We now live in a world where diversity often spans past race, and being aware of the various ways that diversity comes into our lives has to be a daily practice. In the series, Diversity Matters, I’ll be sharing insights from mental health professionals about how to discuss a variety of diversity issues with our children.
Read on to see what Marlene and Dr. Lowenthal have to say about discussing this topic in your home!
One of the many issues that the LGBT community has to cope with is being different. And, as your child socializes and interacts with others, they will definitely recognize some of those differences. But, no matter what your stance is on the subject, it is imperative that we have the right language for talking about differences with our children. Marlene explained, “Many different family and relationship constellations exist, where children are raised in blended, divorced, single or two parent households and relationships.” This truth can be talked about with your child who may see their friends who have two parents of the same sex. Again, the idea is to help your child recognize and respect differences.
But, it can be difficult to know how to word certain issues. This is especially true if you are not familiar with, or comfortable with talking about, the LGBT community. Dr. Lowenthal suggests the following: “It’s always appropriate to take into consideration the age of the child. For instance talking to a 5 year old will prove to be different than an older child.” She further explains that “for younger kids, I find that simpler is better.” According to Dr. Lowenthal, you can say things like “Sometimes men and women are couples and sometimes two men and two women can be a couple.” Still, Trans* identified people (as Dr. Lowenthal corrected me with the politically correct term) it can be even more difficult to explain to our children. Again, language is very important. Dr. Lowenthal suggests saying, “That person has always felt like a boy, and so they are living as a boy” or “Our friend doesn’t feel like they are really a boy or a girl, so they are going to live in a way that makes them happy and comfortable.” I appreciated not only being corrected on how to correctly display the word Trans*, but also the straight forward examples that Dr. Lowenthal shared. Remember, we are models for our children and teaching them the proper way to identify and address others is just as crucial as teaching them to accept others.
Both Marlene and Dr. Lowenthal felt that explaining the LGBT community with facts and with simple language is best, especially for younger children. While for older children, Dr. Lowenthal suggest more information is best. I agree with this sentiment as older children have to cope with being friends and social with peers who identify as LGBT. Marlene also agrees with giving more information to older children because “we live in a changing world and they hear about it in school, among peers, through media, in the news and when it comes to politics.” Additionally, both Dr. Lowenthal and Marlene agreed that the major side effect of talking about the LGBT community with your child that they can be a better ally to their peers and in their community. They learn how to be supportive and can even deflect the bullying of an LGBT peer. Marlene cemented the importance of talking to your child about being supportive: “LGBT youth live with isolation, fear and anxiety that could lead to suicide if they don’t have support when life gets tough.” Furthermore, I encourage older kids to get involved with their school’s Gay-Straight Alliance or find LGBT community groups (see “Resources” below for some ideas) to learn more about the LGBT community in a safe way.
Digging deeper into the discussion, I asked Marlene what it means to be LGBT. She answered, “Being bisexual, gay or lesbian is part of the way people are interested in the same sex on an intimate and emotional level.” But, she was also clear about what it means to experiment or be curious, explaining, “Just because someone has a fantasy or is experimenting with the same sex does not mean they are bisexual, gay or lesbian.” This was an interesting point for me because I know that a lot of our pop culture equally glorifies and shames experimentation based on gender. Marlene enlightened me on the issue: “LGBT youth might feel different, guilty, worry or sense a rejection by peers while not getting the support they deserve. Discovering that the family and friends they thought they knew – they never knew at all leave bruises to the heart that can’t be seen. Growing into the person they would like to be can be difficult when people who were supposed to love them unconditionally are saying they have to continue to live life based certain values or beliefs or fear of embarrassment to the local community.” This comment really struck me because I know that if we think it’s a phase or we think our child is just experimenting we are not providing them with the safest environment to really explore what being LGBT means for them. Marlene adds that “coming out is a process” and to “be sensitive to the journey.” She further asserts that, “People are not only coming out to themselves; but also to family, friends and acquaintances.” When you are stuck wondering if your child is experimenting or is actually coming out as LBGT, it is important to get support so that you can create a healthy space for your child to come out, talk about their process, and be confident in their own sexuality.
Continuing with having a conversation with your child about the LGBT community Dr. Lowenthal suggests, “Wait until you have some quiet time and ask questions which will enable you to understand your child’s perception.” While Marlene stated that talking about the Trans* community it’s important to remember, “Being trans* exists on a continuum where their unique experiences and expressions are what matters.” They both agreed that shying away from these discussions can be more harmful than helpful. Instead of focusing on the horror of exposing your child to a subject that may influence their sexuality, I challenge parents to talk about the LGBT community inclusively and not as a separate part of humanity. Dr. Lowenthal sums this sentiment up beautifully, “Perhaps they will encounter someone in their life at home or school that identifies as an LGBQ or Trans* person, or the child themselves may come to feel one of those identities fits them. Knowing information early can help prevent so many of the self-esteem damaging experiences that LGBQ and Trans* individuals face.”
So, now that you’ve opened the discussion and have braved through some of your child’s questions, let’s talk about squashing those myths that surround the LGBT community. These myths, in my opinion, perpetuate the self loathing and self hate that often comes with identifying as LGBT. As a parent, whether your child identifies as LGBT or not, you have the power to help dispel these harmful biases when you talk with your child. Marlene says, “One of the myths that might need to be addressed is that being part of the LGBT community is not a disease nor contagious.” And, further asserts that kids “understand love” so “inclusion of diversity creates a safe place and space where issues of homophobia, equality, justice, freedom, blended families, and privilege can be explored.” Furthermore, Dr. Lowenthal wants the myth of choice to be dispelled, explaining that “helping children understand there is mounting evidence that being gay is the way a person is born. It is not a choice and therefore, gay people cannot change, nor should they. Teaching acceptance is a lesson that helps children view and perceive a group from a place of empathy, rather than judgment or fear.” Overall, the idea is that as you discuss the LGBT community with your child focus on teaching them that “being an ally, advocate and helping peers by reaching out and being a good friend when you see others hardship” is more about inclusion than focusing on the biases, Marlene shared.
Essentially, Marlene and Dr. Lowenthal believe that talking about the LGBT community with your child does not have to be an excruciating burden. If your focus is on inclusion, respect, acceptance, and being a supportive ally then your message will be clear to your child. Even for the parent that is unsure of their own stance on the issue, keeping your own biases out of the conversation and sharing that love is love no matter who you give it to can make all the difference in your child developing their understanding of the LGBT community. In her final words, Marlene encourages “Be gentle with yourself and embrace that innocent curiosity and make room to explore the issue together. There might be a valuable lesson for all of you where you connect and get closer when you allow it to flow without resistance even if your belief or opinion differ. This is an opportunity to grow.” And, Dr. Lowenthal agrees, sharing that “demonstrating curiosity and respect for ALL is the best way to model positivity! Share positive stories or media representations that you may come across. If you hear a joke or comment that is disparaging of gay or trans* folks, speak up and point out that it is unacceptable. Your actions (and inactions) communicate volumes to your children.”
Resources for talking about, and being supporting of, the LGBT community: