As a queer, nonbinary parent, advocate, and LGBTQIA+ educator, I am asked a lot of questions. Most of the questions are motivated by curiosity and a genuine desire to learn about queer topics. I welcome questions. Not only am I an open book and happy to share my story, but I am also comfortable redirecting a person’s insensitive or ignorance-based question to get at the root of what they want to know. I do this with both adults and children in very age appropriate ways that complement a person’s level of understanding on the topic they are referencing.
Adults, specifically parents, want to know how to talk to their kids about LGBTQ topics. I love this, but often what the parents want is for me to help them understand LGBTQ topics so that they can have open and meaningful conversations with their kids. Here’s how.
1. Understand the basics.
Our sense of self is a powerful thing. For some of us, this sense of self is easy to feel, see, and be. I like to think that who we are is based on three things: gender, sexuality, and gender expression. Yes, personality, passions, and desire drive who we are and who we become, but our most authentic self and how we identify needs to be seen and celebrated in order for us to succeed.
Even before birth, a child is put into a box. Based on genitalia, a child is assigned a gender: babies with penises are assigned male and babies with vaginas are assigned female. With those assignments come expectations; even if the biases are implicit, gender stereotypes are placed on children. This is seen best in gender reveal parties. Pink is for girls and blue is for boys. Barf. And wrong.
Gender is not the same as sex. Most children are cisgender. This is when biological sex and gender identity align. But some are transgender or nonbinary. This is when a child’s sex does not match their gender identity.
It is important to understand that sexual anatomy does not determine gender. Use language that supports this. For example, say “most boys” have penises instead of saying “all boys.” And instead of implying that “all girls get a period,” mention that “people with uteruses may menstruate.” Our bodies do many things but they don’t determine if we identity as male, female, neither, or both.
Sexuality is how we fall in love and is usually based on gender identity. Your gender and the gender(s) of the people you are attracted to usually give way to labels like straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and pansexual. There are lots of different ways to fall in love.
Gender expression is how we show the world who we are. This is done through pronouns, hair style, clothing, attitudes, and behavior. Encourage healthy gender expression and bust gender stereotypes. Allow your kids to play with different roles, toys, colors, and clothing. Let girls be tough and boys be soft. Let kids explore the idea of being a different gender. Let kids know that the way their heart loves is beautiful and perfect.
As you start to wrap your head around some of this stuff, please remember that gender, sexuality, and expression are all fluid. There is not a right or wrong way to be, but we need to be sure we are providing unconditional love and support for whoever our child wants and needs to be.
2. Start talking early.
I don’t have to explain to my kids what it means to be straight or cisgender. Books, movies, and images continuously show them that most of the world is made up of mom/dad/kid families who have body parts that match their ability to say they are a boy or a girl. This is the heteronormative, and if we are not careful, we will compare everything to this and determine if something is normal or not.
Books with families that include same-gender and same-sex parents, transgender parents, and transgender siblings are great ways to open up discussions that normalize all people and families. There are a lot of great books with queer characters that will remind you and help your child know from an early age (like from birth) that families come in a variety of packages.
My kids’ normal is a house with two moms, one who is nonbinary, and a transgender sibling. They also see their friends’ families as normal even though different from ours because we have always celebrated all kinds of love. You should too.
3. Questions are great.
I talked to a classroom of 2nd graders recently about gender expression, though I didn’t use those words. We were simply talking about how people tend to present themselves in ways that make them feel good. We talked about how important it is to support that in ourselves and in our friends. It came up that a child thought I was a boy when he first met me, so he had asked if I was a boy or a girl. I told him I am a mom and that I understood why he wasn’t sure if I was a boy or a girl based on my masculine presentation. I don’t look like most moms. I don’t quite look like most dads, either.
Another student mentioned that her parents don’t let her ask those kinds of questions. When I asked why she said, “Because they tell me it is rude.”
I believe this is the opposite. Asking about someone, getting to know them, is one way to accept them. I’d rather have an open conversation than have a child or adult avoid my existence or fear it.
Kids ask questions to make sense of the world around them and to better understand the world swirling in themselves. To tell them not to talk about something or to not ask about something is to place doubt and shame in them. Not talking about gay people, gender nonconforming people, or transgender people tells your kid that “those people” are not okay and should not be accepted. You are also telling your child, who may very well be questioning their own identity and sexuality, that they are not okay and will not be accepted.
It’s not the kids who struggle with questions and these topics; it’s usually the adults who stumble and make things complicated or weird.
4. Listen to the question.
For some reason, when I mention that I am an LGBTQ advocate and educator, people sexualize my work. I have talked about making sex education more LGBTQ inclusive in schools, but I rarely talk about sex—not the sexy sex and not biological sex either when talking to kids. I may mention the words “body parts” but I know better than to say the word sex to a group of elementary school kids. That shit would be misinterpreted in a hot second.
Also, being gay, bisexual, queer, transgender or nonbinary does not equate to kinky or promiscuous acts any more than being straight and cisgender. When I talk about LGBTQ topics with kids, what I am talking about is identity and love and being true to yourself; I am not teaching kids (or adults) about what happens between two consenting adults. That’s up to you as parents to know when your child is ready to have those conversations, not me.
But please know that if a child asks what it means to be gay, they are not asking what kind of sex gay people have. They are trying to understand that sometimes two men get married and have kids. They are looking to you to tell them that, yes, that is love and that is beautiful. Two men getting married is like when mommy and daddy got married and had kids.
And when a child asks what it means to be transgender, they are not looking for a biology lesson, per se, or a presentation on all the different ways a person may transition. They need to know that sometimes people are born with body parts that don’t match their heart and brain. To keep it simple, say this: “A transgender girl is someone who was born with a boy body but a girl heart. We need to respect her and her identity and the way she wants to express herself.”
5. Don’t panic.
When your kid asks a question that makes you uncomfortable or one you don’t know the answer to, either figure it out with them or tell them it is a great question and you need a little time to think about a good answer. It’s okay to not know everything, but it’s not okay to not learn. Kids’ questions may mean they are looking for answers for themselves. That can be scary as a parent to think about because that means your beautiful child may be someone the world turns on for simply existing. The truth is that our kids will be who they are whether we want to talk about this stuff or not. Kids need to know you would support them if they were gay or transgender. Don’t ignore or be afraid of these topics.
If a child feels like they can be their most authentic self, they will have a better chance at success and happiness; they are also more likely to be an ally for someone who is trying to do the same.