Could Your Child Be Gay?
What is and isn't known about kids' sexuality, and how parents can show their love whether their kids are gay or straight. Plus, get tips on talking to your children about sex
A woman I know jokes that she hopes one of her twin sons, who are now 8, grows up to be gay. She thinks it means he'll stick around and squire her to Broadway shows in her dotage. But for the majority of parents, the prospect of a gay child is not funny. You can believe that homosexuality is a natural part of the human experience, but at the same time be worried that your child is going to face discrimination. You can admire and respect gay people, and still be shocked that someone in your family is one, or have feelings (like not wanting your friends to know) that surprise you. You might have some misconceptions about disease and promiscuity that add to worries you already have. Or you might believe that homosexuality is a sin.
No matter how you or your spouse feels about it, one thing is certain for all kids: Children are desperate to know that they're loved and accepted by their parents -- even if it takes some time, and even if everyone doesn't always say exactly the right thing, and even if they act like your opinions mean nothing. "You need to make the decision that your child's happiness and safety is totally unrelated to his sexual orientation," says Judy Shepard, cofounder of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, a group that works to foster a more accepting environment for all people, including the LGBT community. In 1998 in Wyoming, Shepard's 21-year-old son was beaten, tortured, tied to a fence, and left to die because he was gay. "It can be hard, though. Many parents feel they are responsible. They think, 'What did I do wrong?'?"
The answer, of course, is nothing -- nada, zero, zip. No study has proved that you can "turn" a kid gay. (That also means that parents can't make a homosexual kid hetero, says Bailey.) "What parents can do, however, is make their kids happy or miserable -- they have that ability," he adds. "A gay kid whose parents think there's something wrong with him, that tends to be a miserable kid."
Okay, you might still be thinking: She's only 11 or 12, and that's too young for her to be dating anyone, male or female. There's no doubt you're with the vast majority of parents there. But if she's thinking about girls, and you're having issues with that, it's a good idea to reach out to others who can help you connect with her. "We get parents who call the helpline, and they are scared -- scared themselves, but also worried about their children being happy and having a hard life. We validate their feelings, try to correct stereotypes, and show them that gay people can live happy and productive lives," says The Trevor Project's program director, Phoenix Schneider. "Parents have to do their own coming-out process as well," adds Shepard. "It can be a sort of mourning -- you've lost what you thought you were going to have."
Creating a Safe Haven
"The one place kids cannot be afraid is in their homes," says Shepard. So how can you make sure your child knows that with you, at least, he's safe being himself, even if he's not ready to discuss sexual feelings per se?
Find a casual way to bring it up. Remark positively on a gay relative, friend, or celebrity. Or when talking about current events, introduce a topic like gay marriage and make it clear that it's not a subject you shy away from.
Have non-gender-specific toys in the house. If a child categorizes them as "girl" or "boy" toys, use that as an opportunity to discuss what that means, says Shepard.
Act as you would if there were a gay person in the room. That is, don't tell or laugh at gay jokes or use denigrating words about gay people, even if you're not talking about anyone your child knows, says Schneider. If an older sibling says a movie or a song is "gay," offer him alternate adjectives. Say something like "I think what you meant is 'silly,' 'ridiculous,' or 'corny.' Because 'gay' is not a word we use to mean those things."
Leave age-appropriate books on gender or sexuality where your child can find them if you suspect he wants or could benefit from information. (Find some suggestions at Parenting.com/out.)
Follow your child's lead. If she wants to cut her hair short and pass as a boy, fine, but be aware that next week she might change her mind. Parents need to roll with it a bit. help your child sort it all out Let her know that if she has any questions about sex or love or close friendships, you'll do your best to answer. "You don't want to assume anything, but the idea is to let the child know that she can feel comfortable talking about anything with you," says Schneider.
Be Deliberate. Tell him or her outright, "I'll love you every bit as much no matter what you are," says Bailey. "That's the most important message any parent can send."
Stephanie Dolgoff is Parenting's editor-at-large. She lives in New York City with her husband and twin girls.