Understanding what LGBTQ is does not necessarily mean one understands their LGBTQ child. The reverse is also true; Understanding an LGBTQ child does not necessarily mean one understands the dynamics involved in the life of an LGBTQ child.
We can be encouraged by the positive shifts in our cultural landscape, celebrating Pride events and anniversaries of positive milestones such as marriage equality. Pop culture and opinion polls are steadily growing in terms of tangible evidence of LGBTQ equality. This does not erase the facts that LGBTQ youth continue to suffer higher incidents of bullying, depression[i] and are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers[ii]. Kids who are not white or not cisgender have even higher rates[iii], and if their families are rejecting of them, that number doubles[iv].
Finding out your son or daughter is gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans is not easy for anyone and can be actively difficult for some.
Some parents are shocked when a child comes out; others see it coming. Some are welcoming; some are not. Some are supportive; others are not. One’s reaction to the news when it is delivered can be unpredictable. Not all of our reactions are positive. Not all of our questions or even our well-intentioned bids are going to feel good to them.
And that’s OK.
As a therapist, I coach families that parents, friends and other supportive important people in their lives get a year. A whole year to struggle, to wrap their brains around stuff, to slip up and say stupid things, to ask uncomfortable or even inappropriate questions.
Then it’s time to get up, get over it, get on board.
In the meantime, parents do what we have to do to keep them alive and in our homes. Because supportive reactions help our kids cope (and helping them, will eventually help you cope).
And here’s a guide to help you.
Ten things NOT to do when your kid comes out to you
Do Not try to cure them. Trying to change a person’s gender identity – by any tactic, including denial, guilt, fear, force or so-called reparative therapies is not only ineffective, but it is also dangerous and can do permanent damage. In fact, those “conversion therapies, which are typically faith-based, have been wholly condemned as psychologically harmful by the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and numerous similar professional organizations…
Do Not say the word, “Phase.” Phases are things, and young people ARE more prone to them than grown-ups, but phases revolve around things like certain bands, book series, or skinny jeans. Dismissing their gender identity as something fleeting like hair dye or how high to pull up your socks, can be both insulting and harmful at a time when your child may need support the most.
Do Not make it about you. Some parents feel guilt. Others feel fear. Some ask themselves, “Did I do (or NOT do) something to cause this?” Some worry about their child’s health and welfare, wondering if it somehow their “Fault.” Others’ immediate response (and assumption) is that grandchildren are no longer an option. Thoughts like these are commonplace – but do not help. There is a place for this angst and anxiety, and there are loads of resources, online and group supports as well as trained professionals to help you – don’t put this on your kid. This is stuff you can talk about later, after you’ve worked through it and sorted it out.
Do Not refuse to acknowledge the issue. Whether it’s about gender or sexuality, things like refusing to use their name or pronouns or refusing to invite significant others to family gatherings make them feel invisible. And invisible people get the message that they are supposed to disappear…
Do Not assume that their experiences, desires, and choices will look like other gay, lesbian, bi, trans people you know or have heard about or seen on T.V. It’s true that previous generations were sometimes forced or directed into narrow behaviors and lifestyles (like musical theater or priesthood), and now we have all these stereotypes to lug around (like the girls’ gym coach with the clunky shoes and all those keys) but advancements in culture and technology have changed the rules, and anything is possible.
Do Not shield yourself from the visuals. Some of the biggest issues of dealing with a queer child are the visual images! One of the reasons gay folks have had to work so hard to be accepted, is because it is a SEXUAL preference, and just by its very nature, when it is mentioned or referenced, it conjures a visual. You may have given a passing thought to Brad and Angelina in the sack, casually considered Michelle and Barack “Doing it” perhaps…but many of you, not until just now. Think about the last relative you had who got married. Did you visualize that particular couple actually having sex? Probably not. But for many people, when we hear about the lesbians who moved in down the street, or that cousin or nephew who just came out…we SEE it in a way that makes many people uncomfortable simply because it is more rare/ different than our own experience.
It wasn’t that long ago that things like showing Lucile Ball pregnant on television freaked viewers out. In the sixties, Uhura (black) and Captain Kirk (white) kissed on Star Trek and America freaked out. Carol and Mike Brady were the first couple on television to be shown in bed together. In the eighties, there were a plethora of shows (Murphy Brown, Designing Women, Golden Girls, Kate & Allie) in which women were shown living viable and independent lives as people, professionals, and parents without the necessity of men. We have moved far and away from Klinger and Jack Tripper in terms of the portrayal of queer characters in visual media, and watching movies and television shows that show gay characters expressing affection and sexuality can help with your desensitization.
Do Not forget about the extended family. One of the biggest hurdles many queer kids (and their parents) have to deal with is the extended family. Many of us have parents who are still alive and kicking and saying awkward things in the grocery store or at Thanksgiving…sometimes we need to be the translator (or shield) between our children and that previous generation.
Do Not say “even though“ when you tell them you love them.
Do Not be afraid to ask them questions and talk about it. They are still the kid you have always known, and they want you to know them.
Do Not ask them questions and talk about it all of the time. Their identity is a part of who they are, and though from time to time it may be the loudest or sparkliest…it is not the biggest part, nor the most important.
Ten things to do when you kid comes out to you
Be proud of them. Even just a generation ago, a queer child was much, much more likely to stifle, pretend and stay closeted until they left home and went out of their own, before coming back home and coming out over dramatically over Christmas dinner or the sixth night of Hanukkah…Be proud of yourself for raising a child with the insight and ego strength to identify something in them that some people aren’t able to do until their twenties or thirties. Coming out a young age shows a level of bravery and integrity that we should all aspire to.
Understand your teen did not choose to be queer. There may even be times when you may feel shocked or sad or even embarrassed or uncomfortable, and remembering that they may be feeling the exact same thing, through no fault of their own, can help you through those rough patches.
Educate yourself and find support. You are not alone. There are a number of organizations of parents of transgender children and teens, as well as individuals that support such parents.
Accept them and always use your child’s preferred gender pronouns and preferred names.
Be your child’s advocate. Call out homo/transphobia when you see it and demand that others respect your child’s identity.
Be there to help with any problems that arise. Your pediatrician may be able to help you with this new challenge or suggest a referral for counseling. You also may find it helpful to talk with other parents whose children are lesbian, gay, or bisexual.
Have your antennae (and speakers) tuned for violence. Be watchful of behaviors that might indicate your child is a victim of bullying. If emotional or physical violence is suspected, ask them questions, and take immediate action – working with school personnel and other adults in the community.
Ask for consent before outing them. There is Pride, and then there is the inappropriate sharing of personal information.
Remember you have to come out, too. Take your time, trust your gut. There is no timeline or recipe. There is no all or nothing. It is as incremental as it is important. HOW fast/ often/ thoroughly you come out to others about your queer kid is not as important as the fact that you are coming out…
Mind the single-sex situations. Locker rooms, some team sports, or recreational activities and, yes, public restrooms are some (of the many) places or activities that require certain spacing or specific dress based on anatomy. Situations like these, can be some of the most stressful and humiliating activities for queer kids – especially transgender kids. More inclusive or permeable activities, such as mixed-sex choirs, art or technology classes (where nudity in locker rooms can be avoided), co-ed sports leagues or things such as martial arts (where the uniforms are gender-neutral) can be much less stressful.
Some parents may need to readjust your dreams for your child’s future. Others may have to deal with their own negative stereotypes of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. We may need to protect them from grandma or the PTA’s politics, or even go back and clean up some jokes or comments we’ve have made in the past.
Because parental support predicts greater mental and physical health, including higher self-esteem, and lower substance abuse. Because, your support protects against depression, homelessness and – at which GLBTQ youth are already a higher risk. And because, for many LGBTQ youth, the support of family can, literally, be the difference between life and death.
[i] “LGBTQ Youth.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed February 2017. https://www.cdc.gov/lgbthealth/youth.htm
[ii] “How Do Mental Health Conditions Affect the LGBTQ Community?” National Alliance on Mental Health Issues, accessed May 2016. http://www.nami.org/Find-Support/LGBTQ
[iii] “LGBTQ Youth.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed May 2016. http://www.cdc.gov/lgbthealth/youth.htmLgbtq
From Jo Langford’s upcoming book, The Pride Guide (June 2018)
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