Andrew Bunt’s work with Living Out gives him special insights into navigating what could be a tricky conversation.
”Fail to prepare and you prepare to fail.” These words have become something of a cliché, but they’re often true. There are some things in life that if we’ve not prepared ourselves for, we’re likely to handle badly. One of those is when a young person comes out to us as LGBTQ+.
Any Christian who is a parent or who engages with young people should make sure they’re prepared for the possibility that a young person might come out to them. There are at least two reasons why this is true.
One is the fact that we want to be on the front foot with loving teenagers who identity as LGBTQ+. That should be true simply because of Jesus’ call to love others well, but it should be even more true in light of the reality that so many LGBTQ+ people have felt unloved by Christians. We – the body of Christ – have often not done well at loving LGBTQ+ people as Jesus would want us to. If we want to do better, we need to prepare.
The other is a simple matter of numbers. With ever increasing numbers of young people identifying as LGBTQ+, it is becoming ever more likely that parents and others will find themselves in front of a young person sharing about their experience of sexuality or gender. If we want to love young people well, we can’t bury our heads in the sand about this; we’ve got to prepare.
As a guy who is attracted to guys, I’ve come out to countless people over the years. Here are my top tips for responding well when a young person comes out.
For all sorts of reasons, one instinctive response might be to panic. Questions might fill our head – What do they mean? What do I say? What does this mean for the future? Fears might suddenly flood over us – Fear we’ll handle it badly. Fear we’ll say something wrong. Fear for how this might impact their relationship with Jesus.
In that first moment, it’s important to take a deep breath, smile, and start to listen and love. You don’t need to understand everything, say everything, or tackle everything in one conversation. You don’t need to panic.
The primary thing we want a young person to know is that we love them. They might well be feeling nervous about how we’re going to react and what impact this is going to have on our relationship. They might well have heard the lies that Christians will reject them and turn their backs on them. We want this first conversation to dispel any fears like these that a young person might have.
In our body language, our tone, and our words we want the young person before us to experience the fact that they are loved by us. It might be good to explicitly verbalise that. ”I’m so glad you’ve felt able to tell me this. I love you, and God loves you, and this doesn’t change that one bit.” If appropriate, you might want to physically demonstrate your love them through a hug or an arm around the shoulder. And if this is as far as you get in the first conversation – if they simply go away knowing that you love them – that is enough. That has to be the first step.
Our temptation in a situation like this will often be to talk. We might have a list of questions we want to ask, or we might feel inclined to jump in with some hard truths we feel need to be heard. But before we speak, we should listen. And when we’ve listened, we should listen a bit more. Only when we’ve done a good amount of listening should we think about starting to speak.
By listening, we love. We show that we care and we want to understand. We show that we value the young person as an individual – someone who’s unique, personal journey we want to appreciate, not an abstract problem that now needs to be solved. Listening also helps us to understand. We shouldn’t assume we immediately know what a young person means when they tell us they’re gay, or trans, or bisexual. If we’re going to respond well, we need to understand well.
It’s OK to ask questions, but ask them gently and keep them open ended, questions that help a young person to share what they want to share and not that make them feel like they’re being interrogated. ”Can you tell me more about what you mean when you say you’re non-binary?” ”What has it been like for you to come to this conclusion?” ”How are you feeling about this?”
In a first conversation, it may not be helpful to start talking about your views on sexuality or gender or about what the Bible says. Don’t feel you have to rush and talk about everything straight away. If your young person asks you your views or what the Bible says, it’s OK to say that you’d like some time to think about it so you can give a more helpful answer than you could in that moment. It’s OK to say that you’re really happy to talk about those questions but you think it would be better to come back to that a little bit later. It might be helpful to say that there’s no need to rush to find answers. What matters first is that they’ve felt comfortable to share and that they know they are loved.
If the conversation does turn to what God says, keep a few principles in mind: we don’t want young people to think that our love for them is conditional on them agreeing with our beliefs. We want young people to know that they have a right to their own opinion and that they have the freedom to wrestle with their big questions. We want them to see how what God says about sexuality or gender fits with the shape of the gospel which means even if we can’t relate directly, we have had to wrestle with parallel challenges in life. We want them to see the big picture – God’s beautiful plan for sexuality and gender, not just some of the prohibitions or restrictions that flow from that.
Here is more on the topic of LGBT:
It’s also worth noting that what we say might be very different depending on the young person’s age. An 18-year-old might have been aware of their experience of sexuality for some time. They might feel quite confident about the pattern of their desires. But in the case of an 11-year-old, for example, their experience might be very new and unclear to them. In the latter case, we might want to encourage them not to rush to make any big pronouncements and not to feel they have to label themselves immediately. The same comments might not be helpful for the 18-year-old who has already been processing this for a number of years. Thinking about the developmental stage of our young person is always important.
Commit to the journey
When someone comes out to us, it’s like we are joining them partway through a journey. We’ve missed some of the journey – and so we want to listen well to learn about it – but we can commit to being with them as the journey continues.
It’s good to make this commitment to a young person. Obviously we want to be careful not to overcommit (especially if we’re not the young person’s parent), but we want to make it clear that our desire is to love and support them well and that we’re not going to abandon them.
It’s also good to make that commitment personally. This is perhaps especially important for parents. The journey from this point might be long, messy, sometimes painful. It might require patience and great trust in God. It’s good to take some time after a conversation to come before God, committing ourselves to loving our child well and asking for his help to do that.
Let’s not let a failure to prepare well, leave us failing to love well. Every parent and every person who engages with young people should be ready for if a young person comes out to them as LGBTQ+. There’s much more that could be said, but these starting points will equip us to do our best as we seek to love the young person before us.
For more helpful resources from Andrew and others on sexuality, gender and identity, head to livingout.org
Ed Shaw at Living Out has a video that takes this article further here
 Many of us will have observed this increase in LGBTQ+ identification in our own contexts. Ascertaining reliable data on LGBTQ+ identification among young people is quite a challenge, but all the indications suggest that numbers are consistently on the up. See, for example,‘Sexual orientation, UK: 2020’, Office for National Statistics.; ‘One in five young people identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual’, YouGov; and ‘Prevalence of Gender-Diverse Youth in an Urban School District’, Pediatric