The trend toward wider acceptance of alternative sexualities and gender expressions, as evidenced by legalization of gay marriage, the repealing of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the overturning of The Defense of Marriage Act, has had, perhaps, the unanticipated effect of lowering the age at which many GLBT youth come out.
As gay teens become more emboldened to claim their identities without shame, and transgender children as young as five are being allowed to live in their chosen gender in school as well as at home, a new dilemma has surfaced for parents; how do we explain variations not only in sexuality but in gender, to our young children in terms they will understand?
Consider how these discussions might play out around the dinner table, when you as a parent are faced with the difficult task of differentiating sex, sexual orientation and gender for a young child. What do you say, and how do you say it? Here are some simple suggestions for how to address this topic in a straightforward, non-judgmental manner that opens up a discussion between you and your children.
First: Be inquisitive.
Find out why your child is asking these questions. Is there a gender-different child in school? Has a classmate been taunted with anti-gay slurs or bullied for being different? Was your son teased for playing with “girl toys” or your daughter chided for wanting to play football? Or are the questions in response to someone your child has seen outside of school or in the media? Keep in mind that asking questions about sexuality and gender in others can be a child’s way of sorting through some personal feelings about him – or herself, so the tone of your answers can have long-lasting ramifications.
Second: Be direct…
But keep it simple. While examples of gay couples in your own family or community, on TV or in the news should not be hard to find and to hold up as representative of diversity in sexual orientation, you may not know any gender-non-conforming child or adult to refer to. Rather than trying to find examples of gender-different individuals, speak in more general terms. Explain to your child that for many years it was believed that a person born with a boy body always had a boy brain and liked boy things and vice-versa; a person born with a girl body always had a girl brain and liked girl things.
Go on to say that we now know that even though this is usually true, it’s not always so. Many combinations of these traits are common and acceptable; some people who look like boys on the outside feel like girls on the inside, and some who look like girls on the outside feel like boys on the inside, and certainly, the kind of toys a person might like to play with doesn’t mean anything about who that person is. Depending on the child’s age, this may be a sufficient answer. Young children are generally very accepting of differences in others, and may not require anything more than a simple “some people are just happier that way,” while older children might want to know how and why. Perhaps then, a discussion about the biological basis for sex and gender might be in order.
But that’s a different story. For now, let your child’s questions serve as an invitation to start a conversation. For the next few months, I will be writing about issues involving gay and gender non-conforming children. How do you navigate the waters as a parent of such a child, as a friend to a parent of one, or simply as an advocate for fairness and acceptance for all children?