Ask a Queer Chick: How Do I Process My Friends’ Trauma Without Taking It on Myself?

Also: What do I do about my crush on my friend? And: How do I date?

[Photo: Two friends sit on a couch comforting each other]
Human beings are not equipped to dispense compassion without receiving it; empathy and support are supposed to be reciprocal. Shutterstock

It’s September! My birthday was last week, but if you still feel like getting me something, I wouldn’t say no to some tattoo money or an entire new executive branch of the U.S. government. Also, Bisexual Visibility Day is coming up on the 23rd, so bisexuals, remember not to rob any banks that day—you’ll show up on the security camera. Here’s your autumnal advice:

I’m 35, queer, and agender. I have a friend a little older than me that has just started the coming-out process. He’s realized he’s been missing out on queer culture and community, and finally started telling friends within the past few weeks. When he came out to me, I just asked if he had any questions and we talked for hours that night about several subjects. I told him I had a small crush on him and have for a while, but wasn’t expecting anything to come of it.

Well, since then I’ve been trying to be a good friend by checking in with him to see how his coming-out process is going, as well as trying to point him in the direction of queer culture and community. Basically, I’m trying to be the person I wish I had when I was coming out (as gay initially) at 18. It seems clear to me that he’s still trying to figure parts of himself out.

I recently realized that maybe I am expecting something to come of this crush, at least a little, but do not want to hurt our now-closer friendship by pushing for something more. I’m kind of at a loss at what to do with these feelings. What would you do in my position?

You already told him you had feelings for him. If he’s known this for weeks but hasn’t made a move, I think it’s fair to assume that he either doesn’t reciprocate, or that he doesn’t want to jeopardize one of his foundational queer friendships by bringing romance into the picture. Someone who is just coming out in his late 30s probably needs the stability and support of your friendship more than he needs the adrenaline rush of a new sweetheart. It’s worth noting, too, that people who come out as queer in adulthood often experience a sort of sped-up second adolescence as they try to catch up on a lifetime’s worth of adventures and mistakes. There’s a strong likelihood that if you two got together, it would end messily and you wouldn’t be friends in the aftermath.

Of course, I’d be betraying my brand if I didn’t remind you that every relationship is likely to end messily. The human heart is an ineffable little goblin and will lead you to some crazy places, often to your detriment; we’re all just along for the ride. Therefore, you might as well go for it! This is my version of optimism: Don’t worry about it, you’re fucked either way.

Some people are worth taking a risk for. If you think this dude is one of them, it’s okay to lay it on the line. Say it just one time, be direct, and make a clear ask: “As our friendship has grown closer, I’ve continued to be attracted to you, and I’d like to explore that attraction if you’re open to it. Would you like to go on a date sometime?” If he says yes, congrats; if he says no, accept it gracefully and move on, either with or without him as a friend.

Whatever you do, don’t sit around waiting to see if he spontaneously declares his love. Silently pining for a friend is a good way to end up mired in dissatisfaction and resentment. Either make your move or decide that it’s not going to happen and start looking for a new crush.

I’m a fairly well-known person in the queer Mormon community. I am constantly receiving messages from queer Mormons who are struggling. Research shows queer Mormons are up to ten times more likely to experience trauma, suicidal ideation, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. I have, personally, lost more than one friend to suicide. Fielding panicked messages filled with suicidal ideation is … it’s hard. And I am utterly unprepared and untrained for how to do it. How do I respond to the trauma of my community without being lost to it myself?

What you’re describing is a real and serious issue. The cumulative effects of absorbing other people’s pain should not be downplayed. People who work with trauma survivors professionally, like therapists, social workers, and first responders, are at risk for what’s called vicarious or indirect trauma, which can be quite similar to immediate trauma in the way it affects your life. Even if hearing these stories isn’t part of your day job, it still sounds like it’s ongoing enough to make knowing the symptoms of vicarious trauma worthwhile. The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies offers an overview of vicarious trauma and some advice for overcoming it, including seeking a trauma therapist.

Whether or not you engage a mental health professional, you need to make sure you have a support system in place. Who do you turn to when you’re hurting and overwhelmed? Helpers need help too. What is your self-care plan? What do you do daily, or weekly, or monthly to prioritize your own health?

You might try putting together a list of resources or advice for others that you’ve found generally effective, either on your blog, your website, or just save it in your phone where you can grab it when you need it. That way, if someone reaches out to you when you’re feeling emotionally depleted, you can offer them some assistance without taking on their burdens personally. Human beings are not equipped to dispense compassion without receiving it; empathy and support are supposed to be reciprocal, but that can be hard when you’re known as someone with expertise and lots of people are reaching out to you. Think about where you draw the line between “a person asking me for advice” and “a friend whose happiness is of great importance to my own,” and don’t feel bad for establishing those boundaries.

It might also be useful to designate some time with fellow queer Mormons specifically for joy, not pain. Whether it’s a board game night, a road trip, or just cracking each other up on Twitter, make sure you have opportunities to be replenished by your community—to draw strength from it the way other people draw strength from you.

And sometimes you just need to be off the clock. Even if witnessing and responding to these painful stories isn’t your job, you need to think of it as one in at least this way: You can’t be available 24/7. Supporting your LGBTQ Mormon brethren/sistren/sibren might be something you do in your free time, but it shouldn’t be all your free time. Take time for yourself, your hobbies, your Netflix, your cactus garden, whatever. Turn off your phone, don’t check your email, do something (or someone) you love, and come back when you have the energy again.

I’m a 26-year-old woman. I’ve been questioning my sexuality for about five to six years. I’ve realized within the past year that I’m not straight. I’ve never been in a relationship, had sex, been on a date, nor been kissed. I’ve just always been physically attracted to both men and women. The reason I haven’t identified as bi is that when I talk to a guy, I feel as if he’s judging my every move and every word I say. I don’t feel this at all when I talk to girls. I’m just not exactly sure what to label myself. I’m also not sure how to meet someone. As I said, I’ve never been on a date before and I’m not sure what to say to someone when I first talk to them. Any suggestions? I like to compliment people a lot so would it be okay to maybe start off with that?

A lot of people, especially people who are somewhat new to being out, think of finding “your” label as a sort of treasure hunt: If you stick to the map and decipher the clues perfectly, there’s one grand prize at the end and all your identity questions will be answered. For many of us, I think it’s actually more like a scavenger hunt—we’re exploring and going “Ooh, this looks cool!” and grabbing whatever fits in our pockets.

It’s OK to identify as bi but prefer dating women to dating men. It’s also fine to identify as a lesbian if you experience physical attraction to men but don’t have any intention of being in a relationship with one. It’s OK to identify as queer if neither of those sounds quite right to you. There are other options. The point is that no single word will ever encompass the wonderful complexity of how unique, irreplaceable you experience love and romance and desire and sex and hope and heartache. Your job is not to find a word that describes you precisely, or to contort yourself to fit an existing definition; instead, it is to go after what you want with as much bravery and kindness as you can manage. If you want to put a word to that now or later, that’s fine, but it’s not something you absolutely must check off your Gay Agenda—and it doesn’t necessarily make dating that much easier, either.

When it comes to asking someone out, there’s not much of a trick to it. If someone is into you, or thinks they might be, pretty much whatever you do will be endearing. You can be awkward and still get laid, as long as you’re not disrespectful (your opening line shouldn’t be explicitly sexual, for instance). Starting with compliments is great if it’s sincere.

If you try to initiate conversation and someone seems reluctant, don’t push it—maybe they’re in a hurry, maybe they’re having a crappy day, or maybe you’re not their type. Forcing your company on them won’t turn a no into a yes.  It may, however, turn a “some other time” into a “get the fuck away from me.” And don’t corner people or make them feel pressured; always leave someone a way to leave the conversation gracefully if they’re not into it. Please, for the love of all that’s holy, don’t bother people who are reading books or have their headphones in. Finally, bear in mind that if you ask someone out and they say no, it’s probably not because you did or said the wrong thing. It’s just because they weren’t feeling it—you didn’t have chemistry. Try not to stress out about it too much; there are other fish on the sushi buffet. You’re going to do great!