What’s The Issue?
In today’s world, many children are being raised in open-minded and accepting households, especially those with younger parents. However, teens and young adults born as recently as the turn of the century still find themselves in families where the mere thought of homosexuality is brushed aside and even outright disparaged. Especially in the South, being gay or transgender is something that most parents would never want for their children, and as such, they often gloss over it or ignore it completely when raising their children. This refusal to acknowledge what could be a vital part of their child’s identity can lead to tense parent-child relationships, lowered self-esteem for the child, and even mental illness and suicidal thoughts and actions in the child.
By refusing to discuss sexual orientations other than heterosexuality, parents can be setting their children up for years of confusion, self-loathing, and repressed emotions. If a child doesn’t hear anything about the LGBT community from their parents, they usually lean toward the assumption that their parents have a negative opinion of the community. This, of course, results in the child not wanting to come out to their parents if they realize they are LGBT. Youths with parents who are unaware of their child’s sexuality are more likely to experience internalized homophobia due to not having direct family support toward their sexuality, which can compound on itself until the child’s mental health is compromised as a result. Additionally, if a child perceives their parents to be homophobic, it often takes them longer to gather the courage to come out, thereby allowing even more time for their internalized homophobia to cause permanent emotional damage.
Where’s The Proof?
This subliminal message of homophobia from parents can be seen across the world, but is particularly prominent in the American South. For my local resource, I chose to stay simple and use my school’s gay affinity group, UNITED. When we meet, we usually discuss a few issues going on in our daily life, but more than anything, it’s just a place to hang out and be unabashedly ourselves. With the attitude of the new presidential administration toward the LGBT community, things have been a bit tenser in the group at times, especially for the few trans people in the group. Hearing some students’ concerns about their safety and livelihood due to the administration and their own parents made me realize how detrimental a parent’s negative attitude toward LGBT issues can be for kids. I’m lucky enough to be cis, as well as the child of incredibly open-minded and liberal parents, so that hasn’t been a huge issue for me at home, although of course I also feel the negative effects of homophobia at school and in public.
I realized that I could get a good idea of the general home life for LGBT students at my school by interviewing several of the kids in UNITED and asking them about their parents and how they raised them. I ended up asking them primarily about how they were raised, rather than what their parents say to them now, since I think that how a parent acts before they’re aware of their child’s sexuality is often more indicative of their true feelings than how they act after their child comes out to them. Several of the people I interviewed are in fact still not out to their parents as a direct result of the attitude their parents have toward the LGBT community, which I think is really noteworthy (NOTE: For this reason, not every person interviewed has a photo attached). It was so hard to hear people who I consider some of my closest friends tell me about their childhood, and how afraid they are to be themselves in their own homes, but I think it’s indescribably important to make sure people are aware of how these attitudes can affect LGBT kids, regardless of how hard it is to hear.
By interviewing members of the LGBT community at my school in Atlanta, GA, I found powerful evidence of the damage that this message can cause in young people, especially in a community already predominantly steeped in homophobia. Before reading these interviews, though, I invite you to take a moment to reflect on the messages you received while growing up by taking this survey.
What were you told as a child about romance/sex? (i.e., gender roles, dating, courting, etc.)
“I was taught the ‘norms’ — there were boys and girls only. Boys were supposed to be gentlemen and dress up like boys — shirts, jeans, shorts, etcetera. Girls were supposed to dress up like girls — colorful shirts, skirts, dresses, etcetera. I had to act like a girl. When it came to dating, I was told that boys always asked the girl out.” — V (cis female, gay)
“I had a few bullies when I was younger, the vast majority of them being boys. They would pick on me day in and day out, harassing me in the hallways, and the moment I brought the situation to my parents both brushed it off as them having crushes on me. I was raised with a very distinctly ‘boys will be boys’ mindset, courtesy of my dad. Gender roles in dating such as the guy being the one to ask the girl out were very commonly told to me. As for sex ed, I basically had none when I was younger, as my parents assumed I had learned in it school, so my sexual education was digital-born, with occasional supplementation by my oldest sister.” — Z (cis female, pansexual)
“I was taught that romance is sweet, but should be kept private unless demanded by the public. My ‘relationships’ were always supposed to be a family affair, and everything was supposed to be very official. Sex wasn’t even discussed in my household. O never got ‘the talk’ about sex, it was just ‘don’t get pregnant.’ There was never any discussion of protection or that it’s okay to even have sex for fun or your own pleasure. My boyfriend would ask my father for permission to date me, he would intimidate my boyfriend, and my entire extended family would get a say. It was taught to me that I am not allowed to date, and I quote, ‘weenies,’ or anyone less than ‘perfect.'” — G (cis female, bisexual)
“I wasn’t told anything about sex aside from abstinence until marriage. As for romance, I was told to always hold the door open for a lady, pull out her chair when she sits down, etcetera.” — M (cis male, bisexual)
“I wasn’t explicitly told that dating could only exist between men and women, but I wasn’t told otherwise, so it was implied that only ‘hetero’ dating existed. I was told that women were supposed to grow up and get married — to a man, obviously — and have children, and husbands were supposed to ‘take care of the family.’ I was taught how hetero sex works, and it was implied that I shouldn’t have sex ’til marriage.” — B (non-binary, gay)
“I was told every single time that it was always between a man and a woman, and that anything else was weird and not normal. The connotation used almost always presented the woman as the man’s property.” — W (cis male, bisexual)
“I was told that when I would get older, I could date a cute boy and have my first kiss, and later I could get married, and we would be happy and have kids and I could have a kitchen just like the plastic kitchen set I got for Christmas.” — J (cis female, pansexual)
Were you told these things in accordance with assumed heterosexuality, or in an open context?
“I was told this by my mother, who assumed I was straight, of course. But when I was a child, I always dressed up like a tomboy, nothing girly, and my mom didn’t care about it.” — V
“Everything I was taught up until the 5th grade was highly heteronormative information, with the restrictions on my knowledge even extending to my gay aunts. I was told they were just good friends up until the moment I heard news of their engagement. I didn’t even know the concept of homosexuality existed until my sister mentioned it to me offhandedly around the 5th or 6th grade. I am thankful that my parents did not have homophobic views, but it was still a tense subject that was inherently somewhat taboo in our household.” — Z
“Any time I showed an interest in boys growing up, my family would tease me relentlessly to the point where I shut down all romantic feelings at all. Shoving down ideas of homosexuality and even heterosexuality really f*cked me up to the point that I still have anxiety attacks over going on dates or making things official.” — G
“These things were said to me under the assumption that I was straight, there wasn’t really any mention of gay sex or gender roles.” — M
“I was told these things in accordance with assumed heterosexuality.” — W
“It was definitely assumed I would be heterosexual. It wasn’t even that anything other than heterosexuality wasn’t an option, I just don’t think it was something anybody thought about ever, let alone considering that I might be heterosexual or get married to a boy. Or even get married at all.” – J
Did it end up applying to your sexuality? (was it still useful information/advice?)
“It wasn’t really helpful since I didn’t end up being straight, so, you know, all the ‘boy asking girl’ stuff was not needed.” — V
“It was partially useful information, but I can’t see myself dating a woman in the near future, so I’m not sure how much it will help in the short-term.” — M
“All of those things were told to me with assumed heterosexuality, and literally none of it has applied to my life so far.” — B
“It kept me from accepting myself for a really long time, just knowing that who I like wasn’t acceptable.” — W
“I think that what I was told (your first kiss will happen, your first date will happen, sex is something that comes later after marriage and is very special) applied to my life in general. I think that I definitely realized later that sex is much less of a big deal than I was told, and kissing too, but I don’t think any of this necessarily wrongly affected my sexuality. Probably only the idea that a guy kisses a girl, asks a girl to marry him, the dominant male stereotype in general is different because once I thought about dating a girl that stereotype wasn’t part of the equation.” — J
What do you wish you had/had not been told? (will you teach your own children differently?)
“I wish I was not told that everything had to be the way as God intended, or as my parents intended, because I was afraid of experimenting or doing things that weren’t holy or allowed by my parents, because I would be punished. I wish I was told that being different is okay. I wish my parents were more liberal when it came to their children so then I wouldn’t have such a hard time accepting myself or hating myself for the way I am. It took me a long time to love myself.” — V
“I wish I had been taught more; because a lot of my information was internet based, a disconnect in the communication between my parents and I was created. Because of this, a lot of confusion concerning my sexuality blossomed, and in that regard I wish that my parents had been a little more open or had given me a little more information on the subject. The subject of sexuality also garnered a sense of stress and tension in my mind, due to the reasoning of, ‘if they won’t even talk about it, they can’t possibly be 100% accepting.'” — Z
“When I came out to my parents, they figured I’m just experimenting and don’t actually know what I’m talking about. Here’s what I was taught: be yourself as long as you get along with everyone. Here’s what I wish I was taught instead: don’t be afraid to be someone others may not like, as long as you’re happy.” — G
“I wish I had been told more about how gay and bisexual men are at a higher risk for HIV and AIDS, and about the drug culture surrounding gay sex. I also wish I had been told more about how gay sex works? We had diagrams of straight sex in health class, but nothing about gay sex, for obvious reasons.” — M
“I wish I was taught that you can marry whoever regardless of gender, that you don’t have to identity as your assigned gender, that those able to carry children don’t necessarily have to, that adoption isn’t a ‘less than’ way to raise children. Having not been taught any of that, I had to figure it all out on my own which was pretty scary and lonely. I was a lot more hesitant to date people than my hetero classmates because I didn’t know my feelings were normal and okay. Even though I’m asexual, it would be nice to have at least mentioned that hetero sex isn’t the only kind of sex possible because it leaves me clueless if I ever want to become sexually active.” — B
“I wish I had grown up being told that you should love who you want to love as the norm, instead of heterosexual norms — like, even the ‘birds and the bees’ talk should have started out with ‘if’ instead of just ‘when a man blah, blah, blah, a woman.'” — W
“I mean I found out that bisexuality existed in the tenth grade, years after I had been questioning myself. I found out pansexuality, my sexuality, existed two months after I came out in the first place. When I was little all I knew was that Ellen was lesbian, and that that wasn’t necessarily bad, but that it was a concept far removed from anybody’s life and especially mine. I wish I’d just known that heterosexuality isn’t the only thing that exists and I’d had more information as to the possibilities of sexuality, and my kids will know this too.” — J
How did these things shape your life as you came into the start of your romantic/sexual life?
“I had to find out some things for myself — like contraceptives for LGBT people, because STDs are things that no one wants. I had some help from older friends who were or are gay when I was a ‘baby gay,’ because I didn’t know how to talk to a girl as well as now, and they gave me some dating tips.” — V
“While I wish my parents had talked with me more about these issues, at the same time, I’m glad that they didn’t. It allowed me to find an honest, unbiased identity that I felt fit me; had I not done the research, I’m sure I would have still been woefully uneducated on the matter.” — Z
“I don’t have a romantic or sexual life currently, but as far as trying to figure out how to flirt with guys, it’s more awkward than when I do it with girls because of our heteronormative culture not making room for instruction on that front.” — M
“This really kept me depressed and worried that I would end up marrying someone I couldn’t be attracted to. But as soon as I surrounded myself with people in the community that I had feared to be a member of I realized those fears were irrational and that there is no happiness like the happiness of kissing someone you’re actually attracted to.” — W
“I had my first crush in fifth grade and my first crush on a girl in sixth grade, and my parents took pictures of me and my cute little boyfriend in fifth grade and encouraged him to kiss me on the cheek, and then I was sitting in the backseat of a car a year later wondering what was wrong with me because I thought that girl was beautiful. Not knowing what I was made me feel not-valid in my sexuality and think ‘what if I am lesbian’ — but we didn’t talk about that in my family — at the same time as ‘but I like boys!,’ let alone not knowing that gender was fluid and that I could be attracted to people that aren’t cis.” — J
What Have We Learned?
Obviously, an enormous portion of a child’s early life is spent at home with their parents, and this is where they receive most of their early information about life and identity. As a result, getting negative messages about homosexuality and being transgender can really hurt these children as they grow up and can find themselves attracted to their same sex, or find themselves identifying as a gender they were not assigned at birth. This kind of conflicting message can dramatically hurt children developmentally, and leave them confused, hurt, and sometimes mentally ill. By making an effort to learn about the LGBT community and be more openminded when raising their children, parents can ensure that their children never feel unsafe or unloved in their own home, and that they grow up feeling confident and safe in being open with their family. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has numerous resources for parents to make use of to educate themselves on the LGBT community and how to positively foster their child’s identity, thereby ensuring that they feel safe, loved, and able to be unashamedly and completely themselves.
Since the messages parents give to their children begin affecting them at such a young age, it is a parent’s responsibility to stay openminded and receptive to any identity their child might adopt. Children begin retaining their parents’ comments and opinions at a far younger age than many people realize, and as a result, a parent’s earliest lessons for their children can be retained well into adulthood — and some of these lessons become incredibly damaging as a child grows up and tries to create their own identity. A child’s first relationship is with their parents, and as such, it should be a healthy one. When parents make intentional or offhand comments that can later hint at a lack of acceptance of their child’s identity, this kind of disconnect can lead to the disintegration of healthy parent-child relationships. By staying openminded from the very beginning, parents can make sure they are always promoting self-acceptance and self-love, and always supporting their child, no matter who they love or what pronouns they use.
Here’s what we can do about it. Our generation is the future of the world — we will grow up soon enough and have children of our own. How we raise them is up to us. If we raise them with open minds and open hearts, we could be raising a generation of children who are comfortable and confident in who they are. We can’t make assumptions about who our children will love, but we can do everything in our power to love them for who they are. Children are influenced by their parents, and soon enough, we will be those parents. So, take a vow to remember to raise your children to be kind, openminded, and loving, rather than teaching them stereotypes and hate. Consider these last few questions as you finish reading this, and if you feel so moved, feel free to leave answers to them in the comments section!
- What would my life be like now if I had been raised to be more openminded? Would I be more comfortable with my identity, and happier overall?
- How can I ensure that my children (if I choose to have them) will never have to feel the uncertainty of whether or not their parents will support who they love?
- How can I teach my child that any identity, any gender, any sexual orientation, is okay? How do I teach them that love is love, no matter what form it comes in? And can I teach myself that exact same thing?
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D’Augelli, Anthony, R., Scott L. Hershberger, and Neil W. Pilkington. “Suicidality Patterns and Sexual Orientation-Related Factors among Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Youths.” Suicide & Life – Threatening Behavior 31.3 (2001): 250-64. ProQuest. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.
Shilo, Guy, and Riki Savaya. “Effects of Family and Friend Support on LGB Youths’ Mental Health and Sexual Orientation Milestones.” Family Relations, vol. 60, no. 3, 2011, pp. 318–330. JSTOR. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.
Silenzio, Vincent M. B., et al. “Sexual Orientation and Risk Factors for Suicidal Ideation and Suicide Attempts among Adolescents and Young Adults.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 97, no. 11, Nov. 2007, pp. 2017-2019. EBSCOhost. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.
Rotheram-Borus, Mary, and M. I. Fernandez. “Sexual Orientation and Developmental Challenges Experienced by Gay and Lesbian Youths.” Suicide & Life – Threatening Behavior 25 (1995): 26,34; discussion 35-9. ProQuest. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.