A father talks to his middle school age daughter at the breakfast table about LGBTQ+ issues

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How to talk with kids about LGBTQ+ issues

  • Talking about LGTBQ+ topics with young people requires thoughtfulness and practice.
  • LGBTQ+ topics involve more than sexuality. It includes how you identify yourself and others along with the roles we play in our community.
  • Intersectionality recognizes and describes separate but overlapping identities within each of us that impact our life and our role in the world.

I admit it. Talking about LGTBQ+ topics with a child can seem daunting. Even as a self-identified gay cis-man, talking about LGTBQ+ topics with youth requires my thoughtfulness and practice. Just like anything in parenting and in life, I can do my best but will not get everything right all the time. As a parent, while I teach and share my values with my daughter frequently, I also recognize that it is important to accept her autonomy as she grows and develops. Building a relationship on this premise can go a long way toward creating a strong, loving, enduring bond. That bond can help navigate complex and nuanced conversations such as those involved with LGBTQ+ topics.

While I certainly don’t have all the answers, here are some thoughts that may help you navigate your own conversations with the young people in your life.

What does LGBTQ+ stand for?

L=Lesbian

G=Gay

B=Bisexual

T=Transgender

Q=Queer/Questioning

+ =signifies all the variations of sexuality and gender identity.

LGBTQ+ topics involve more than sexuality. It includes how you identify yourself and others along with the roles we play in our community.

Understanding the difference between gender and sexuality

The LGBTQ+ community encompasses gender, sexuality and more. For example, the “T” for transgender is about gender not sexuality. The Q and the + in LGBTQ+ designate other nuances of identity. Queerness is defined differently by different people, but generally means you take pride in being different than expected by others. The “+” includes gender expressions and numerous sexual orientations.

What is sexuality?

Sexuality is the interpersonal expression that includes attraction, desire, sexual activity, courtship, dating, and emotional and physical connection. While gender includes sexuality for many people, they are different concepts. The relationship between your gender and sexuality is an example of intersectionality. Intersectionality recognizes and describes separate but overlapping identities within each of us that impact our life and our role in the world. Using a lens of intersectionality can help us understand our own identity as well as that of others.

What is gender?

I think of gender as a role we play in our culture. We are assigned to a group that is expected to do or not do certain things based on our gender. This can include how you groom yourself, how you dress, the type of work you do, the recreational activities in which you participate, and the family roles you play.

Talking about similarities and differences

Classification is a normal developmental skill for pre-school age children. Grouping things as “similar” and “different” is an appropriate cognitive task for young children between the ages of three to five. At this age, talking about a gender non-conforming person can help teach children empathy.

For example, when explaining in preschool appropriate terms someone who is a male to female transgender person, I might say: “There are boys who feel like boys inside and boys who don’t feel like boys inside. Some people feel like girls inside but are born with body parts like a penis and that’s OK.”

Talking about gender and gender roles

Gender is often associated with biological sex, which mostly relates to body parts involved in reproduction. “Male” and “female” are terms that indicate what role in reproduction a person plays. “Man” and “woman” are gender terms that refer specifically to humans. When you think about men or women you have a conscious or an unconscious idea of what this person does, looks like, represents and perhaps doesn’t do.

As children gain more understanding of complex concepts they can understand more complex ideas about gender. 

For example, you can talk about how some people have XX (or female) chromosomes, some people have XY (or male) chromosomes. Others may have an XXY combination. Variations in sex chromosomes and genes can result in a variety of body part possibilities found in a relatively small number of people worldwide.

How gender roles are shifting

Gender roles can reinforce or limit your identity. Sometimes your gender role suits your interests and skills, and sometimes it does not. When the roles don’t fit it can have a big, negative impact on your life, mental health, and ability to contribute to the best of your ability in your community.

In the US, gender society roles have shifted a lot in my lifetime. Worldwide, different societies, communities and cultures create roles for men and women that may differ from one another. At least for some people in the US we are now expanding how we define gender and gender roles. It makes me personally happy to see athletes like Leo Baker be able to maintain their professional status as skateboarder and Marbie Miller to become a professional skateboarder while each publicly lives their truth in gender. These personal stories may be helpful in talking to older children about gender.

Understand your own perspective before talking to children

  • Is it important to you how another person identifies and behaves?
  • Does it affect your life? If so in what ways and how?
  • In what ways do your thoughts, expressions and actions affect the lives of others?

It may help to answer these questions in a writing exercise or discussion with others. Talking about LGBTQ+ identities with children is really an example of talking about these bigger questions in your community. Recognizing this will help build understanding of yourself and others.

Here are some thoughts to get you started:

  • Assess and understand your own knowledge of gender and your comfort talking about sexuality and gender.
  • It’s important to have a good understanding of your own values and to disclose and identify these values to the young people in our lives.
  • Practice empathy, working to understand the experiences and perspectives of others to inform how you talk about similarities and differences.
  • Talk about sexuality and gender using age-appropriate, proper biological terms for body parts and body functions.
  • If you aren’t sure, it’s OK to say “I don’t know, but let’s find someone who does.”
  • Practice with language to become more comfortable.
  • Observe for changes in an older child’s behavior, mood, or school performance. This can be a sign of bullying, cyberbullying, or an internal struggle. Whether you are a peer or an adult, finding a way to help that child talk about such topics with a trusted and understanding adult is important.
  • Affinity bias attracts us to build connections with those that are like oneself, that share one’s values. It’s OK to recognize this and work toward building and strengthening your connections with people and cultures who are both similar and different to you.

Resources to help your conversations:

  • “Families Like Mine,” by Abigail Garner - a book that includes some excellent and sometimes challenging testimonials from children of LGBTQ+ parents.
  • “What Make’s a Baby,” by Cory Silverberg - for very young audiences, uses body part language and biology in a matter-of-fact way that young minds can understand.
  • “Neither,” by Airlie Anderson - for preschool ages tells a story about being different, fitting in, and the experiences of not being accepted, accepting others, and being accepted by others.
  • “How to be a Lion,” by Ed Vere - for preschool ages that tells a story about feeling different inside from how others expect you to be.

Establishing and maintaining open communication with the young people in our lives is the path I suggest in navigating topics that are complicated or confusing. Speak your truth and lead with love and compassion. If we do this, we can help those around us, including people who identify as gender non-conforming and LGBTQ+.

 

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