So your child sits you down to tell you that he identifies as something other than heterosexual or cisgender (meaning one’s gender identity is the same as the biological gender of one’s birth, i.e. someone born with a vagina who identifies as female). Perhaps you’ve always expected that your son was gay, or maybe your daughter didn’t really want to be your daughter, she wanted to be your son, but this never really became a reality until that moment when you’re sitting in the living room across from your nervous child. This is such an important moment in your teenager’s life, in your life, and in the life of your relationship with your child. With it come many different emotions: fear, excitement, and a whole lot of worry.
I’ve been there. I know. Hopefully my suggestions can give all of you parents out there some insights into what will make your children feel the most secure and validated at the moment they come out, because that’s what we all want from our parents, regardless of whether we’re gay or straight or making a big announcement.
First and foremost, let’s define our terms. What does LGBTQ+ stand for? Well, it’s an acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, and asexual (contrary to popular belief, the A does not stand for ally, which is a heterosexual supporter of the LBGTQIA community). The LGBT+ umbrella acronym is also home to many different gender identities, such as agender, bigender, genderfluid, and more.
Now, some sobering statistics: More than 20 percent of homeless youth are LGBT+, most of whom have been rejected or abused by their families and thrown out of their homes. If my words can help repair just one broken relationship between an LGBT+ youth and his parents, then I will have done my job. I hesitated even writing this essay. Please be gentle with me. I just had my 17th birthday.
Due to the extreme number of gender pronouns under the LGBT+ umbrella, I’ll be randomly alternating between she and he in this article to make it as easy as possible to read.
1. Don’t freak out.
This should be pretty self-explanatory. Your child is telling you something over which she has agonized for a while: How to tell you? When to tell you? What will your reaction be? She is telling you this deeply personal thing about herself because she wants you to know the real her. She wants to share a piece of herself that you might not have known or understood, and it is your job as a parent to accept her for who she is. If you don’t accept your child because of her gender or sexuality, then you never really loved her fully. You only loved the idea of her. It is absolutely fine to take some time to adjust to this new reality, as long as you are doing it in a respectful way that doesn’t cause your child unnecessary anxiety. However, it is not acceptable to berate, abuse, or degrade your child based on what they have shared with you.
2. Don’t pry; your child will tell you as much as he wants, and you should respect that.
My parents found out I was gay by accident, and even though they are two of the most amazing, accepting, loving people on this planet, I was still worried about their reactions. I wasn’t ready to come out, not at all, and I was freaked out when I found out that they knew. Once my parents found out, they wanted to know everything all at once, and I wasn’t ready for that either. After we talked about it, however, they respected my boundaries and let me parcel out my thoughts and feelings on a scale with which I was comfortable. What a lot of parents don’t seem to understand—but thankfully, mine did—is that your child is still the same child, no matter what his gender identity or sexuality is. Gender and sexuality do not equal personality. Your child is still smart, kind, and loving, still prone to adolescent mood swings and periods of brooding or whatever it was he did before his announcement. In fact, now that he has shared this new information with you, you’ll be discovering more things about your child now that he is comfortable sharing his true self.
3. Don’t try to force your child’s identity out of her; your child will talk to you when she is ready.
I hear stuff like this all the time, and it drives me crazy: “Oh, yeah, my son is gay. I’ve known since he was five.” You might think you’re taking a burden off of your child by confronting him and saying something like that, but there are two problems with this. One, what if you’re wrong? What if your son just likes pink? What if your daughter just wanted to cut her hair short for a new “in” style? You can’t be sure until your child tells you himself, and this brings me to my next point: It isn’t your place to place a sexual label on your child. Your child’s sexuality is exactly that: your child’s. It is up to him to determine the one that most resonates.
4. Let your child express his gender and sexuality through exploration of hair color, clothing, and makeup.
If your daughter wants to cut her hair short and wear a suit to prom, let her. If your son wants to wear skirts or color his hair pink, let him. These are all healthy forms of self-expression, and by allowing him to utilize these outlets, you are letting your child know that he is more important to you than his outer shell. Clothes are just clothes; pieces of cloth used to protect us from the weather and cover our genitals. It is up to your child to discover what he is most comfortable wearing. He needs your support as he explores self-identity through self-expression. Hair can be cut or grown out, colors can be washed or dyed out, makeup can be removed, and clothes can (and probably will!) vary vastly from one day to the next. Clothes only become “boy clothes” when they are worn by a boy and “girl clothes” when they are worn by a girl. Style and color do not mean they “belong” to a certain gender, despite how the Gap or Macy’s might organize their clothing sections.
5. Do not tease your child about her gender or sexuality, and don’t let friends or family do it either.
Few things are as hurtful to a child who identifies as LGBT+ as having her parents insult her or her community through petty quips and jokes. Although I have not experienced this from my parents, I have had teachers and acquaintances of parents make hurtful jokes that reinforced negative stereotypes, and they were all quite painful. You may think you’re being funny, but to your child your jokes can come across as a passive-aggressive way to tell him you don’t really like who he is. If you notice your friends or family members doing this, please take a moment to explain to them that this is not OK and never will be.
6. This is a really important one, so my editors have said I can put it in all caps: USE THE CORRECT PRONOUNS FOR YOUR CHILD’S IDENTITY!
Some background info: there are three things among which we need to differentiate, and they are sex, gender, and sexual orientation. Sex is the genitals with which you were born: male, female, or intersex. Gender has nothing to do with sex. Gender is the gender with which you identify, and it may not necessarily match your genitals. Someone who is transgender and is transitioning from male to female means that she was born with a penis (male), but her gender has always been female. Notice my use of she and her in that sentence. This is the correct usage.
If your male child tells you that he identifies with a different gender than his sex, and he has decided he wishes henceforth to be referred to as a she, please respect that. Although I personally am not transgender, I know how hurtful it can be to young adults (and even to older adults) when we refuse to call them by their true pronouns. The suicide rate amongst transgender youths is incredibly high. You can literally help prevent that by referring to your child with his or her preferred gender pronouns. Accidental slip-ups are OK, but if you purposely misgender your child, then you, my friend, are a jerk.
Yes, I know. None of this is easy, either for you or your child, especially if you’re living in a particularly conservative community. But if you follow these simple rules for helping your LGBT+ child through his announcement and its aftermath with an open heart and mind, I promise you: Everything will not only be fine within the confines of your home and community, but the world at large will be a more beautiful, accepting, and peaceful place.