“Mom, I’m gay.”
“Dad, I’m trans.”
“I’m non-binary, and I want to start using they/them pronouns.”
Do you know how you would respond if your child came out to you? Do you have a belief system that would make it difficult to understand or accept this part of your child? Let this article serve as a guide for how to navigate this important disclosure.
If you are unfamiliar with some of the terminology used in this article, check out this website that provides helpful and clear definitions: https://www.hrc.org/resources/glossary-of-terms
Why Your Support Matters
There are numerous reasons why it is important to support all aspects of your child’s identity. Whether you take a biological perspective or an environmental one, countless studies have shown a link between a supportive, affirming home and a child’s future physical and mental well-being.
Being part of the LGBTQ+ community is not a choice, but rather an integral part of someone’s identity. Brain scans have even shown that trans individuals have brains that more closely resemble their gender identity than their biological sex; i.e. someone assigned female at birth who identifies as a trans man has a brain that looks more like a cis man’s brain than a cis woman’s brain.
Perhaps the strongest argument for why your support matters is that it could literally save the life of your LGBTQ+ child. As reported by The Trevor Project in 2021, “LGBTQ youth who had access to spaces that affirmed their sexual orientation and gender identity reported lower rates of attempting suicide than those who did not”, and only 1 in 3 LGBTQ+ youth find their home to be affirming.
Even if you are struggling with acceptance, it is absolutely necessary to support and affirm your child’s identity. You could very well be saving their life.
How to Support Your LGBTQ+ Child
Take their lead. When your child comes out as LGBTQ+, they may want to have a conversation about it or they may just want you to know. Take their lead on how to proceed with the conversation, regardless of what you are feeling. If they linger around after coming out, ask them questions, such as “How are you feeling after telling me that?” or “Is there anything else you’re wanting to share with me?” If their body language suggests that they want to exit the conversation, simply thank them for trusting you.
Be compassionately honest. Your child probably already has some sense of how you will react to this news, and you don’t want to be disingenuous. However, it is important to avoid placing blame, shame, or responsibility on your child for your own feelings. If your own belief system brings up difficult emotions, saying something like “Thank you for trusting me with this piece of you. I need some time to process what I’m feeling, but I want you to know that this does not change my love for you,” appropriately conveys that message.
Ask questions and be open to the answers. If you aren’t sure what terms such as “trans”, “non-binary”, or “pansexual” mean, it is okay to ask. In fact, it shows an interest in what is being discussed. Be sure you are asking questions from a place of curiosity and to understand, rather than to judge or respond to, the answer.
Do not disclose their LGBTQ+ identity unless given permission. It is not okay to come out for your child without their expressed permission (otherwise known as “outing” someone). It is preferable to have previously discussed with your child how they prefer you respond in different social situations, e.g. “Do you want me to use they/them pronouns when I’m talking with grandma?” or “How do you want me to respond if Aunt Theresa asks me if you have a boyfriend?” If you find yourself in a social situation and are unsure how to respond, it is often better to err on the side of caution and assume others don’t know.
Be prepared for changes in identity. It is now well-known that one’s gender identity and sexual orientation can be fluid. In fact, some people identify as gender fluid. A child who has previously come out as non-binary may realize that they are actually trans. A child who has previously come out as a lesbian may realize that they identify more with the pansexual identity. This is okay, and this is normal. Importantly, this does not mean that someone’s gender identity or sexual orientation isn’t valid just because it may shift or evolve over time.
Use the correct pronouns. If your child is requesting for you to use different pronouns, this will be difficult. Do it anyway. This is one of the most powerful ways you can affirm your child’s identity. Since you are a human, you will mess this up, and that is okay. The best thing to do is correct in the moment and move on, e.g. “Franco said he will – sorry, they will – just take the bus to school today.”
Offer repairs without defensiveness. You will likely say something that will hurt and upset your child. Take a deep breath. This does not mean that you are a bad parent; it means it is time to repair. Take the time to listen and understand why what you said or did was painful for them. If you have personal beliefs that have made it difficult to accept this part of your child’s identity, it is especially important to repair without defensiveness. It is more helpful for your child to see that you are making an attempt to understand them without condition than it is for them to hear why their identity is hard for you to accept.
How to Support Yourself
As I’ve mentioned above, you are a human being. And this means that you are going to have thoughts and emotions that are based on your own ideals, values, and beliefs. You may feel worried about how your child will be treated at school or by other relatives. You may be concerned that your child has brought this up as a way to get attention. You may experience a sense of grief and loss as you realize you won’t be going wedding dress shopping with your child like you envisioned. You may even feel angry and like their disclosure has made things in your life more complicated.
Whatever your emotional response, it is valid, and you deserve support. There are several ways for you to support yourself and to get outside support while navigating your child’s coming out. But I want to be abundantly clear: Your child is not responsible for how you feel regarding their gender and/or sexual identity. It is important that you are processing and channeling your emotions in a way that does not blame, demean, or criticize your child. They are still your child, and they are absolutely deserving of your love and support regardless of the thoughts and emotions that come up for you. Now, let’s look at some ways you can get your own support:
Talk with a therapist. Seeking out individual support is one of the most helpful things you can do if you are struggling. Due to the confidential nature of therapy, disclosing your child’s LGBTQ+ status to your therapist is okay. A therapist can help you unpack your beliefs and values and can gently guide you to a place of understanding and acceptance.
Join a support group. If you would like to hear from other parents/caregivers in a similar situation, consider joining a support group. This is a great way to hear personal stories from others and gain other perspectives.
Talk with a trusted friend. Talking with a friend that you trust can be a great way to process your own emotions. However, as a friend does not have the same confidential nature as a therapist, it is important that you have talked with your child about their feelings around you disclosing their identity to this friend.
Educate yourself. There are countless resources available to learn about your child’s identity and the LGBTQ+ community. Importantly, it is not your child’s job to educate you on these issues. They may want to have conversations and inform you on some of their struggles, but they do not need to explain why, for example, it is harmful to out someone. The following websites are great places to start:
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