunt and her partner to aunt-in-law, so she'd be aware that we love love love my aunt and her partner and are 100% accepting. For example, aunt-in-law mentioned RV-ing, and I told her how my aunt and her partner just got an RV and we're so excited for them to come visit us. Or I've mentioned when my aunt and her partner would come visit - and how excited we were to see them and that the kids got to spend a lot of quality time with them.

This past year we met aunt-in-law's "housemate" for the first time. They still haven't come out to us, but at least they know we love them!

My advice is to be openly accepting and loving toward as many people as you can, and don't be afraid to let others know of your love and acceptance.
posted by Sassyfras at 7:58 PM on October 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Neither he nor I want to be aggressive about this

Well that's exactly what you're asking for advice on doing. What if she's not gay, no big whoop? I have a brother who will only talk to me about Lady Gaga and gives me only David Sedaris books for Christmas. Needless to say, I wish I was gay so that I could come out and stop this condescending ridiculousness.
posted by rhizome at 8:03 PM on October 25, 2010 [11 favorites]

It would hardly be unheard of for two female friends around 18 years old to be strikingly "cute together" without being actual lesbians. Lovey-dovey behavior is more socially accepted between girls than guys. (Or, what moxiedoll said.) You don't necessarily have any idea what their sexuality is. This isn't to take away from anyone else's advice -- but I would play it totally cool and not at all see yourself as being on a mission to help her. No offense, but she probably doesn't need your help.

See, we tend to overestimate our accuracy in determining whether someone belongs to a group that's a very small percentage of the population. For instance, if you have a 90% accuracy rate in determining someone's ethnicity (which would be astounding), and if Arabs are 1% of the population, and you think the man standing over there is Arab, what's the chance he really is Arab? You might think: "Well, duh, you already told me: 90%!" But actually, it's far less than that because so few people are Arabs. I think it would be (0.9*1)/([0.9*1]+[0.1*99]), or about 8%. Who knows how prevalent gays are in the population? 5%? 2%? No one knows, but I think it's safe to say the percentage is tiny. So, any time you think you've figured out that someone is gay, you're probably wrong.

So I wouldn't assume she's gay. I would assume she either is gay or ... isn't. So you can approach her the same way you'd approach anyone else her age. It's great to go ahead and be very openly supportive of gays and gay rights, and never be homophobic! Since you're even asking this question, I'll bet that already describes you. But don't try to do some over-the-top thing to rescue her. She'll probably be just fine no matter what you do.
posted by John Cohen at 8:21 PM on October 25, 2010

Don't assume she's gay. A lot of my family (including some gay relatives) assumed I was gay because I didn't date any guys until I was in college and because I mostly mentioned female friends. Not that I cared that they thought I was gay (especially since my family is totally gay-friendly), but I thought it was annoying that they wanted to pry so much in my business and my love life. Ew.

Either way, just make it clear that you're an ally without being weird about it. Making a big show of how much you love gay people and how cool you are with it can come off as kind of condescending and annoying (I'm not gay, so I guess I can't say for sure what a gay person would think, but based on my many gay friends, I think they'd rather just have people act normal to them than treat them as some sort of novelty or someone who needs to be babied in some kind of way). I think the best thing you can do is talk about gay-related things without making it sound like a big deal. Oh yeah, my friend Mary and her husband Mark, and our friends Mike and his partner John came over and we played Scattegories or whatever. Not like "Guess what, sis, me and girlfriend are going to paint ourselves rainbow and march in the gay pride parade and then watch Brokeback Mountain, gee aren't gay people the best?!?!?"
posted by elpea at 8:23 PM on October 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

If or when she's ready to make her big announcement, she'll do it herself. Until then, why not just treat her like you always have? Showing up with a pride pin and a pink triangle t-shirt would be pandering of the worst sort. If she is gay (which she may not be), and if she feels like talking about it, you can tell her you had previously suspected it, and nothing will change in your relationship. Otherwise, leave it alone.
posted by Gilbert at 8:27 PM on October 25, 2010

Good grief, people, Anonymous is not considering outing her! She just wants to know how to be approachable and seem understanding IF the sister is gay/bi/whatever.

Yep, rainbow pin. Or casually mentioning in conversation that you know Peter and his SO Paul, and then mention that you both enjoy some band or some tv show or something. Just show her that you (and her brother) don't treat GBLT people any differently than heteros.

Or what elpea said.

posted by malibustacey9999 at 9:10 PM on October 25, 2010

Oh dear. Forgot to stop the whole 'small' thing. Sorry. It should only apply to the first paragraph.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 9:11 PM on October 25, 2010

Good grief, people, Anonymous is not considering outing her!

How do you know?
posted by John Cohen at 9:31 PM on October 25, 2010

Good grief, people, Anonymous is not considering outing her!

How do you know?


Is there a way to let her know that there are at least two people who are LGBT-friendly and that they'd be happy to give her a big hug when she chooses to come out.

I would guess that's how.

As for the actual question, I would try and steer a conversation or two to current events that deal with homosexuality. DADT. Gay Marriage. Gay suicides. And in the context of those discussions show your general support for those who are out or want to be out. I would avoid saying things like "if you were gay I would be very supportive" though. If his sister is gay and she sees you both as supportive she will open up on her own time.
posted by Green With You at 9:59 PM on October 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

malibustacey9999, how is buying a rainbow pin or mentioning that you really like Scissor Sisters not treating a GBLT person differently? Wouldn't that be in some manner equivalent to spending all your time talking about Spike Lee with your black friend? Or making sure that you had salsa music cued up when your hispanic guest came over?
I had something similar happen to me with relatives of an ex (I'm Mexican-American). I'm certain they were trying to be complimentary and find common ground when they told me how much they admired Mexicans for being so "hard working." I didn't take it personally, just as I don't take it personally when everyone at the table turns to me to see how I like the food at a Mexican restaurant. But it's pretty obvious what's going on, and it doesn't actually help anything.
Yes, the metaphor isn't perfect (it's not like I could pass for white or anything), but there are many reasons that people don't come out, and if they don't feel like it, why try to get them to?
posted by Gilbert at 10:13 PM on October 25, 2010

This is probably really twee, but on Facebook, I post gay-friendly/pro-gay youtubes/ group things, more often even then feminist stuff, so that my friends and indeed my kids and their friends know my POV on the prejudices against. If a gay friend of mine posts a political thingy and I agree with it, I will repost it (because very few of my friends know each other sort of thing).

I used to say to my kids, "you know when you bring your boyfriend or girlfriend home..." but while very open, non-discriminatory types of people, they start saying, "mum, c'mon, I know I'm straight." so I wouldn't be heavyhanded like that.
posted by b33j at 1:07 AM on October 26, 2010

Doesn't sound twee at all, b33j—I was just coming in to suggest that if the OP and boyfriend's sister were FB friends, (or OP's boyfriend and his sister were), OP (or boyfriend) could occasionally (occasionally! Don't start doing it every day if you never have before) post links to gay-friendly sites, videos, gay-positive news stories, etc. to their own news feeds (i.e., not specifically directed at the sister). If she's lesbian, she'll know you're supportive, and if she's not, she'll have no reason to think they're specifically meant for her.

Added bonus: who knows, you may have other closeted friends who would appreciate seeing that kind of thing.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:09 AM on October 26, 2010

Just as an anecdote, when I was 18 or 19 and trying to figure out how to come out and who was safe to come out to, I would have been thrilled if someone had said, "You know, if you ever came out to me or anything like that, it would be totally okay and it wouldn't change the way I feel about you."

In fact, the very first time I DID come out to a friend -- a very close friend from high school who attended the same university -- I did so after being on the phone to her and hearing how excited she was because her friend Jermaine (who, hello, was FLAMING) had just come out to her. She was so touched that he'd told her and had stopped hiding it. I asked her if I could call her back in 10 minutes, screwed up her courage, and called her back to tell her it was her lucky night because another friend was about to come out to her.

It wasn't a surprise to anyone that I was gay. I know that now. But at the time, you tend to feel like revealing that fact is going to change everything, and you can't help but count up all the friends and relationships you stand to lose. So for me, knowing that there was at least one person who not only wouldn't hate me for saying it, but would be genuinely excited that I'd said it, was a huge, huge help. That was the thing that gave me courage.

I don't know your boyfriend's sister, and I don't know if this would be at all true for her. Also, I think coming out was a slightly bigger deal 20 years ago than in is now. Anyway, just wanted you to hear the perspective.
posted by mudpuppie at 2:15 PM on October 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Don't wear rainbow pins yourselves, you might come off gay to other people on the streets or so. That's a terrible idea. Don't go crazy on supporting gay people, trust me, just treat the sister same as before, and subtly talk about your support for LGBTQ community. You missed a golden opportunity to wear purple on Oct 20th, or spotting whether she wore one or not (not saying all people who wore purple were gay, but at least you could get an idea how open she is on this subject, sometimes they could have some inner homophobia themselves). But you could still try talking about the most recent tragedy where those 6 kids killed themselves.

I personally don't think they are gay just because they are emotionally close and showed a lot of affection for each other. There ARE STRAIGHT girls who even flirt with each other!!! Banter is fun. Some people are more touchy-feely, more physical. I've seen a girl gently kicked her best friend's boob, and neither is gay and they were both in happy relationships with guys. Besides, when it comes to lesbians, even to lesbians themselves, it's very hard to figure out who's playing for the same team or not.

P.S.: John Cohen, I think I read it somewhere, the percentage is about 10% or higher, conservatively speaking.
posted by easilyconfused at 3:48 PM on October 31, 2010

P.S.: John Cohen, I think I read it somewhere, the percentage is about 10% or higher, conservatively speaking.

I simply don't believe that.
posted by John Cohen at 9:40 PM on October 31, 2010

And wait -- 10% or higher, "conservatively"? So you think the figure could be far larger than 10% -- like, 15, 20, 25%? That is so contrary to everyday experience. In theory that could be true since there's no way to know how many people are keeping it a secret. But by the same token, there's no way to accurately measure how many people are gay, since not everyone is honest about their sexual orientation.
posted by John Cohen at 9:44 PM on October 31, 2010

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