As a recently out gay woman, I was a little unsure at first about how to talk with my kids about LGBTQ+ topics. But, even before I accepted my identity and told my family I was gay, having these conversations was something that was important to me. I wanted my kids to be allies, not just for me, but for the queer community at large. I also wanted to make it clear to them that if they fall anywhere within the beautiful LGBTQ+ rainbow, I will accept and love them for who they are.
Still, I understand that if you’re not surrounded by queer folks, it can feel arbitrary or forced to suddenly start talking to your kids about “gay” topics. It helps to keep in mind, though, that you are talking about diversity of love and gender expression. We can all relate to being true to ourselves, right? But what if you don’t really know what to say? What if you yourself feel under-informed? And how the heck does one even begin to explain all of this to a kid?
First, a brief primer on “all those letters”
LGBTQ+ stands for: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, and plus. The plus sign expresses inclusivity for additional identities like gender fluid, nonbinary, pansexual, asexual, and agender. Those letters mean something a little different to each person who uses them, but they are important for representation and inclusion. Inclusivity is a core piece of the LGBTQ+ community. Want to be showered with love and acceptance for your whole entire self? Hang with members of the queer community.
And know that you don’t have to know everything and explain everything perfectly. It’s ok to answer your kid’s question with “I’m not sure, let’s figure that out together!” And it’s ok to Google terms you’re not sure how to explain.
Books are our friend
If you’re looking to be an ally and to raise kids who are allies and will feel safe coming to you with questions, the best way to do that (aside from surrounding yourself with people who are different from you) is through books. Here’s how I sparked an amazing conversation with my kids about gender and sexuality:
I checked out several LGBTQ+ books from the library, and one of them was I Am Jazz. I Am Jazz is a picture book aimed at young readers that explains what it means to be transgender in kid-friendly terms: “I have a girl brain but a boy body.” The book illustrates young Jazz Jenning’s painful feelings when, before socially transitioning (expressing herself outwardly as a girl through clothing, name, and pronouns), her caregivers pressured her to be a boy. I read it to my kids, sometimes stopping to comment with empathy about how it must have felt for Jazz to have to pretend to be something she knew she wasn’t.
My 9-year-old daughter said, “I really feel like a girl. If everyone kept telling me I was a boy and had to cut my hair and wear boy clothes, I would be depressed.”
That gave us an opportunity to talk about how, yes, that would be very sad, but also, is short or long hair or a certain kind of clothing what “make” a person a boy or a girl? What is it that decides a person’s gender? The answer we decided on is that the person living in the body gets to decide their gender because they are the only ones who can truly know their mind and heart.
Whether they’re a girl or a boy or somewhere in between (nonbinary), gender isn’t decided by a person’s body or biological sex. Gender is decided by a person’s mind and heart. And gender expression is how a person shows the world who they are through clothing, hair, and accessories.
Then my 13-year-old son asked, “If a girl is transgender but likes boys... is she gay? Straight? How does that work?” So we got to talk about how gender affects sexuality.
I told my son that gender informs sexuality because it’s part of how a person defines their sexuality (the gender you are + the gender you’re attracted to = your sexuality). But a transgender girl is a girl, so, if she likes boys, that means she could be straight, or heterosexual. It may also mean she is bisexual or pansexual. It is up to each individual to define how their heart falls in love.
The point I emphasised with my son is that some people get hung up on what a transgender person was “before,” but we need to shift our thinking so that we understand and acknowledge that the person is the gender they say they are; they always were that gender. I told him it can be very painful for a transgender person to constantly be reminded of “what they were before” or “what they were born as.”
In general, transgender people see themselves as having been born as the gender they identify with, they were just given the wrong assignment or label at birth. Acknowledging this helps a transgender person feel accepted and affirmed and safe.
This isn’t about sex
Notice that in no part of my talk with my kids did we ever discuss sex. When it comes to LGBTQ+ topics and kids, straight grownups too often jump to the conclusion that these conversations must inherently involve sex. But that isn’t true for gay folks anymore than it is for straight folks.
When you tell your kids about Uncle Joe and his new girlfriend Carrie, do you tell the kids what you think Joe and Carrie are doing in their bedroom? Of course not. Same goes for gay relationships. For kids, defining a relationship is as simple as saying, “They love each other.”
We need to talk to our kids about LGBTQ+ topics so they can be allies and upstanders when necessary. Roughly 3.2 per cent of Australians identify as LGBTQ+, so odds are that every classroom is likely to have at least one LGBTQ+ child in it.
Ensuring our kids are allies can help contribute to that child feeling safe and affirmed both in and out of the classroom. And, even more importantly, showing we are allies means that if one of our kids turns out to identify as LGBTQ+, they will feel confident that we are their safe place to feel unconditionally loved and supported.