“Mom, will I marry too one day?”
“If you choose to marry when you’re older, then yes.”
“Whom will I marry, Mom?”
“I don’t know yet. When you grow up, you’ll choose a male or a female partner, and maybe the two of you will decide to marry.”
These are common responses in our home when the issue of marriage, family and children is raised. Most people are surprised to hear a mother suggesting to her daughter that she can choose the sex or gender of her future partner. “Tell me,” the mother of one of my daughter’s kindergarten friends asked me, “Don’t you think you’re putting ideas into her head? Chances are she won’t be a lesbian.”
No, I don’t think I’m putting ideas in her head. For proof, look to the countless LGBTQ people who as kids heard only about heterosexual couples and never had ideas about being lesbian or gay or any other sexual identity on the rainbow spectrum “put into their heads.”
The question of sexual identity is naturally of concern to parents of adolescents. Some think about how to allow their children to feel comfortable talking to them if they are questioning their sexual identity, or how to respond if their daughter comes out to them as a lesbian. And many parents simply feel helpless in the face of a generation that “knows much more than I do” – what the hell do all these words, like pansexual or genderqueer even mean? And “Anyway Dad, definitions are so old-fashioned,” as one father shared with me his frustration at his daughter’s response when he asked if her female partner was, well, her partner.
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Start making sense
Here are some tips for parents dealing with these issue, and particularly with a child who shares their LGBTQ identity.
Start young. One of the greatest gifts we can give our kids is to treat couples of all genders equally from an early age. To talk about the fact that everyone experiences romantic love (a type of adult love) when they grow up, and that some fall in love only with people of one sex, whether it’s the same sex as their own or the opposite sex, and some fall in love with people of either sex. There are also those who don’t worry about the sex, they just fall in love with a particular person (that’s what pansexual means). Sexual and gender identity can also be discussed from a young age. You’ll be amazed at how interesting and how straightforward your children will find it: “A transgender girl is a person with the genitals of a boy and who is called a boy, but who feels like a girl on the inside, so she asks to be addressed as a girl and she might look like a girl.” It’s that easy.
In any case, it isn’t up to you. Sexual or gender identity is not something we can affect. However, when we talk about the variety of possibilities out there, the child grows up with the knowledge that at some point during adolescence they will find out who they are attracted to, and anything is possible. Once that happens, they won’t have to worry about their parents’ reaction. Maybe they will even share their experience with them. And that’s it.
One of the recurring struggles for LGBTQ people is the need to come out repeatedly. It isn’t a one-time event that happens sometime in adolescence; when they grow up, if they want to reveal their sexual identity in any new scenario, they will have to talk about it again and again. The dominant preconception that everyone is heterosexual and cisgender (someone whose sense of identity and gender corresponds to their biological sex) until proven otherwise is an aspect of heteronormativity, the belief that heterosexuality is the default sexual orientation. Our society is heteronormative, so it treats LGBTQ people as “other” and forces them to constantly address their sexual identity.
When we, as parents, present our kids with the possibility of an LGBTQ identity, we might be saving them from one coming-out and helping to changing the heteronormative discourse that treats LGBTQ people as “other.”
It’s never too late. The average secular Jewish Israeli adolescent likely grew up in a media environment saturated with images of LGBTQ sexuality. Most likely, they are aware they have the option. However, it is helpful to hear your parents acknowledge such identities, especially if you are LGBTQ yourself.
Has your child come out to you? Simply love them. Unfortunately, teen suicide rates are high, and the rates for LGBTQ teens are particularly high. Love, acceptance and a sense of belonging are the main gifts our children need from us, regardless of their sexual and gender identities.
Accept them as they are. Often parents claim: “Adolescence is a confusing time. The fact that they are experimenting doesn’t mean it’s their identity.” Indeed, there is a certain percentage of youth who experiment, and their experience won’t determine their future identity. But this also true of a teenager who has had heterosexual experiences. Just as I won’t tell myself, if my daughter dates a boy, that she will get over it and be a lesbian in the end, but rather I will accept who she is at the time, so too it’s important that we accept our son when he identifies as gay or bisexual, or our daughter who currently identifies as pansexual.
In the same way, if my child, even in kindergarten, asks to be recognized as the opposite sex, this is part of their self-discovery, and it is important that we treat it with respect and give it space. Don’t say it’s just a phase; that sends a message of disrespect and nonacceptance and increases the likelihood that they won’t want to share with you in the future.
Is it hard for you? That’s all right. Do you find it challenging? That makes sense. It may be difficult for us to hear that our son or daughter identifies as LGBTQ. It may shatter our dreams. When we, as parents, have feelings other than full acceptance, there’s no need to deny them; on the contrary, if we can express the various feelings of disappointment, sorrow or loss, it will be easier for us to work through them to reach our goal, full acceptance of our child. You can even share your feelings with them, while conveying a loving attitude: “I love you no matter what, I’m so glad you’re telling me. I grew up in a conservative environment as you know, I’m not used to this, so it might take me a while to get used to it. But it is important for me that you know how much I love you and that I will work on myself. “
You don’t understand what they’re talking about? Ask them. Today’s youth grew up with a range of LGBTQ imagery and sexual and gender identities. Often our children are familiar with identities we may not have heard about: The range goes far beyond lesbian-gay-bisexual-trangender, there is an infinite range of identities. You don’t know about them? No problem. Just ask your child to explain them. In this way you will convey a message of openness, of a desire to learn and listen and that they also have something to offer you. A sense of shared learning allows for a conversation of equals and increases the chance that they will see you as a support.
To sum up, even when you experience difficulties, misunderstandings or negative feelings – love your children. Accept them. Make them feel that they belong, just as you always have. Try to initiate conversations about sexual and gender identity and normalize the issue. Most important, be happy for your child who is having first experiences, who feels comfortable sharing them with you and who enjoys the feeling that someone is attracted to them and they are worthy of being loved.