Civilities Chat: PFLAG’s Jody Huckaby on coming out for young people today

Jody Huckaby
Jody Huckaby

Last week we had a special guest – Jody M. Huckaby, the head of PFLAG National, the nation’s largest organization of parents, families, friends, and allies united with people who are LGBTQ. He took questions for over an hour; below is an adaptation of the online chat. I asked the first several questions and then we took reader queries. To read the full transcript, please click here.

Steven Petrow: I’m often asked how coming out has changed for this new, younger generation of LGBTQ people. For many of us — in what I like to call the ‘middle ages’ — there often was the big coming out talk, with parents, other relatives, and then friends. How has that changed now that there is greater acceptance of LGBT people? Is it easier?

Jody Huckaby: Steven, well, I’m in good company with you in the “middle ages,” or as I refer to them, the “dark ages.” When you and I came out years ago, society was very different then, and parent and family acceptance was very different for most of us.

Today, people are coming out as LGBTQ at a much younger age. The context for their coming is very different, thanks to the many good changes that have been occurring.

However, the sad reality is that for every positive story we hear through PFLAG of a child’s coming to their family, we also hear the stories of rejection, the stories of bullying at school.

Young people are still running away from home, or worse, kicked out of their homes by their families, because they are trying to live honestly and authentically as LGBTQ.

So yes, it’s definitely easier than it was for you and for me, but there is still so much more work to be done to truly create a world where young people can be all that they are, and be loved and accepted and celebrated for who they are.

SP: What’s the biggest trend you’re seeing when we’re talking about coming out?

The biggest trend that PFLAG is seeing though through our 350+ chapters across the country is more parents coming to PFLAG because their young child is trans, or is displaying or exhibiting behaviors that are considered gender non-conforming.

In fact, this is largest growth factor across our entire chapter network from our very urban areas like NYC, DC, LA and our more rural communities like Ames, and Omaha and Tampa.

And more adult people who are transgender are finding PFLAG as a place to build community and to build family.

SP: How is coming out different for a trans person than a gay or lesbian one?

Coming out as trans might feel like it was for us 25+ years ago.  Very foreign and very scary, with few reference points as role models.

I even hear this within the LGBQ community that they have few if any personal contact with people who are trans.

I was just at the White House recently and saw Laverne Cox, who is a great role model for many people who are trans.  Every time I see her, I thank her for putting herself out there as a role model for younger people.

SP: Speaking of people being younger to come out, what’s your advice on whether they should use social media services like Facebook, Twitter, etc.? 

Coming out through social media undoubtedly feels “safer” to a young person who is finally able to express who s/he really is. But there are so many dangers in doing so that we advise young people to think through the potential consequences of sharing themselves in such a public way.

Social media is a great way to communicate, and we can use it to share very personal aspects of our lives.  I have lots of nieces and nephews and I live far from them but I get to read about and see photos of their expanding families. Still, we advise much caution in coming out through social media given the reality of cyber bullying.

Reader questions for Jody Huckaby:

Q: My husband of many years recently dropped the bomb that he thinks he’s attracted to men and may — after all these years — be bisexual. I’m confused and angry. And I don’t understand how this could happen. What do you think I should do?

First, let me say thank you for sharing this question with me.  This must be a very painful realization from you, and it’s natural to be experiencing a wide range of emotions.

I think that the first thing you can do for yourself is find a supportive group like a local PFLAG chapter to share your concerns.

Or go to our website at pflag.org to see all of the resources that we have to that address to complex issues of coming out.

If your husband is indeed bisexual, there are resources that he should seek out as well.  But for you, there are some tremendous resources that were designed by the straight spouses who have experienced, after being married, that their spouse is now identifying as gay, or lesbian, or bisexual or transgender.

Finally, don’t hesitate to take care of yourself as you address this in your relationship.  There is great help out there for you. Check out the Straight Spouse Network.

Q: What do I do if a work colleague comes out to me?

JH: We spend countless hours at work, so I love this question because it’s so practical.

In 2007, PFLAG developed a program to address the unique issues of straight people who don’t have a family member who is LGBTQ, and it’s called Straight for Equality.  We are in dozens of workplaces every year providing training sessions on coming out issues.

The first thing that you can do when a colleague comes out to you at work is to say, “Thank You!”

Coming out is a very personal decision, so acknowledge that with gratitude that you are trusted by your colleague with this information.

Next, ask them who else knows, and let them know that you don’t want to mistakenly out them to others at work.

Finally, ask them what it is that you can do for them in the workplace.  Because, regardless of what policies are in place at work regarding nondiscrimination, PFLAG knows all too well that policy and law changes don’t mean that attitudes and culture change so easily.  So ask how you can help them to be their ally at work.

Check out PFLAG’s “Guide to Being a Straight Ally” at www.straightforequality.org

Steven Petrow, the author of “Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners,” addresses questions about LGBT and straight etiquette in his column, Civilities.
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