If A Friend Comes Out As Non-Binary, Here’s How You Can Support Them
Your best pal or colleague or parent has just come out to you as non-binary. Maybe they're stoked to tell you, and maybe they're terrified. Either way, you want to do everything you can do support your non-binary friend.
Even though the Pew Research Center just found that 60% of Americans have at least heard about gender-neutral pronouns, many people may still be kind of unsure of what to say or do. According to the survey results, 52% of Americans report that they would be somewhat or very comfortable using gender-neutral pronouns with someone they know. But 47% said that they would be somewhat or very uncomfortable doing so. Clearly, the gap here can create many cultural difficulties in knowing what to do or say when your friend asks you to refer to them using they/them/theirs or other gender-neutral pronouns like ze/hir/hirs.
So when someone close to you comes out as non-binary, agender, or genderqueer, listen to the words they're using. They're trying to tell you that they identify with something outside the gender they've been assigned at birth, and oftentimes, they want the pronouns people use to refer to them to match that difference. Here are seven ways you can show your person that you care about them and respect everything about who they are.
1. Use Their Pronouns, Effective Immediately
Sure, you've known them for a long time with different pronouns. Sure, language can be tricky. But the moment you see a cute puppy in the street, call the puppy a good boy, and their human tells you that the puppy is a girl? You switch the pronouns you use for the little furball. You don't think about it, and you don't stop to question whether the puppy is "sure," or bemoan the fact that it's so difficult for you to keep track. You just... use the puppy's pronouns. If you can do it for Fido in the street, you can definitely do it for your friend.
And, an extra pro tip: don't trip over yourself to use pronouns for your friend where you normally wouldn't. Just speak normally, and use their pronouns when you usually would. And if you do happen to slip up, correct yourself and keep talking. Profuse apologies can draw more attention to the slip-up, which can just draw out the situation further when it doesn't have to.
2. If A Name Change Is Applicable, Use It, Effective Immediately
Choosing a name that is consistent with their gender identity is a big step for many people coming out, and just like with pronouns, it's important you respect their choice. Your non-binary buddy does not need to hear how "nice" their deadname is, or how hard it will be for you to use a different name. They need to hear that you will use it, and that if you slip up, you'll correct yourself and get better.
A compliment on their new name might be nice, too! And if they tell you they're considering testing it out but aren't sure they want to stick with it yet, make sure to affirm that you'll be happy to use whatever name works for them at whatever time.
3. Confused? That's OK. Do Your Homework. But Privately
OK, so you've got down the first two parts. Using new pronouns and possibly a new name is what someone is literally asking you to do. So, great: you can follow instructions with the best of them. But there's more to supporting your enby pal than just using their pronouns and name.
When I came out to one of my best friends, I talked about gender dysphoria. I could tell she wasn't exactly sure what I meant. She asked for clarity, and I explained to her as best as I could. But I know I was nervous, and I did a terrible job explaining. Instead of telling me I was doing a terrible job, she thanked me for explaining, hugged me, and later, I assume, she did her homework, in private. It was the only explanation for the way she was able to later talk to me about binding in detail, with a particular eye out for my comfort and safety.
She never asked for a gold star for looking up terms that were unfamiliar to her, either. (GLAAD is a great place to start, if you're unsure.) It was just part of her being my friend, because she wanted to know more about me without making me uncomfortable when I was already super nervous. So be like my best friend. I believe in you.
4. Take Your Friend's Lead
People come out in different ways, at different times. Sometimes, people are excited to tell you a rush of things about themselves. And sometimes, they're a nervous ball on the floor. Take your friend's lead and don't take any of their nerves personally. If they look scared and are having trouble articulating themself, tell them to take their time and that you're not going anywhere. If they're excited, be excited with them! If they're somewhere in between, ride that in-between wave together.
And however they seem to be feeling when they tell you, remember that questions like "Why didn't you tell me sooner?" and "Didn't you think I'd be supportive?" are sweet in theory, but they actually often make people feel like you think they're doing something wrong for processing their gender in their own time and space. Instead, try to be a sounding board for your friend's excitement and fears.
5. Be Interested, But Keep Invasive Questions To Yourself
This follows taking your friend's lead: sometimes, they'll tell you that you can ask questions if you want to. But please, whatever you do, don't go from zero to asking about the state of your friend's genitals or chest. Not all non-binary people want to medically transition in any way, and even if they do, they'll tell you about that if and when they want to. Just like in any conversation, find the balance between being interested in your friend's life and being intrusive. Even if you do have the type of relationship with this person where you talk about all things body-oriented and even sexual, coming out is a very vulnerable moment for anyone. Honor that process and hold space for your friend to decide what they want to share with you and when.
6. Don't Praise Them For Making A "Brave" Choice
As a non-binary trans person, there are many things that I proudly choose about my gender expression. True. But to hear people who are not trans discuss my gender as a "choice" is as excruciating as it is infuriating. Even when people are trying to be affirmative, it never rings true, and it probably won't ring true to your non-binary friend, either. Coming out to you is a choice, but being non-binary is an intimate part of who I am. To call being trans or non-binary a choice is to imply that my gender is fake, and it decidedly is not. Ditto saying your friend's new name or pronouns are "preferred" — they're not preferred, they're correct. So thank your friend for coming out to you, and honor that trust by not calling their gender a choice.
The world is full of terrifying things that happen to people when they come out as non-binary and trans. You can choose to put more than a little light into that world for your friend. A coming-out cupcake the next time you see each other, perhaps, or a celebratory beer if that's more their thing. I've personally always wanted someone to get me a graduation card for graduating to my current gender status. Use the little, intimate things you know about your friend to make them feel special: because coming out is scary, but the more community you have, the more beautiful it can feel. And your friend is inviting you to share in that community with them. So make it just as special and awesome as your friend is.
If someone close to you comes out as non-binary, you're ready to go be the supportive human that you are. But remember, too, that you're always growing, as so is your friend. Coming out doesn't happen just once: it happens in little ways, about little things, over and over and over again. Be there, every time, and be supportive, every time. Because it's really that simple.