The LGBTQ community is appearing in the national news a lot recently, and the topics range from terrifying to sad to downright confusing.
Last week, an assailant killed 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, injuring at least 53 more.
In recent months, a bill was passed in North Carolina, blocking local governments from passing anti-discrimination laws to grant protections to gay and transgender people. In addition, the bill requires all people using public restrooms to use the restroom of their biological sex.
As a parent, it can be hard to shield children from these pervasive messages. In a 2012 Human Rights Campaign (HRC) report, Growing Up LGBT in America, a survey of 10,000 LGBT-identified youth ages 13-17 found that 92% of LGBT youth said they hear negative message about being LGBT. And 68% of LGBT youth said they hear negative messages about being LGBT from elected leaders.
“It’s really important to provide young LGBTQ people with a space to talk and be at the center of solutions,” says David Johns, Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. “Sometimes it’s not until something tragic happens that we have these conversations.”
But parents also have a unique opportunity to support LGBTQ youth, whether or not their children identify as part of the community.
Cultivating Accepting Environments
“When [my son] came out, he showed me how he had really felt like a boy inside and couldn’t force himself anymore to be a girl,” says Mary Moss, mother of a 17-year-old transgender son. “It was really scary for a moment because he didn’t want to live if he couldn’t be a boy. There was just nothing for so long, no resources, my family didn’t understand, they thought I was crazy. I didn’t know what to do. Finally I said no, I’m going to help him.”
Listening to your kids is exactly where Moss recommends parents start in the process of supporting their LGBTQ child.
“What I’ve really learned is that I have a lot of respect for kids,” Moss says. “I feel like parents and adults don’t really listen to kids sometimes. Listen to them. Ask your kids what would help them.”
Director of the Children, Youth and Families Program at the Human Rights Campaign Ellen Kahn says cultivating an accepting and loving environment for LGBTQ kids starts early. Parents of young children can give the perception that being straight is “right” or “normal,” which can be difficult for children who may not identify as such.
“We’ll say to 7-year-olds, out of habit, ‘oh, you’re a ladies man, do you have a girlfriend?’…things that assume that this child is going to be straight,” Kahn said. “The child then absorbs these messages and knows this is the expectation and ‘norm’.”
Kahn also recommends that parents think about the family culture from a young age. Parents who highlight differences with empathy and understanding are showing their children to respect others. That can make a big difference in whether or not a child feels comfortable coming to their parents to talk.
“Young people often get the message at home that [coming out] would not be a safe conversation to bring up,” Kahn says. “And they gage that based on what they hear family saying.”
According to research by the Family Acceptance Project, “family acceptance promotes well-being and helps protect LGBT young people against risk. And family rejection has a serious impact on a gay or transgender young person’s risk for health and mental health problems.”
The 2012 HRC report found that only about half of LGBT teens were out to their immediate family. When asked to describe the most important problem facing their lives right now, LGBT youth identified the number one issue to be non-accepting families.
This has very real consequences, Kahn explains. According to the 2012 Williams Institute Homeless Youth Survey, 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT. The majority ran away because of family rejection of sexual orientation or gender. The National Alliance on Mental Illness found that LGBTQ youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide, experience suicidal thoughts, or engage in self-harm than their straight counterparts.
“Try to make sure that what you say is supportive and kind and thoughtful,” Kahn says. “It may be your gut instinct to react a certain way, but to say that out loud is to splinter the trust and can do irreparable damage to the child’s sense of safety and well-being and unconditional love.”
Psychologist and founder of Team Finch Consultants Jennifer Bryan helps pre-K through 12th grade schools address gender and sexuality. She also provides trainings for parents.
“Parents are nervous about when they’re supposed to address these issues. They think they should wait until a certain age and have the talk,” Bryan says. “Parents and teachers have, for a long time, shied away from these conversations. They need to talk about these parts of who their kids are matter-of-factly from the beginning. For a lot of parents, they have to get past how they were brought up, give up their own hang-ups and fears that this is not appropriate. Talk honestly. Talk early.”
Parents Don’t Have All the Answers
“Parents need to cut themselves some slack,” Moss explains. Not all parents understand what their LGBTQ child may be going through, and that’s ok.
“You’re going to make mistakes, that’s normal,” Moss says. “Apologize if you make a mistake. Show them you do support them. Show them that you’re proud. Tell them you are in their corner, by your actions and your words. Get them the help and support they need.”
Kahn stresses that parents have permission to experience their own feelings and take time to process them.
“This is your journey, too,” Kahn says. “They are navigating a world where they are not always welcome. Parents have to read and learn and talk to other parents about this experience. And deal with science and religion. It’s a journey.”
Moss suggests being honest and open about your own issues and history in life can help both you and your child work through your emotions.
“Talk to them as a human being,” she says. “Hold on to the love you have for your child, it gets easier for you too. Give yourself time. Cut yourself a break if it’s hard at first, it gets better.”
In The Face of Tragedy and Hate
Seeing tragedy in the media is often difficult to process for young people, especially when they see victims who may be a reflection of their own identity.
"I encourage parents to not assume that [they] know what LGBTQ youth are experiencing," Kirk Shepard, a licensed professional counselor in Portland, Oregon, told NBC OUT regarding the recent Orlando attack. "Encourage them to talk and express themselves, but don't pressure LGBTQ youth to process the attack if they seem resistant to talking."
Bryan adds that parents can’t be naïve about how much kids are absorbing.
“I would encourage parents not to frame the conversation in the way that the politicians are,” Bryan says. “Talk more about who the kids are and who their peers are.”
Moss says she talked to her son about the Orlando massacre, asking him about his thoughts and feelings and making sure he knew he had a safe space to talk if he needed it, while also highlighting love.
“I don’t believe in giving in to the fear. Love is what really conquers all,” Moss says. “Fear is what someone who is a bully or terrorist wants. Have conversations with your child about it. But you cannot live thinking in the worst case scenario. Don’t focus on your child being hurt, which is always a fear of mine in the back of my mind. Pay attention to it, but don’t let the negatively thrive.”
Gender Diversity founder and director Aidan Key started a conference in Seattle to help parents and educators navigate their kids’ gender identity and gender expression. He’s worked with schools and families for about ten years, mostly working with elementary schools.
Key recommends parents have conversations with kids about gender issues as a historical moment in our society.
“Examine it in relationship to other social justice movements and the difficulties that manifested when our society was tasked with changing,” Key says. “It’s often framed as a majority versus a minority. So much of the rhetoric is almost word for word from other movements.”
Beyond LGBTQ Youth
“Parents are often afraid, they don’t know how to talk about it,” Kahn says. “But kids get it. They don’t discriminate until they are socialized to do so.”
A key point, Bryan stresses, for the importance of addressing these issues with all students, not just LGBTQ-identified students.
“Connect the dots; these are important social issues that go beyond just the health of LGBTQ kids,” she says. “For example, you can’t talk about the transgender piece if you aren’t going to talk about gender at large.”
Key recommends using examples to explain these concepts to young children to highlight the similarities among kids, rather than simply the differences.
“It’s really easy for anyone to put forth a fear,” Key says. “But that fear is based on something that has been unknown and unfamiliar.”
While talking to second graders about a classmate coming out as transgender, Key gave them an opportunity to relate in a way that was specific to them by sharing how they have experienced teasing in their own lives.
“Kids can navigate this easily,” Key says. “They understood it within the context of we’re all people and we all want to be treated with kindness and respect. This is just one of the ways that a human can be unique.”
Key says children are eager to talk about these issues, because they are already experiencing restrictions in their own lives.
“What doesn’t make sense to kids is seeing that Joey is a girl now, but she can’t use the girl’s bathroom,” Key says.
Expanding the Inclusion Conversation
Now, more than ever, parents are faced with conversations surrounding LGBTQ acceptance. Learning to talk about these issues with kids is essential to helping raise kind, empathetic, and inclusive children, Bryan explains.
“The bottom line is: what are the messages your child is getting?” Kahn says. “That may affect them if they do come out as LGBT at some point. Or even if they’re not, how they end up treating LGBT people and ultimately shape who they are as a person.”
While discrimination towards LGBTQ people does still exist, there is a growing community of people working to make the world a better place for LGBTQ kids.
Moss started a Facebook group for parents of transgender children. She says any parents looking for resources and support can request to join the group by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org. She also writes for the Huffington Post about her experiences and advocacy.
And for all parents, Moss has this advice; “Don’t pay attention to the negative. Pay attention to your child. You’ll hear a lot of judgment, don’t pay attention to it. Anybody who is judgmental is not someone you want in your life.”
This piece was first published on NBC News’ Parent Toolkit