By Kate Ryan
I never had The Talk with my parents. We shared the assumption I was having safe, straight sex because I never suggested to them I was doing anything otherwise. So, you can imagine their surprise when I came out as queer at the age of 26. After spending the day in downtown Los Angeles for the Day Without a Woman strike, I’d come home overheated and exhausted. I didn’t expect to open up to my mom when she called and I picked up the phone. When she pressed me for a reason why I was breaking up with my boyfriend of five years, I hadn’t intended to blurt out, “I’m gay.” But that’s exactly what I did.
All she said at first was, “Oh.” A moment passed. Then another. I lay on my bed staring at cracks in the ceiling’s ancient plaster. At last, she said, “That makes sense.”
Even though my mom has been talking about wanting grandchildren since I was old enough to understand reproduction as a concept, as a family, we never talked about the intersection of sex, identity, and relationships—or intimacy at all for that matter. It wasn’t until I was much older that I understood how isolating this lack of open communication had been, how my parents’ assumptions—though rarely vocalized and largely invisible—weighed me down with expectations that made me feel strange and alone when I couldn’t conform.
The messages we don’t receive as kids end up being just as important as those we do. I get that talking to kids about sex can sometimes feel like threading needles with your eyes closed, but for me, having any kind of discussion about the sexual spectrum would’ve been enormously helpful. After talking to friends and experts, I’ve gathered some ways that straight parents can connect with their kids in a way that allows for safe sexual exploration and expression, despite their fears and discomfort.
Pay Attention to How You Talk About Gender
When talking to a queer kid—or any kid for that matter—avoid gendering your language. For instance, instead of speaking in terms of future husbands and wives, refer to future partners and gender-neutral spouses. Ask your kids if they’re crushing on any people at school as opposed to boys or girls. Kids are better at picking up on subtext than we give them credit for, making these small shifts in language incredibly important. While it wasn’t her intention, all my mom’s talk about grandchildren made me feel guilty for entertaining any dreams beyond marrying a man and raising children.
React Without Judgment
“Children will open up about their feelings only if they feel safe doing so,” says Dr. Ron Holt, a psychiatrist and author of PRIDE: You Can’t Heal If You’re Hiding from Yourself. “Using open-ended questions and following their lead is the best way to lead to a healthy and honest discussion about their sexuality.” If your kid mentions that they like someone of the same sex, react nonjudgmentally and and accept that your kid’s feelings or attractions are real and valid. It’s all too common for queer kids to try to ignore their sexual preferences because a parent told them their same-sex attractions were just a phase or a normal part of being straight.
Exploring romantic relationships can be stressful at any age, and for queer kids, there can be the added pressure of having to clearly define their sexuality. Parents can lessen this burden by reassuring their kids the door is always open when it comes to matters of sex, sexuality, and identity. In households where this is the case, “children are much more likely to come to their parents when they are ready to discuss,” Dr. Holt says.
Go Beyond Mere Acceptance
It’s also worth going out of your way to let your kids know queerness is not just normal but something to be celebrated. In a discussion with Jason Black, a producer and LGBTQ activist, he stressed this point, telling me it’s about time we take the discussion beyond “If you’re gay, it’s OK” to something more along the lines of, “If you like a guy, or a girl, or both, here’s how to be safe and respectful of both yourself and that other person.” This is another way parents can pivot away from the misconception cisgendered heterosexuality is the default setting rather than one point on a vast spectrum, while also setting up a larger conversation about respect and consent.
Make It an Ongoing Conversation
While puberty is a classic time to open up the discussion about sex, you can softly start to approach the subject earlier depending on your kid and how curious they are about sex and identity. In Dr. Holt’s mind, there isn’t a wrong time to go about it, as long as you’re rising to the occasion when your child needs you for support and honest advice.
As a culture, we tend to think of it as one big discussion in which all questions are brought to the table and answered factory-line style. In reality, ongoing, casual conversations would be more helpful and less intimidating for both kids and parents—no matter where they fall on the sexual spectrum. There are plenty of online resources to help you out along the way. The CDC has tons of information for LGBTQ youth, as does PFLAG, an organization founded specifically for parents, friends, and allies of the LGBTQ community.
Don’t Worry About Getting Everything ‘Right’
If I’ve learned anything, it’s that straight parents can feel reassured knowing their love and willingness to learn mean more than their ability to master queer terminology. That day I came out to my mom, she told me I was like Julia Roberts in the seminal, egg-sampling scene from Runaway Bride. For those who can’t immediately conjure this scene, Roberts makes and eats eggs using every technique you can imagine after realizing she failed to form opinions of her own in a relentless quest to appease the men in her life. “You need to try all the eggs to know which kind you like,” my mom said, and despite the somewhat grotesque imagery, I knew she was listening and I was loved. Ultimately, that’s what counts.
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