Teen Line originally published this post in July 2016. You can find the original post here.
In this post, we use the word "queer" as an umbrella term for LBTQIA+ people.
We are lucky this week to have a guest blogger. Ric is a former Teen Line listener and a current college student. Thank you, Ric, for your openness and insight into this complicated topic!
Writing parenting advice feels strange as a 21-year-old genderqueer kid just two years into college. My recommendations come without any personal parenting experience or much conversation with parents, but I do know what feels good, what doesn't, and what I wish for as a child living with straight, cisgender parents. The following blog post draws upon discussions with queer peers about what our parents have and haven't done successfully to help us feel supported. While I don't fully understand the parental perspective, I hope this piece helps you all understand my position a bit more so at the very least you can learn why well-intentioned parenting regarding queerness may be met with disdain and frustration.
1. Listen to your child first
While reading articles and such in order to learn more about queerness and understand your child better is fantastic, that knowledge should not be placed on your child as a set of assumptions. Queer identity labels and their attached meanings, as you may have noticed, change rapidly. For example, referring to someone as "transgender" was accepted a few years ago, but now it's offensive, and we typically refer to each other as "trans" or "transgender" people (note the dropped "-ed"). My queer friends and I regularly have different understandings of terms, so the chances that both you and your child share an understanding of terms without having a discussion first really aren't very good.
Even more, your child's identity may undergo frequent change. To cite myself, in a span of 4 years, I have identified as a bisexual boy, a straight boy, a gay boy, a queer boy, and a genderqueer person. That's a lot to keep up with! The key here is to withhold judgment or overt surprise if your child tells you something that doesn't align with what you previously understood about them. This could either be a moment for a discussion or simply an open and affirming acceptance that something has shifted.
With that said, I urge a lot of caution in asking about what exactly your child's queer identity means to them. It's very possible that we are feeling our way around a cacophonous mess that can't be articulated, and pressing us for an explanation becomes a frustrating demand. It's also possible that it's a difficult and uncomfortable topic to discuss with you–sometimes I refuse to even talk about my identity with friends–and that's okay because why does anybody need to know all the details of my sexual and gender identities? What's important is developing a supportive sensitivity to our feelings. Sometimes, that means joining our unknowing. (I say "unknowing" instead of "confusion" because while yes, sometimes figuring out identity is like putting together a monochrome landscape puzzle with shape-morphing pieces, that word has been used against us to discredit our identities.)
How can you help your child without knowing their position? Ask! Ask how you can support us. Ask if there's anything that you could do better and if there's anything that you do that makes us uncomfortable. Maybe that one friend you like to have over rubs us the wrong way, and we would appreciate advanced notice if they'll be around. Maybe we would like you to intervene when family members pepper us with interrogating questions. Maybe our gender pronouns or names have changed, and we'd like for you to start using the language that affirms our identity. If any of our requests seem disruptive to the home life you've built, please understand that we live with this disruption every day.
2. Don't collapse mental health into queerness.
If I come out to you with queer identity and depression at the same time, I have come out to you with two distinct feelings. Being queer in our society poses challenges that should not be ignored, but unless I, myself, have made the connection between my queer oppression/discrimination and depression, then it is absolutely not okay to assume they're related. When people automatically assume my queerness feeds into my mental health, I feel flattered, as if all the challenges I conceivably battle must come from queerness. I feel tokenized when people fail to explore the possibility that this genderqueer mess could be dealing with a death in the family, difficult relationships, or sexual assault, and that during my depression, gender is the last thing on my mind. Please, treat us as the whole and complex people you know us to be.
3. Don't out us.
We understand that if we come out to you, it may disrupt some vision of a future you had for us. It may frighten you because you know it makes us larger targets for hate violence. We get this because it's our reality too learning how poorly society treats queer people, especially nonbinary folks and transwomen, is rough, and it often helps to be able to talk about it with others. Even if you know that your sibling, best friend, or whoever would be accepting and supportive learning that we're queer, you should ask us first out of respect before you share our identity with anyone. If I have learned that someone has outed me, no matter to whom, a bond of trust has been severed because it messes up my life for their convenience. When outed, I have no idea who knows what about me. The uncertainty and speculation invested in every single interaction is exhausting: they seem a little uncomfortable, do they know? Did they just hint that they know? Was that a wink? They seem a little overly friendly today…did that person just ignore me? That person looks really angry at me. Should I run? Feeling "outed," even if it hasn't happened, is a gross experience that can be avoided, at least to a degree. That's where you come in!
Ask us before you share our identity with others. Ask if you can mention it to friend or relative A, B, and C. If we don't want you to talk to anybody at all, respect that and find anonymous channels to talk about what it's like for your child to come out to you–there are endless online communities where these discussions take place. (Check out this online community run by COLAGE.) If you really must to talk to person, find a therapist if you have the means, or work and discuss with us to find someone who doesn't pose a threat, like a friend in another city without any similar-aged kids.
Even with the most compassionate, open, and understanding parenting practices, your child might choose to keep their queer identity silenced. Personally, I do not choose to openly talk about my gender or sexuality with my family. Part of it is that they're all cisgender and straight and I shut them out because I don't think they'll "get it" –it's an evasive move on my part for sure, but one I don't feel obliged to change unless it's explicitly addressed. Another part is that my gender and sexuality feel extremely personal and intimate to me, and those aren't details I regularly disclose to family.
This does not mean that your efforts will go unappreciated! When my mom asked me about my thoughts on the Orlando shooting, I shrugged her off. End of discussion, but the act was not lost. I recognized the openness and willingness to connect she gave me, and I love her for it, even if I did a lousy job of reciprocating her affection. Having a welcoming and understanding space to return to at the end of a rough day can make all the difference, and if you have the means to facilitate that space by adding a few extra check-ins and signs of support, then please do it. The queer existence is often a taxing one and a little extra specific love can go a long way.
At Teen Line, we work to provide personal teen-to-teen education and support before problems become a crisis, using our national hotline and community outreach. Visit our Parents & Caregivers page for more resources and information to help you understand and support teens' mental health as well as promote overall well-being.