Many parents imagine they would want to be a supportive ally to their child in the event their child comes out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer. When faced with the task to do so, we may become surprised at our difficulty coping with the new information. This is why I always emphasize the need to become an LGBTQ+ affirming parent whether or not your child has or will come out as queer or transgender.
Before coming out
Parents should consider how being a good ally begins long before the coming out conversation. Children are attentive to how issues are discussed and handled within the home. They observe and process how their parents talk about LGBTQ+ people. When homophobic or transphobic attitudes are exhibited within the family, LGBTQ+ children may develop a fearful and avoidant relationship with their parents. When positive and affirming attitudes are exhibited, LGBTQ+ children will feel safer in the home environment.
One way to create an affirming atmosphere for LGBTQ+ children would be to talk about LGBTQ+ individuals in a positive and respectful manner. Maybe there is a relative or family friend that parents can model affirming behaviors around. Parents can also expose their children to tv shows and books that feature LGBTQ+ characters and themes.
Parents should be inclusive in their language when discussing gender and dating with their children. For instance, you can say, “one day when you have a romantic partner” instead of “one day when you have a boyfriend.” This will communicate that it’s okay to have a variety of sexual orientations and/or gender identities. Take some time to consider and challenge the heterosexual and cisgender assumptions that underly much of traditional child rearing practices. Remember that biological sex doesn’t equal gender identity, and gender isn’t something that can assumed by looking at someone. How is your social behavior and use of language gendered in ways you haven’t thought about before?
What are your reactions to these suggestions? Take some time to notice your feelings at this moment. Heteronormativity and cisnormativity are terms for the assumption that heterosexuality and cisgender identity are the norms in our society. It is normal and expected for parents to struggle with unlearning these norms. While there are many resources for parents to acquire support in this process, they must take on this work as their own, rather than burdening their child with explaining or justifying their identity and existence.
I always recommend that parents process their feelings and reactions to the idea that their child might be queer or transgender before the coming out discussion. Creating an inclusive and affirming home environment regardless of whether or not your child is LGBTQ+ has benefits either way you look at it. If your child is queer or transgender, having done this work will greatly reduce the potential for psychological harm while building a safe and trusting family environment. If your child is heterosexual and cisgender, you will have raised an informed and respectful individual who has a more secure relationship to their identity – because it wasn’t assumed since birth.
During coming out
The first “do” of supporting your child would be to separate your process of coping with your reactions from how you respond to your child. If your child comes out to you as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer, acknowledge that this must have been hard to share. Thank them for trusting you enough to come out.
Remind your child that you love them. Remind them that your feelings for them will not change while also acknowledging the importance of this part of their experience, personality, and identity. Avoid the “it doesn’t matter” response. Affirmation doesn’t mean pretending there is no difference. This distinction is akin to the difference between a “colorblind” approach to racial discussions with children versus acknowledging, discussing, and celebrating differences. Your child might want you both to support them as you always have while also making some adjustments to how you perceive or treat them.
Ask your child what kind of support you can offer. Your child might or might not have an answer for you at that moment. Although you might have all kinds of questions, it’s important to not immediately burden your child with educating you or managing your anxieties. You can simply let your child know that you are open to discussion when and if needs come up.
Common parental reactions include “Are you sure?” and the idea that it might be some kind of phase. I’ll save you some time right now: They are sure, and it’s not a phase. Even parents who feel they are LGBTQ+ positive struggle with these reactions. These are understandable reactions for a variety of reasons, and they are for parents to handle with their own resources and on their own time.
After coming out
After the coming out conversation, take some time to reflect on your feelings. It is common to feel uncertain, to question the legitimacy of your child’s identity, or to fear that harm might come to your child for being queer or transgender in a homophobic and transphobic world. Seek counseling or group support from other parents of LGBTQ+ children. Managing these reactions will be necessary for supporting your child. My Kid is Gay (https://www.mykidisgay.com/) and PFLAG (https://pflag.org/) are two great resources for parents. For those with transgender or nonbinary children that may feel anxious about grasping the appropriate terminology and language, the GLAAD Media Reference Guide (https://www.glaad.org/reference/transgender) is a helpful resource.
Take some time to assess what level of familiarity you have with LGBTQ+ concepts, issues, and culture. Having a gay sibling, non-binary cousin, or trans man for a friend doesn’t mean there is nothing left to learn. Expand your knowledge of queer culture. You can watch LGBTQ+ television shows or films, visit LGBTQ+ social spaces, attend LGBTQ+ events, or talk to the LGBTQ+ individuals already in your life. Identify LGBTQ+ resources in your area that might be helpful for your LGBTQ+ child.
Continue to offer space to discuss your child’s experience of coming out and the implications for having done so. Let your child take the lead beyond your general offering of support. You can hold onto your questions (“Are you dating anybody?” “What resource can I connect you to?” “Do you have LGBTQ+ friends?”) for when they come up in conversation led by your child.
Don’t push your child to come out more than they already have. They might not be ready for their grandparents or cousins to know. Support your child in taking the lead with these questions. On your end, you should avoid “outing” your child to others without their consent. You can also disclose your child’s identity to others when and if your child requests your assistance with this.
Physical and verbal bullying in school can become an issue for some LGBTQ+ children and youth. Remember: This is a problem with our society, not your child. You can ask your child if they are out at school, if they’ve experienced bullying, and if they require additional support in the school setting. If your child is transgender and wishes to transition into use of different pronouns at school, conversations with teachers and school administration might be one way to support your child.
Family therapy can be a helpful resource for navigating processes of social and/or medical transitions for queer and transgender youth, as well as a range of issues related to coming out. I recommend family therapy when parents demonstrate interest, willingness, and ability to learn and support their child. I don’t recommend family therapy when parents haven’t taken any time to confront and overcome their internalized homophobia or transphobia first – in these cases, family therapy can cause damage to LGBTQ+ children and youth.
Lastly, remember the importance of community. Look up LGBTQ+ youth groups and events in your area. If you live in a small town, this might require traveling to a nearby city. Fostering a diverse and affirming sense of community for your child will be crucial for their developmental growth, identity formation, and mental health. It can also be fun. Remember, coming out is something to celebrate!
Reach out to learn more about LGBTQ+ counseling.
Written by Luke Romano, M.Phil.Ed., M.S.Ed.
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