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Talking to Kids about Gender and Sexual Orientation

Starting a conversation with your kids about gender or sexual orientation doesn't have to be one big TALK. In fact, it's better for kids – and parents – to have many brief conversations about gender and orientation throughout childhood, into adolescence and early adulthood.

These conversations will change over time, which is why this talk cannot be done only once. A conversation with a 5-year-old will be very different than that with a 15-year-old. Luckily, there are helpful resources (some listed below) to assist parents in how to navigate developmentally appropriate conversations with your children.

Start by thinking about the tone you want to set 

You can begin by talking positively about all the diversity that exists in our world – race, ethnicity, gender expression, sexual orientation – and that all these identities make us unique and wonderful people. Look for and point out diversity in nature. There is just as much diversity with people when it comes to our bodies, beliefs, values, likes, dislikes, attractions, identities, etc.

Teach your children to be curious instead of judgmental about diversity. To be kind to others, show respect, and to feel good about who they are.

Talk about Differences in Families

As your kid becomes a part of their school community, they’ll probably come across families that are different from yours. Different families have different cultural traditions, religions, and values. Different families may also have different structures — meaning some kids in school may have 1 parent instead of 2, are being raised by grandparents, or live in foster care or group homes. Some kids have 2 moms or 2 dads, and there are many other types of families.

It’s important for kids to understand that not all families look the same. You can use your values about families and respect to guide talking with your kid about how some families are different from yours and that all families deserve respect.

  • Let boys and girls express all of their emotions. One the most important things you can do to help your child grow up to be emotionally healthy is to help them express their emotions. This includes letting boys cry. On the flip side, letting girls be angry just as you would a boy can help them learn to stand up for themselves. Help them use their words to explain how they feel and why.

 

  • Avoid phrases like “be a man,” or “act like a lady.” Instead use the words you really mean — like brave, grown-up, or polite.

 

  • Don’t assume your kid will grow up to be straight or CIS gender. Talking to your daughter about growing up and having boyfriends or marrying a man (and vice versa) sends the message that girls are supposed to like boys, and boys are supposed to like girls, and that anything else is wrong or not normal. While kids this young generally don’t know their sexual orientation yet, assuming they’re straight could make them scared to come to you or feel bad about themselves later. This can lead to mental health issues, unhealthy relationships, and taking more health risks as they reach their teenage years.

  • Talk with your family and other people close to your kid about your values when it comes to gender and respecting your kid for who they are. 

  • Be careful of gender stereotypes in TV, movies, magazines, books, or toys. Consider your values when it comes to “princess” or “hero” stories, and what messages you want your kid to take away from them if you let them watch/read them. Talk with your kid about what they think about gender stereotypes.

     

  • Be careful of double standards, like “boys will be boys.” If your kid has a sibling of another gender, give them the same rules and hold them to the same expectations.  If you expect politeness, sweetness, or helpfulness from your daughters, expect that from your sons as well.

Encourage acceptance

Gender roles and stereotypes begin early, and as parents, we often perpetuate them unwittingly. Baby girls are often given pink dresses and dolls; baby boys are usually given blue overalls and trucks. Often, we don't even think about it.

To better help our kids, we can encourage them at a young age to pursue their own interests – whether it be dolls or trucks, puzzles or games – and choose their own "play" clothes. The more children feel empowered to make their own choices, the more likely they will come to you later if they have questions.

As parents, you can role-model acceptance of people's differences by what you do and say – and what you don't do or say. For example, when someone makes a comment about a person's looks or sexuality, do you just laugh it off or do you say it was inappropriate? Does your answer depend on who you are with? Your kids are also dealing with these sensitive issues. Ask them what they would do or say if they were being teased. What if they witnessed a friend getting teased, or a classmate they don't know very well? It's human nature to have a range of feelings depending on how closely a situation impacts us. We can teach our kids to be compassionate, when it's appropriate to get involved, and when to ask an adult for help.

Do some Research

Are you familiar with some of the most popular terms?

Learning about the whole spectrum of gender identities – gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, non-binary and queer – can help you answer questions from your kids. Amaze.org has a great play list on their youtube channel on this topic. I've also included resources at the end of this post to help you nail this talk. Who do you know that represents another identity than your own that you could talk to?

Transgender means you identify with a different gender from the one you were assigned at birth. Gender nonconforming means your gender identity or expression doesn’t go along with traditional ideas of just male or female — it could mean you identify with words like non-binary, genderqueer, or something else. Some people use words like “gender expansive” or “gender creative” to describe children with non-binary gender expressions.

It is important to know also that sexual orientation and gender identity are not the same thing and don’t always match up to social norms. For instance, someone who identifies as a transgender male may be sexually attracted to people who identify as female and therefore identify as straight. However, if this person was attracted to people who identify as male, they may also identify as gay. While we don’t know for sure how many people are transgender, recent research shows that about 1% of people in the U.S. identify as transgender, more than 1.5 million people. 

Here is a pretty extensive list of terms I found on UCSF's LGBT resource center https://lgbt.ucsf.edu/glossary-terms  and a few to get you started.

Ally: A person who confronts heterosexism, sexism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and heterosexual privilege in themselves and others out of concern for the well-being of LGBTQIA+ people.

Bisexual: A person whose primary sexual and affectional orientation is toward people of the same and other genders, or towards people regardless of their gender.

Cisgender: The prefix cis- means "on this side of" or "not across." A term used to refer to people who's gender and sex are in alignment or match. 

Gay: A sexual orientation toward people of the same gender.

Gender: A social construct used to classify a person as a man, woman, or some other identity. Fundamentally different from the sex one is assigned at birth; It can refer to how male or female a person feels or how they identify. 

Gender Expression: How one expresses oneself, in terms of dress, mannerisms and/or behaviors that society characterizes as "masculine" or "feminine."

Genderqueer: A person whose gender identity and/or gender expression falls outside of the dominant societal norm for their assigned sex, is beyond genders, or is some combination of them.

Heterosexuality: A sexual orientation in which a person feels physically and emotionally attracted to people of a gender other than their own.

Homosexual/Homosexuality: An outdated term to describe a sexual orientation in which a person feels physically and emotionally attracted to people of the same gender.

Intersex: People who, without medical intervention, develop primary or secondary sex characteristics that do not fit “neatly” into society's definitions of male or female. Many visibly intersex people are mutilated in infancy and early childhood by doctors to make the individual’s sex characteristics conform to society’s idea of what normal bodies should look like. Intersex people are relatively common, although society's denial of their existence has allowed very little room for intersex issues to be discussed publicly.

Lesbian: A woman whose primary sexual orientation is toward people of the same gender.

LGBT: Abbreviation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender. An umbrella term used to refer to the community as a whole.

Pansexual/Omnisexual: Terms used to describe people who have romantic, sexual or affectional desire for people of all genders and sexes.

Nonbinary: A gender identity that embraces full universe of expressions and ways of being that resonate with an individual. It may be an active resistance to binary gender expectations and/or an intentional creation of new unbounded ideas of self within the world.

Queer: This can include, but is not limited to, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex and asexual people. This term has different meanings to different people. Some still find it offensive, while others reclaim it to encompass the broader sense of history of the gay rights movement. Can also be used as an umbrella term like LGBT, as in "the queer community."

Sex: a categorization based on the appearance of the genitalia at birth.

Sexuality: The components of a person that include their biological sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, sexual practices, etc.

Sexual Orientation: An enduring emotional, romantic, or sexual attraction. Sexual orientation is fluid. Asexuality is also considered a sexual orientation (See above definition of asexuality)

Transgender: Used most often as an umbrella term, some commonly held definitions: 1. Someone whose gender identity or expression does not fit (dominant-group social constructs of) assigned birth sex and gender. 2. A gender outside of the man/woman binary. 3. Having no gender or multiple genders.

Transsexual: A person who lives full-time in a gender different than their assigned birth sex and gender. Some pursue hormones and/or surgery while others do not. Sometimes used to specifically refer to trans people pursuing gender or sex confirmation.

A helpful visual I have used in teaching is the Genderbread Person to explain the difference between sex, gender, sexual expression and orientation and how each is separate from one another.

Bring it up

Once you have a basic understanding of the spectrum of non-binary and LGBTQ identities, you can start the conversation with your kids. Ask your child open-ended questions to better understand what they know, think and feel. Let their responses guide your discussion. A few places to start may be while eating dinner together, watching the news or a Netflix movie, or when something related comes up in conversation. Your child may tell you a story about a class mate or a topic they are discussing in school, for example. June is Pride Month, and seeing the various LGBTQ celebrations on the news and in the community may be the perfect opportunity or teachable moment for you to begin conversations about sexual identity with your children. 

Discuss homophobia and other forms of discrimination. To watch their language and avoid unkind or derogatory words and comments and instill values of acceptance and kindness.

 

If your child is not CIS gender or Heterosexual

Exploring how you identify and who you are sexually attracted to is a normal part of childhood development, but for LGBTQA youth, they may not feel like they are part of the norm and often feel alone because of this. This can lead LGBTQA youth toward trying to conform to social norms and hide their authentic selves even to the people closest to them. Feeling like you have to hide your true self can put these young people at risk for suicide, mental health issues, substance abuse and risky sexual behaviors. We also see these youth being victims of violence at higher rates than their peers.

One of the biggest fears we hear from youth is that their parents and important adults in their lives will stop loving them because they are "different." Kids are very sensitive to a lack of support – wherever it comes from. As parents, we can be a buffer to negative talk and prevent long-term negative health outcomes. 

Here are some tips on how to talk to and support children about how they may identify.

  1. Create a safe space. Remember that coming out can be stressful for young people. Give your child encouragement or praise for being open with you. Using derogatory language, physically abuse or kicking children out of the home for disclosing their authentic selves is very harmful to the relationship you have with them and may create a barrier to future conversations. 
  2. Honor your child’s unique experiences. Understand that there may be some things your child is experiencing that you won’t understand. Sometimes LGBTQA youth want to talk to other LGBTQA people, and that’s OK. Try not to take it personally. Reinforce that you are there for your child when and if he or she needs you.
  3. Give yourself space. Most parents have a vision of who their children will be, who they will marry, if they will have kids, what kind of career they will have, etc. Social norms tend to influence this vision toward a heterosexual cis-gender ideal. Give yourself time and space to grieve the dreams you may have envisioned for your kid. Children being their authentic selves doesn’t change who they are, but it changes who you thought they would be.
  4. Find support. You and your child are not alone. It’s ok to express your fear, angry or worry, but not to your child. Instead, seek out support from other parents of LGBTQA kids and the youth themselves. Many parents and LGBTQA youth find that meeting people who have had similar experiences helps them feel understood, empowered and connected. Seek out sympathetic, empathetic and knowledgeable support groups, therapists and medical providers. Examples: Transforming Families, PFLAG, Family Acceptance Project.
  5. It’s not all about this. Your children are more than their sexual orientation or gender identity. Having them stay engaged in other life activities or events is beneficial for their overall well-being.
  6. Don’t disclose without permission. Coming out is hard enough, but having someone disclose information you weren’t ready to share can be very devastating. Let your child dictate which people he or she is willing to share this information with and how much information he or she would like to share. If children trust you, they will continue to be open with you about what is going on in their lives.
  7. Be an advocate. Other people may not be as accepting, but they should always respect your child. You might not be able to change their mind but you can direct them on how you expect them to speak or engage with your child.

One startling statistic is the rate of suicide attempts for LGBTQ youth who receive rejection from their families. The Family Acceptance Project in California has researched the impact of family support on gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer children, teens and adults. Youth who experienced highly rejecting behaviors from their family were eight times more likely to attempt suicide than those who experienced love and acceptance from their parents and caregivers. If you are struggling accepting or coming to terms with your child's identity or orientation please reach out to one of the many amazing organizations listed below to help your family.

No matter where you are in your comfort level or understanding, we're here to help. Kids need to feel safe and loved just as they are. Loving and supporting your kid no matter who they are is the most important thing.

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