I am really proud to be an LGBTQ+ affirmative practitioner and educator. Similarly, it makes me so happy when people approach me with questions as to how they can be more affirming. This joy isn’t because I’m happy to try to summarize my dissertation. Instead, it’s because of the question itself.
The question, is the biggest part of becoming an LGBTQ+ affirmative person.
The mere action of inquiring how to be a better, supportive, and empowering individual is the pure essence of being affirmative. There is much more to add for LGBTQ+ practitioners and educators, and I plan to share more insights on those avenues in the future, but I share this blog in an attempt to simplify what often seems intimidating to those who ask, how can I be affirming with my friend?
Your friend may just want to be heard. Although you may be tempted to make connections to your own life or to what you’ve heard on that one show you binge-watched, give your friend the gift of presence. Let them share with you, whatever they are comfortable sharing, without probing. Instead of seeking quick solutions, consider their perspective. Be caring and stay focused on simply listening providing compassion.
The following tips depend on (1) where your friend is in their journey[i], and (2) the depth of your bond. Everyone’s experience is unique: some people realize their identity earlier on in life while others do not. Apart from realization, there a variety of reasons as to why some people are not ready to share. Further people may not feel as they do not have the freedom to be their true selvesi,ii. Be considerate of your friend’s journey, as it is theirs not yours[ii]. If your friend does choose to be open with you consider it an honor that your friend deems you as a comfortable.
Examine your own biases. Reflect independently and try to avoid intertwining your own work with your friend’s identity and journey. For example, if a friend shares that they are questioning their identity, it may not be helpful in that moment to share your contradictory philosophical and personal beliefs. As a friend, your response may potentially carry a great deal of weight. A negative response provides the risk of prompting shame and guiltii. Being open requires an open mind and heart. In addition, you will benefit from being open to allowing your friend to decide what they are comfortable with discussing, as it may vary depending on their own process and depth of the friendship.
It is empowering to have people in your corner. The power of social support is particularly impactful when filling a void. If you have noticed your friend lose contact with their loved ones, you have the opportunity to show your unconditional support. If your friend is open with you, perhaps it may be beneficial to directly ask how you can best support them as a friend.
A big part of support is being patient to empower your friend in their coming out process. It is unsafe to “out” someone as they may not be readyii. Instead, be a good friend while being patient as they become empowered in their journey.
Be aware of your boundaries as a friend. Although your intentions may be pure, as a friend it is unacceptable to play the role of their therapist as well. On the other hand, a supportive gesture may be a discussion surrounding the helpfulness of mental health counseling.
Unfortunately, the odds are high that your friend has dealt with some degree of bias, discrimination, and/or oppression[iii]. Even if your friend is not comfortable disclosing, they may still feel judged from the media, their government, or even their family and friends. Your friend may often be faced with the process of considering whether or not to disclose, even if they have considered themselves as “out” for decades. You have the opportunity to be a source of validation. Due to their minority identityiii, your friend may often feel that their label overshadows every other facet, including those you have grown to appreciate in your friendship. You can be a reminder of their multifaceted identity.
The next step after validation is to expand into advocacy. It’s one thing to say you support your friend, but it is another level to show this support through intentional action[iv]. Advocacy can occur in different forms. For example, you may choose to show your support by volunteering with your friend at local LGBQT+ community events. Advocacy can occur on a more intimate level as well. If you hear disparaging remarks, particularly around your friend, consider when it may be appropriate and helpful to step in and step up.
[i] Ali, S., & Barden, S. M. (2015). Considering the cycle of coming out: Sexual minority identity development. The Professional Counselor, 5(4), 501–515.
[ii] Ali, S. (2017). The coming out journey: A Phenomenological investigation of a lifelong process VISTAS.
[iii] Meyer, I. H. (2003). Prejudice, social stress, and mental health in lesbian, gay, and bisexual populations: Conceptual issues and research evidence. Psychological bulletin, 129(5), 674-697.
[iv] Association of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues in Counseling. (2013). Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues in Counseling competencies with lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, questioning, interview, and ally individuals. Alexandria, VA: Author.
Shainna Ali is a counselor educator and owner of Integrated Counseling Solutions in Central Florida. Dr. Ali is passionate about highlighting the importance of mental health awareness, assessment, and care in living a happy and healthy life. Her areas of focus in research and practice include identity and culture, emotional intelligence, trauma, and creativity in counseling. For more information on Dr. Ali please visit IntegratedCounselingSolutions.com