Many dads have found graceful acceptance when their teen or adult child comes out them as LGBT. What happens when it occurs when your child — is still a child? Dr. Jenifer O’Ryan gives guidance.
Social visibility and acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals has increased drastically over the last decade. Marriage equality, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the military, and pop culture icons publicly coming out have all contributed to a shift in awareness of sexual orientation, as well as how we understand gender identity.
As an adult, it may be a relatively short adjustment to realize that your co-worker is gay and married to someone of the same gender. Following media coverage of Caitlyn Jenner’s transition may have made you uncomfortable, but you (hopefully) acknowledge her humanity and right to her own expression. As a father, this acceptance of an LGBT child might not be quite as easy; especially if that child is still, indeed, a child. And your child.
Early messages within the environment play a critical role in childhood development. This is true for everything from incorporating family norms, to formulating a sense of how one fits into the larger societal scheme of things. An area that is often overlooked when considering early messages is the sometimes unconscious emphasis placed on gender roles or sexual orientation. A small child who is only beginning to realize their same-sex attractions or gender identity can be profoundly influenced by the sentiments expressed by those around them. And, yes, they know. They see your reaction when a news channel reports on gay marriage and they hear comments at the dinner table about the football player who celebrated by kissing his boyfriend after the draft pick. Your behavior toward LGBT people in the world can be directly internalized by your LGBT child long before they have the capacity to fully understand; long before you realize how damaging this is for them later in life.
Specific to orientation (the LGB part) same-sex attractions during childhood are not overtly sexual in nature, think about them more in terms of school-yard crushes. A sense of these attractions begins very early in childhood, but become more visible around the age of 5-6 when the child has a better vocabulary and capacity to express their feelings. This is where you come in, Dad. Parental response to early expressions of same-sex attractions is critical to the long-term healthy development of your child. If you hesitate or try to re-direct the child toward more heterosexual expectations, this plants a seed of doubt within them. Doubt about their normalcy, doubt about their worth in your eyes, and more importantly doubt about being able to express this crucial aspect of themselves to others. This doubt can eventually turn into fear of discovery, which opens the door for a host of increased risk and negative outcomes later in life. No pressure, Dad, but don’t blow it on this one.
For transgender or gender non-conforming children, many of the initial responses you experience when your child expresses an identity other than the one assigned at birth are based on your own perspectives. Let’s unpack that for a minute, your response to these behaviors is based on you and not some universal truth about how things “are”. Gender is represented in a multitude of ways across different times, belief systems, and cultures. Your child is entitled to own and define their unique identity. In our society, children are assigned gender at birth (sometimes even before they are born), setting them on a “pink” or “blue” trajectory of choices that limit everything from accepted emotional expressions to the types of shoes they can wear. Rather than viewing gender as a binary, think of it as a spectrum and allow your child to find their place on it.
As parents, we want to protect our kids. We want to save them from the cruel realties that they will face while navigating this world. But through attempting to alter something as personal as sexual orientation or gender identity you’re not protecting them, you’re undoing them. By re-directing them into heterosexual expressions or enforcing traditional gender-based roles, you’re not saving your child from future bullying, but rather effectively becoming their first bully.
So, what can you do? First, assess your own feelings about the situation. Understanding why you are reacting in a certain way could help uncover bias or preconceptions that you didn’t realize were there. Second, educate yourself. There are far more resources available on parenting an LGBT child then when we were growing up. Reach out to organizations such as PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) for resources and information. Third, realize the significance of your role in this child and their perception of themselves. These kids are counting on you and internalize the responses you reflect back to them. Keep the lines of communication open, let your child (or children) evolve on their own timeline and spectrum.
Hang in there, no one said this parenting thing would be comfortable.
Photo: Flickr/Beatrice Murch