It’s no surprise for me to point out that we live in a society that centers straight, cis people. From the time we’re born, we’re bombarded with messages from family, friends, and the media that tell us the default sexuality is straight and the default genders are cisgender and binary.
The majority of parents and families accept these messages as standard because they received the same messages while they were growing up. Since the societal undercurrent of cisheteronormativity isn’t questioned in most households, it continues, unchecked, in the background of everyone’s daily life, like white noise.
Except it’s not white noise, it has a huge impact on all of us — especially kids, LGBTQ kids in particular.
During childhood, we observe the adults around us to find out sort of behavior is okay and what’s unacceptable. As children, we may not always know that we’re LGBTQ, but we do notice that it’s we’re straight and that becomes the baseline for what we know is “normal”.
We notice every news story about anyone who might be gay or trans, and we notice how people talk about those news stories. We notice the people who don’t dress the way they’re “supposed to” based on their perceived gender and how the adults in our lives react to that. We notice every single thing that supports the narrative that being LGBTQ isn’t “normal”, real or perceived, and we begin to believe that we’re creeps or freaks or immoral. We notice all of these things and we internalized them before we even come out.
Adults are often wary about discussing gender and sexual identity with kids because LGBTQ identities are so sexualized. It’s common for folks to think that they don’t need to discuss gayness or bisexuality if a child doesn’t actively talk about being LGBTQ or isn’t sexually active, but nothing could be further from the truth. I had my first crush on a girl when I was five, before I knew what gay was. Being a kid was confusing for me because all I knew was that I didn’t seem to feel the same way about boys as all of my friends.
We need to be talking to kids about different sexualities and genders from the beginning, before they can even talk, just as part of their normal process of learning how to be a human. The more we talk about the full spectrum of identities, the better prepared the kids in our lives will be if they end up being LGBTQ or if they have friends who are.
This might sound scary, even for fellow queers, we’ve been told for so long that it’s inappropriate to talk about anything other than heterosexuality with kids, but I’m telling you it’s okay. It’s actually very important! And,if you’re still unsure, here are few places to start:
Educate yourself first
In order to start dismantling cisheteronrmativity for the kids in you life, you need to also be aware of how it shows up in your life — especially (but not exslusively) if you identify as straight. Since we’re all raised in a society that centers the cishet experience, it’s the default for all of us to uphold it. Gay people have gender reveal parties and assume the heterosexuality of kids, too. We all have work to do.
When you’re coming from a binary gay/straight or man/woman experience, it can feel scary to try to inegrate the full spectrum of sexuality and gender into your world view. I’m sure it feels like there’s a special code that we’re all speaking in that’s impossible to figure out because there’s no easy way to learn about the LGBTQ subculture.
To start, here are three books to lay the groundwork. They’re all in a comic format and they’re all beginner level in their topics. The first two, A Quick & Easy Guide to Queer & Trans Identities and A Quick and Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns are also appropriate for kids (starting around ages 10 to 12, depending on the individual kid) while the third, Queer: A Graphic History, is a great base level for understanding queer theory, gay rights, and how they apply to everyone’s lives.
Another way to make sure you’re educated is to talk to other adults about what you’re learning. Talk to your friends and family, start a book club or a discussion group, listen and learn from LGBTQ organizations, read memoirs and other books by LGBTQ authors — keep being curious.
Reminder: before engaging with your LGBTQ friends about these topics, make sure you check in first to ensure they’re okay with it. I personally make myself available to my friends to discuss whatever they want and I talk a lot about these things publically, but not everyone can or wants to. Make sure you respect that and don’t assume that all LGBTQ folks are here to coach you through your learning.
Bring Up LGBTQIA+ Identities in conversation
A common rule for interacting with kids is that we should only answer the questions they have about complex topics. It makes sense, we don’t want to overwhelm them with information they may not be ready to hear or process. This is how I interact with all of the kids in my life, when they ask questions, I end up asking a lot more questions in return to make sure my answer is what they actually want to know.
In my opinion, one of the few areas where we need to re-think this approach is with the topics of sexual and gender identity. I know some of you may be balking at this idea, why would you need to discuss sexual identities with a three year old!?!
Remember earlier when I mentioned that I had my first crush on a girl when I was five? Well, because I didn’t know being gay was even an option for me, I didn’t realized that’s what it was. It wasn’t until I was much older that I was able to identify the crushes I had as a kid. I thought a crushs was something I was supposed to have on boys, so I was confused when I didn’t. Even in my journals from my early teen years, the way I talk about boys is more like I’m listing facts about them. It’s not until I start dating girls that you can really see that I’ve figured out what I was missing. I didn’t have to try to mirror the way straight girls acted or felt anymore, I could feel for myself and that was so fucking freeing.
Imagine if I had been aware that there was such a thing as being gay (or bi) when I was five? I would have known that those crushes I had on girls were crushes and not just “really close friendships” and I would have known that it’s okay for me to not have crushes on boys. That knowledge would have been revolutionary for me .
So, when I say we should be bringing up these topics with kids, I just mean we should make sure kids know that different sexual and gender identities exist, so they can ask questions when they have them.
How do we bring these topics up? An easy way is to watch TV shows or read books with kids that have LGBTQ characters in them. Or if you’re watching something with a kid where there aren’t any LGBTQ characters, call out the heteronormativity and gender stereotypes from time to time. Simply bringing it up and acknowledging that you know these identities exist and you see no shame in having these identities will help the kids in your life feel accepted and safe.
It’s not a big deal, but it’s a big deal
When a kid in your life comes out to you or expresses the idea that they may be LGBTQ, the first instinct is often to say something along the lines of “I love you no matter what” or “It doesn’t matter to me what you are, I love you.” While saying these kinds of things my sound supportive and they may be coming from a place of love, they plant the seeds of the opposite.
If a young person, or anyone, comes out to you and your response is “I love you no matter what,” that gives the message that you love that person despite their LGBTQ identity. The “no matter what” makes it seem like there’s something about them that would make some people not love them, but you’re able to overlook it.
Similarly, when your response is “it doesn’t matter to me what you are,” that’s giving the message that this person’s identity isn’t important to you. It matters to them that they have this identity, and to say it doesn’t matter to you gives the impression that you’re not interested in this very important part of them.
Okay, so you must be wondering what should you to a young person coming out to you!?!
Well, it would depend on the situation with the kid themselves. If they seem to be coming to you from a place of stress over coming out, it’s best to lead with an unqualified “I love you” and maybe throw in a “thank you for trusting me with this part of you”.
If they’re happy or silly about they way they’re telling you, match their energy. Maybe start with something like “Oh, that’s so exciting! How are you feeling about it?” or “Thank you for telling me, I love learning more about you!”
The main takeaway is that the whole experience should be about them and their feelings, not about you or your level of acceptance. As adults we need to make sure the young people in our lives have safe spaces to be themselves and making them deal with your inability to understand or accept their identity isn’t safe, it’s traumatizing. If you need to talk this out with someone, talk to your friends, a therapist, or any sort of coach or mentor in your life not the young person in your life.
Something to also remember, after a kid in our lives come out to us about their LGBTQ identity, we can’t just never bring it up again. It’s something that we must continue to acknowledge and talk to them about. There’s a whole different set of life experiences to be prepared for when you’re not straight or cis and being able to communicate openly about honestly about them.
I can imagine that all of this seems like an impossible thin line to walk, but that’s only because generations of heteronormativity have baked into us how to talk about being cishet with kids without even thinking about it. In order to make sure all kids know that being LGBTQ is simply another way of being, and not something freakish to be ashamed of (or bully people for), we need to talk to all kids about these identities on a regular basis. To integrate knowledge, understanding, and acceptance of LGBTQ identities into the way we raise the kids in our lives is how we can change the world.