Classmates had bullied the boy relentlessly all year. He was pretty sure some of his teachers were aware of what was happening, but they seemed to turn their heads. The situation at home was not much better. His parents acted uncomfortable around him – appearing unsure of what he was going through and unable to support him. He felt different and alone, wondering if he would ever fit in and find acceptance with anyone.
As parents, we often develop a universal feeling of empathy for all kids and our hearts break for any child who is suffering. Many of us have seen our own children bear the brunt of cruel words or unfair treatment by others and know how painful that can be. But does our feeling of compassion for kids change depending on what they are struggling with? This scenario could describe a student coping with a physical disability, wrestling with depression or trying to manage an undiagnosed learning disability. But what if this situation described a student who was gay? Or transgender? How do we, as parents and role models, broaden our scope of understanding to support our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) youth?
Increasingly in the past 30 years young people have been coming out as LGBTQ. This coincides with greater social awareness and media representation of the many variations of sexual orientation and gender identity. According to the Institute of Medicine, sexual orientation is a person’s emotional, sexual and/or relational attraction to others. Gender identity is a person’s internal sense of being male, female or something else. Sexual orientation and gender identity are not a choice. Both emerge early in life and do not depend on external factors such as home life.
We all know that the elementary, middle and high school years can be challenging for children as they begin to discover who they are while managing academic and social stresses. On top of the typical growing-up challenges, LGBTQ youth also regularly experience bias, discrimination and rejection. That’s why it is so important for parents and teachers to embrace and support youth struggling with their sexual or gender identity.
“Supporting a LGBTQ child looks different depending on the age of the child,” says Laura Ingram, Youth Program Director for Bloomington Pride Prism Youth Community. “If the child is very young, read an inclusive book and go by the name and pronouns they prefer. There’s this idea that we can’t talk to young children about gender but there are a wealth of children’s books that celebrate identity. Kids get it. They’re the most accepting group of people.”
In middle school and high school a lot of kids come out to their friends first, then the Gay-Straight Alliance at their school if one exists, then supportive teachers. “Youth-serving professionals forget that a lot of students have great ideas about how they want to talk to their peers and teachers,” says Ingram. “You’re a collaborator in that process. Ask the student, ‘What kind of support do you think you need?’ Ask them how, when and if they want to talk to other people about it.”
As allies, it is also our personal responsibility to educate ourselves about LGBTQ issues without relying on the LGBTQ kids in our lives to do it for us. “The best way other students and adults can be supportive is to educate themselves,” says Ingram. “If you’re not sure what someone is talking about you can ask respectfully, but also understand that that person may not want to answer your questions. Self-study is important.” (Read on for a list of local and national resources on the subject.)
Every person is unique, so there isn’t one standard way to support someone who is LGBTQ. If you’re unsure of what to do to be supportive, it’s okay to ask the young person what they need. “There’s no one way to come out and talk about it. There’s just the right way for that child,” says Ingram.
It’s also important to remember that learning is a lifelong process and that no child, no matter how they identify, should feel pressured to find a term and stick with it. “We have a lot of youth that as their vocabulary and terminology expand they might identify differently. That doesn’t mean it was just a phase, it just means that their understanding of themselves has deepened,” says Ingram. “We never stop learning about ourselves and our world.”
Sexual Orientation – a person’s emotional, sexual, and/or relational attraction to others. Sexual orientation is usually classified as heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual (lesbian and gay), and includes components of attraction, behavior and identity (Laumann et al., 1994). Sexual orientation is expressed in relationship to others to meet basic human needs for love, attachment and intimacy (Institute of Medicine, 2011). Thus, young people can be aware of their sexual orientation as feelings of attachment and connection to others before they become sexually active.
Gender Identity – a person’s internal sense of being male, female or something else. Gender identity is internal, so it is not necessarily visible to others. Gender identity is also very personal, so some people may not identify as male or female while others may identify as both male and female.
Gender Expression – the way a person expresses their sense of gender identity (e.g., through dress, clothing, body movement, etc.) Young children express their sense of gender through choices for personal items such as toys and clothes, as well as hairstyle, colors, etc.
Gender Non-conforming or Gender Variant– a person whose gender expression differs from how their family, culture or society expects them to behave, dress and act.
Transgender– a person who feels that their gender identity does not match their physical body and differs from the gender that others observed and gave them at birth (assigned or birth gender).
Source: Institute of Medicine, 2011; SAMHSA, 2012