by: Anna Cook
Today, I have some thoughts for you on how parents (and their allies) can normalize gender, sex, and sexuality variance for their children. How we can frame the myriad forms of gender expression and sexual desire as wondrous possibility rather than difference to be rigorously quashed. How we might communicate joy that our children have the opportunity to discover what combination is right for them.
As a general disclaimer, I speak from my experience as a cisgendered queer woman who is not herself a parent. Nor am I trained to counsel parents, or work specifically with kids on these issues. I once was a queer kid (though I didn’t realize it at the time), so I speak through that lens. I also read widely and think deeply on the topics of sexuality, gender, and the care and keeping of young humans. At the end of this post is a list of resources for further exploration, if you want additional information or other perspectives (I’m a librarian; recommended reading is what we do!). But before I get to assigned reading, here are three pieces of wisdom from my own experience.
To begin with, don’t conflate gender expression with sexual preference. Our culture does this constantly, whether in the assumption that princess boys will grow up to be gay or that women who are butch sleep exclusively with lipstick lesbians. Some of those boys will no doubt grow up with same-sex desires, and some women who refuse to wear skirts are queer. One does not lead to the other. While grown-up queers often retroactively identify nascent gayness in childhood gender rebellion (“I was never good at sports”; “I hated playing with dolls”) and the gender police often conflate gender non-conformity with queer sexuality, they’re two different aspects of identity and experience. Children negotiate gender roles from the moment of birth, when they’re assigned a gender and adults interact with them accordingly (see Fine and Rivers & Barnett in the reading list below).
Children are also sexual beings, it’s true, but sexuality in the adult sense is something we grow into. It’s a process. And presuming adult sexual preferences for a child — whether it’s teasing them about a playground “boyfriend” or assuming their gender non-conformity will lead to same-sex desire — is unfairly boxing them into predetermined categories. We cannot know what the gender and sexuality landscape will look like as they grow into adulthood, and we cannot know what words they will choose to describe themselves. All we can do is give them a multitude of words from which to choose.
I hope it goes without saying that cisgendered kids, who may go through their whole lives partnered with different sex folks, will nevertheless benefit from a more expansive, fluid conception of gender and sexuality. Queer kids aren’t the only ones who need better tools and models than the ones our culture currently provides. So your own assumptions about your child’s gender or sexual identity aside, these suggestions apply to parenting all children. Regardless of where they will eventually wash ashore in the land of grown-up identities and desires.
Which leads me to my second piece of advice: communicate openness while also respecting your child’s autonomy and privacy. Best case scenario, you’ve been doing your darndest to communicate (in age-appropriate ways) your own lack of anxiety about your kids meeting heteronormative expectations; you’ve been explicitly voicing your support for a wide variety of gender expression and sexual desires. Pre-emptively expressing confidence in, and unconditional love for, your child is going to make it more possible for them to voice their wonderings about gender and sexuality as they grow into themselves.
The other side of this coin, though, is expressing interest in your child’s experience while not demanding information or taking over their process. Some of us seem born with a firm sense of what feels right to us in terms of gender and sexuality (we’re “born that way”). For others, it’s a process of years — if not decades — of self-discovery. Both forms of being-in-the-world are valid. If your daughter opens a conversation about same-sex attraction with you, don’t rush to ascribe labels.
Don’t become invested in your daughter-the-lesbian or your son-the-fey pansexual. Communicate acceptance of whomever she is and then clear the space. Give her privacy to listen and learn and grow. Our children do not owe us the queer-progressive world of our dreams; they do not owe us their presence as hip little gender outlaws, free from the social constraints we’ve suffered under. They get to make their own way in the world. It’s not always safe to be out, and while you and your partner(s) can work your ass off as parents to make the space for your child to just be themselves, it’s up to them when and how to use that space.
Which in turn leads me to perhaps the most important piece of advice. Quite simply, work on your shit and don’t spread your damage. We all have baggage around gender and sexuality. Maybe somewhere in the recesses of your memory a grandparent is asking you why you don’t wear more makeup, a coach is calling your best friend a fag, your pastor is telling you queers die before the age of thirty, or your mother is slapping your hand because you touched yourself.
Realistically speaking your children are growing up in a world that needs to get its act together and celebrate diversity instead of fearing it. So don’t beat yourself for feeling afraid for your kids. But if you find yourself moving to stop Garry from playing with dolls, urging Trisha to wear a bit of makeup to school, or fearing that Zoe’s friendship with Wendy might turn into something more … that’s something to take to a therapist or a trusted friend. Not something lay on your kid. What your kid needs is an ally: someone they can trust to believe they can be themselves in the world. Someone to root for them, to be there when they need an adult advocate, and to back away and let them fly when they’re ready. Find a place to sort out your lingering fears and prejudices so you’ll be free to be there for them when they need you.
Fine, Cordelia. Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference (W. W. Norton, 2010). Fine explores the latest psychological and neurological research on gender development, arguing that human beings create or greatly exaggerated the existence of binary gender (male and female) with adverse results.
Levithan, David. The Realm of Possibility (Random House, 2004). Possibly my favorite young adult novel of recent years, Levithan celebrates a broad spectrum of relational intimacies and the emotional landscape of teenagers learning to navigate their desires
Pepper, Rachel. Transitions of the Heart: Stories of Love, Struggle and Acceptance by Mothers of Transgender and Gender Variant Children (Cleis Press, 2012). While I wish this anthology had included fathers voices as well, the range of voices is fascinating and there’s a good list of resources in the back.
Beemyn, Genny and Susan Rankin. The Lives of Transgender People (Columbia University Press, 2011). Drawing on a survey of over three thousand people, this book shares the personal stories of people of varying gender identities, from teenagers to retirees, and paints a multi-layered picture of trans experience in trans peoples’ own words.
Riegel, Stuart. The Right to be Out: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in America’s Public Schools (University of Minnesota Press, 2010). Parents of schooled children are often called upon to be advocates for their LGBT child’s rights; this book is a great overview of what schools must do to protect and educate your kid.
Rivers, Carolyn and Rosalind C. Barnett. The Truth about Boys and Girls: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children (Columbia University Press, 2011). Like Fine, Rivers and Barnett explore the latest research on gender and argue our commitment to binary gender stereotypes are harming kids.
Schalet, Amy. Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex (University of Chicago Press, 2011). In a cross-cultural study of parent/teen communication around sexuality, Schalet conducted extensive interviews with middle-class American and Dutch families about sexual values, practices, and parenting around sexual development.
Creighton, Allen and Paul Kivel. Helping Teens Stop Violence, Build Community, and Stand for Justice (revised and expanded edition; Hunter House, 2010). A workbook for adults engaged in social justice work with teens, this book is a great “work on your shit” toolkit. Another book with extensive suggested reading in the back.
Scarleteen. A sexuality education website for teenagers that aims to be fully inclusive of all genders and sexual orientations among. My go-to source for sexuality health information.
PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). The original organization for allies, PFLAG offers everything from local chapters to online forums to print resources.
Anna J. Cook recently entered her thirties, an age she’s aspired to most of her sentient life. She is a queer feminist, historian, librarian, and writer who lives in the Boston metropolitan area with her partner, two cats, and a multitude of houseplants. She grew up the daughter of quiet leftist radicals in a conservative corner of West Michigan and before moving to Boston spent time in Oregon, Missouri, Indiana and Aberdeen, Scotland. Her hopes for the next thirty years include marrying her girlfriend, returning to the British Isles, starting a housing co-operative, training gnomes to brew and deliver coffee to her desk via pneumatic tube, and making headway on her “books to read” list. She can be found most reliably at the feminist librarian.