My late godmother, whom I called “Tante” (which means “Auntie” in Yiddish), wore a T-shirt to gay pride parades when she attended (she always attended) with me and my two mommies. Her T-shirt said “Straight but not narrow,” and it fascinated me as an 8-year-old. She wasn’t gay, but she knew it was her responsibility as a straight person to stand with gay couples and gay families.
I was a profoundly nerdy child, so if you gave me a play on words, I was likely to hang onto it. So “Straight but not narrow” clung to my memory just like that tight T-shirt clung to my Tante.
And when I fell for boys (I fell very late and very hard) in early college, I assessed my newfound identity as a woman who definitely liked men. That’s when Tante’s T-shirt came back to me. There was a name for what I was: a name besides “That girl with two moms” and the more trendy and recent “Queerspawn.” My new title was “ally.”
It seems so obvious that I would be an ally to my parents and to my community of theater-making LGBTQ peers and colleagues, but taking something for granted isn’t the same as actually doing it. What does it actually mean to be a straight ally? What does it mean in an active, everyday way, like when you’re out and about doing things? How do you buy groceries like an ally? Host a dinner party like an ally? Peel a potato like an ally? (I’m a little hungry so there is a definite theme to these examples.)
I called in a correspondent for this one: my friend’s mom. Her name is Brenda. She has two grown gay sons and, like me, she is a straight ally to the people most dear to her in the whole world.
Here is a massively condensed and somewhat scripted version of our very fun and, for me, eye-opening 45-minute phone conversation.
Brenda, what was it like when your second son came out?
Brenda: When Justin came out, the bomb dropped. Andrew had been in New York when he came out the year before, but that didn’t feel immediate to us. But Justin was at home, and when you live in the suburbs of Georgia like we do, the first thing people ask when your son goes to college is “Does he have a girlfriend?” People measure success based on that.
My husband and I just knew that we needed some support. We found a terrific counselor as well as PFLAG (an organization that provides information for parents of LGBT kids). Our counselor was just right for us: church-based, but not religious. (My father was a minister and my husband also grew up going to church every Sunday.)
Tell me about your experience at Atlanta Gay Pride and how it redefined for you the critical role of “Mother as Ally.”
Brenda: It all started on MARTA (Atlanta’s public transportation), which I rode with my husband on the way to the parade carrying a giant sign that said, “I love my gay sons.” Men started coming up to me and saying things like, “Can I take your picture to send to my mom? She doesn’t speak to me, but I want her to see you.” Or, “I wish my mom was like you.” All these grown men in jockstraps and all kinds of outfits wanted hugs and wanted to take their pictures with me.
I was a basket case at the end of the day. I was an emotional wreck. I just went to the parade to support Justin, but that day was one of the most transforming times of my life.
You introduced me to the idea of “coming out with your kids.” What does that mean?
Brenda: Our counselor gave us an assignment at our very first session: “Come out to 10 of your closest friends. Let them know that your sons are gay.” This was terrific advice. Our friends were just fine with it and it’s true that you must come out with your kids. It’s very bad juju if you lead a double life, with your kids coming out and you staying closeted. Remember that it’s harder for your kids than it is for you, no matter what you’re feeling.
None of our friends gave us the cold shoulder, so then I was able to relax. But you come to realize, even if they had—“Hey, if you don’t like me and my kids…go away.”
The most important thing for gay kids to remember is patience. Be patient with your parents. You had to decide when and how to come out, and so do they.
Brenda Neisler is now retired after 32 years as a high school media specialist. During that time, she identified her classroom as a SAFE space (with a rainbow sticker) and students came to her with their struggles and difficult stories. This affirmed for her the critical role that allies must play in the lives of LGBTQ youth.
Emma Tattenbaum-Fine is a comedian with two moms who writes for The Huffington Post. Her comedy has been featured on Jezebel, BustMagazine.com, Gawker; in Time Out NY and Comedy Central’s Indecision 2012 in Tribeca. She has appeared on PoliticsNation with Al Sharpton, with Reggie Watts in a web series for JASH and also on Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls at the Party. She has created content for Google’s Original Channels, Funny or Die, and as a sketch comedian with a residency at YouTube’s NY studios. Visit her at www.emmatattenbaumfine.com.
Don’t forget! Through Sept. 8th, every single pre-order for This is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids will be matched by our publisher, Chronicle Books, with a donated book to a local PFLAG Chapter!!!!
Hey there! This is a tough one. I think before I can advise you on what action to take here, it’s important to understand why a young woman might feel threatened or offended by the idea that she might be asexual. While I can’t speak for all school-aged women, I know that when I was in high school, I felt that a lot of my social value came from the illusion that I was a person with whom boys could potentially have sex. I say “illusion” because I wasn’t sexually active and wasn’t particularly interested in becoming so, but that didn’t matter as long as those around me viewed me as an attractive sexual possibility. If my potential as a sexual object were to be cut off with a label like “asexual,” I thought, then most of what made me interesting to boys, whose attention I wanted (though I wouldn’t have admitted it), would have disappeared. So although I knew about asexuality in high school, I didn’t identify as ace* personally or publicly until about halfway through college, at which point catching boys’ attention had become much less important to me.
So much of what we understand as “attraction” actually means “sexual attraction.” If a woman makes herself sexually unavailable by claiming asexuality as an identity, she might start to feel less attractive. Men might pay less attention to her when they find that she is not even potentially attracted to them (this is, of course, part of the same misogyny that all women experience). Obviously, that kind of misogynistic thinking is all nonsense, but it’s very real. If your daughter is open to having the conversation (and please remember that consent isn’t just for sexual relationships and situations—ask if she wants to talk about sexuality and attraction and pay attention to the answer, because she might not want to talk about this, no matter how close you are), talk to her about different forms of attraction. Aesthetic, sensual, and intellectual attraction are some other valid and valuable ways to experience relationships with other people. You could perhaps ask your daughter what attracts her to people and what kind of relationships she would ideally form with the important people in her life. Finding companionship can be difficult for asexual people, but being able to articulate what you want can be wildly helpful.
Even with the language and imagination to consider how asexual relationships could form for your daughter, she might think that being and calling herself asexual could be really isolating. A lot of asexual people do feel isolated. Representation of asexual people in media is very, very difficult to come by. Finding other aces can also be difficult because it’s such a small and invisible group. Luckily, the ace blogging community is lively and welcoming. Google “Carnival of Aces” and check out the website “The Asexual Agenda” to get a taste of that digital space and find more nuanced information and discussion than what you’ll find on the AVEN front page. Also, I’m not sure how old your daughter is or how much she cares about fandom, but there’s a lot of fan fiction out there that imagines existing characters (particularly the BBC’s modern adaptation of Sherlock Holmes) as ace. Lots of people find it helpful to read about people and characters who are asexual rather than just reading dry definitions of a little-known sexual identity.
Finally, it’s possible that your daughter doesn’t want to be labeled asexual because she isn’t asexual. She could be sex repulsed and allosexual, grey-ace, demisexual, or something else entirely. Maybe she doesn’t like the idea of having a label for her sexuality at all. I think there’s something to be said for using “questioning” as your forever-label; it leaves open so many possibilities! Even as a parent (or maybe especially as a parent), you can’t force someone to identify with a word, even if that word seems to accurately describe their sexuality and even if they end up identifying with that word later. Leaving the word asexual aside for now and instead talking about your daughter’s specific experiences of attraction and relationships is probably your best course of action right now.
You’ve done some excellent parenting so far by letting your daughter know that asexuality even exists. Definitely strive to keep learning together. Let your daughter know that she doesn’t have to do anything she doesn’t want to do, no matter how she identifies. Show her that you support her for her, not her labels. Make yourself available to talk, but don’t push it. This whole sexuality thing is complicated, and your daughter doesn’t need to sort it all out right now.
*“Ace” is to “asexual” as “gay” is to homosexual.”
Kara Kratcha studies English literature at a university in New York City. She tells everyone that she wants to go into publishing, but really she’s always wanted to be an advice columnist. (Kara would like to thank Everyone Is Gay for making her dream come true.) If she had to pick a label, she would probably go with “genderfluid polyamorous demiromantic grey-ace,” but usually she just kind of shrugs. Right now (like, probably literally right now) Kara is working on her senior thesis on representations of asexuality and asexual relationships in Sherlock fanfiction.
Don’t forget! Through Sept. 8th, every single pre-order for This is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids will be matched by our publisher, Chronicle Books, with a donated book to a local PFLAG Chapter!!!!
- Question submitted Anonymously and Answered by Karen Thompson
I’m sorry to hear about your son getting teased. I hope this answer helps and if not, maybe at least it will give you a place to start.
You have probably already done this, but you definitely need to have a short conversation with your son, making sure he knows you support him (that you are happy and proud for him to express himself however he wants). Years ago, when my son was teased about playing with “girl” toys, I told him he could play with whatever he liked. It made me sad, though, that even at that young age, he was made to feel bad about the toys he liked. If your son knows, going in, that he is okay (and supported by his mom and dad) just the way he is, it may help with some of the sting of the teasing.
I know this is a lot to put on a little person, but your son also needs to know that some kids won’t understand and may try to make him feel bad. There’s also the option of him choosing a different backpack to take to school, and then using his other one at home or to go to grandma’s house. That should be your and your son’s decision, though—not the school’s nor the other children’s. There are and will be places where it is not safe for your son to express himself, but again, that is between you and him. Having said that, though, “discomfort” does not necessarily equal “unsafe.”
Are you able to email or talk to his teacher? If you are, then maybe you can alert her to what is going on so she can be aware and try to head it off as much as possible. My niece is an elementary school teacher. She said that many times, teasing and bullying go on out of the teacher’s sight. At the very least, talking to her may give you a sense of what she thinks about teasing and how she handles it in her classroom. Also, look up or request the school’s policy on bullying. Most schools have them and are trying to teach non-bullying communication proactively.
If anything does happen—if your son is hurt or is afraid to go to school—contact the teacher and the principal, utilizing the squeaky wheel strategy. That lets them know that you are listening to your son, watching what they do, and are ready to become a nuisance if need be. : ) This is where the knowledge of the school’s policy on bullying will come in handy. You’ll know if they are in compliance and you’ll have some heft behind your complaint if you have to make one.
So now your child needs some tools. Giving him something to say when he gets teased may not stop the teasing, but he won’t have to try to think of something on the spot. My editor and I thought of something like “I know you don’t like this toy, but you don’t have to play with it,” or “I like this backpack and that’s why I carry it.” Another tool to give him would be physical activity—something age-appropriate that he enjoys and is good at. A confidence booster. In my experience with gender-nonconforming kids, they so often live in their heads, where they’re not being teased, that I think they forget about being present in their own bodies. Martial arts and team sports—all of those are good, but I also think bike riding, swimming, dancing, gymnastics, taking care of animals, and building things are all also good. I’ve noticed that children who are involved in things like this seem to carry themselves differently. And that definitely helps when being teased.
There is a ton of good information online, some of them specifically geared toward making schools safer for everyone. Try looking into Safe Schools, GLSEN, StopBullying.gov andPacer.org. If you can’t find anyone local who can help you, and if you’re comfortable doing this, Google PFLAG.org and see if you have a local chapter. I’m not suggesting this because I think your son is gay, but because they are usually involved in Safe Schools projects. If they can’t help you, they may be able to guide you to someone else who can. I’ve also noticed a huge number of blogs and stories online by moms who are dealing with this same issue.
I hope some of this helps. Please know that you’re trying to do the best you can, and somewhere in between your son bashing someone with his backpack or coming home in tears, there is a reasonable solution.
Karen Thompson currently serves on the board of Lucie’s Place, an organization dealing with LGBT youth homelessness in Arkansas, and as Vice President of the Little Rock, AR chapter of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). Karen is also a member of the Center of Artistic Revolution, an LGBT youth-centered organization in Arkansas. Karen works in loving memory of her daughter, a force of nature, Lucille Marie Hamilton–the one who taught her everything (1988-2009).
Don’t forget! Through Sept. 8th, every single pre-order for This is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids will be matched by our publisher, Chronicle Books, with a donated book to a local PFLAG Chapter!!!!
This is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids comes out in less than two weeks!
That means you have less than two weeks to pre-order a copy, which our publisher, Chronicle, will match by donating another copy to a local PFLAG chapter! Let’s help out all 350+ chapters!!
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- Question submitted Anonymously and Answered by LaShay Harvey, M.Ed.
It is so exciting to know that you have not only created a space of open communication around sex and sexuality, but that you are also supportive of your child’s decisions! Lucky for you, since you’ve already laid the foundation for safe sex, you can have what I call a “continuation conversation.” Here you can build on the principles I imagine you have already outlined for your daughter—principles that include communication prior to sexual activity, getting tested regularly, and protection. Before I provide some conversation starters, I want to highlight some misconceptions about safe sex and bisexuality, particularly for female-identified folks.
There is no such thing as “riskless sex.” There are many people who are under the impression that two women having sex are not at risk for disease or infection. This is simply not true. Yes, HIV is a very rare occurrence between women and we have never heard of a woman impregnating another woman, but infections like herpes and bacterial vaginosis* can be passed between women.
There is protection. Yes, most everyone knows that male condoms can be found anywhere, in any size, color, flavor, and on and on. But many people have never heard of or know where to find dental dams. They are square or rectangle pieces of latex used as a barrier during oral sex. They help protect against the skin-to-skin transmission of STIs and fluid exchange.
I don’t have to get tested. Getting tested regularly, no matter the gender, is so important. It helps people take responsibility for their own sexual health, it reduces the anxiety around testing the more frequently you do it, and it also sets the bar for what is to be expected from current and future sex partners.
Now that you have some idea about the misconceptions floating around, you will be better prepared when you have “the talk” again with your daughter. Here are a few ways to help you continue that conversation as smoothly as possible.
Stay calm and don’t panic. The hardest part is over. You have already had a conversation with your daughter about sex. Staying calm allows you to listen and process what your daughter may have to say, as well as provide confident feedback. Spastic parents often appear insecure and less confident to children.
Ask questions. It is always a good idea to ask your child what they think about safe sex in this new space—how confident they feel about being able to practice safe sex with a new identity. Ask what she thinks the barriers to having safe sex may be, and brainstorm ways to help her overcome those barriers.
Keep lines of communication open. Discovering a new identity often comes with many questions and desires. Assure your child that they can come to you when they have questions or just need a sounding board. I remind parents that I work with that: “processing is part of the process.” Your child may be confident about something on Monday and by Friday have seemingly made a 180-degree change. Open lines of communication can better help you and your child navigate this time.
*Bacterial Vaginosis (BV) is not considered a sexually transmitted infection since the bacteria that causes it is already present in the vagina. However, it is a common infection between women who have sex with one another.
And just in case you have a daughter who likes to research on her own (I was totally that kid!), here are a few online resources she can access. Scarleteen specializes in sexuality information for teens to early 20s. Advocates for Youth are all about helping teens and young adults make well-informed sexual health decisions. And there is always the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS); they’ve been around for quite a while!
LaShay Harvey, M.Ed., is a sexologist, professor, and researcher from the south, currently living in Baltimore, MD. LaShay teaches a course on sexuality and a course on gender at The University of Baltimore. She also coordinates a study on pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) at The Johns Hopkins University.
NEW YORK – A yellow cab creeps along a desolate Manhattan street, following Aludein Marks and a friend on a cold spring night.Marks, a teen who identifies as…
LGBTQ youth make up an estimated 40% (and growing) of homeless young adults in the nation, despite gains made for gay rights in recent years. Many of these youth flee home because their families do not accept them.
For many parents, the potential for their child to deal with mental illness can cause a lot of anxiety and fear. This is especially true for parents of queer (LGBTQQIAPP) youth, many of whom also worry about their child’s safety and their ability to live a full, happy, and successful life, given the many barriers and challenges many of us face.Statistically speaking, queer youth are more at risk for suicidal ideation and suicidality, depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and substance abuse and addiction than their non-queer counterparts.
Children typically do not bring these issues up with their parents unless it is imperative for the youth’s immediate health. Many parents and kids do not know how to broach these conversations with each other. Reflecting on my own challenges with mental health, it has taken me many years to get to a point where I can be entirely open with my family about the challenges I’ve been dealing with. I believe this difficulty in expressing my mental health needs has two main causes.
First, I was afraid of beginning a conversation with my parents about mental health because of the nature of the battles I faced—I’ve dealt with addiction, suicidal ideation, PTSD, depression, anxiety, and disordered eating, all of which are heavily stigmatized in our culture. Also, and I’ll talk about this later, given how they interacted with my queer identity, I was afraid it wasn’t appropriate for me to discuss these issues with my family.
Second, and more important, I was clueless about what I was dealing with, and how I could even put words to what I was experiencing. It wasn’t until I got to college several years ago that I realized I had been dealing with these illnesses for the last five to eight years and was actually able to put a name to them and really develop a meaningful vocabulary to describe them. It also wasn’t until college that I felt empowered to seek adequate mental health care, through which I learned how I can share these issues and struggles with my family.
As a parent, you are only one-half of the equation—if your child is not ready to share what they are dealing with, you cannot and should not force them to. But there is a lot you can do in the meantime to create an environment in which your child can feel safe accessing information, getting educated, seeking help, and, eventually, taking to you.
Open up about your struggles with mental illness/mental health. Growing up, my family never talked about mental health. I assumed I was the only person ever, both in my family and in the world, to be dealing with what I was dealing with. This perception, I found out later, was completely erroneous on both accounts. I learned of many others, in particular in my queer community, who had dealt with these issues. But I also began to learn about the mental health issues people in my family were facing. For example, nearly everyone over the age of 15 in my family has PTSD, and several have struggled with depression. This was kept from me growing up because those family members didn’t want us to worry about them. However, if I had known about what they were dealing with, I could have identified with it and modeled their good reactions; namely, getting help from trained professionals, as they did, rather than suppressing the problems further until the problems exploded.
Advocate for better mental health education in schools and in community centers like youth groups and church groups. Many high schools have health classes, but rarely do these adequately discuss mental health needs and options for children who feel like they are struggling. Programs should be based on the assumption that mental health issues can affect everyone, and should promote different ways for students to access help if they feel it necessary.
Building off these previous two suggestions, try to see how you can further destigmatize mental illness and seeking mental help. This could be as simple as checking your language. Are you telling your child stuff like “stop being so crazy” often, or belittling their needs? Are you telling them to toughen up, or are you telling them it’s ok to ask for help? Try and see what messages you might be sending your child, even if they aren’t the messages you mean to send them.
Another important consideration is your child’s agency in their own mental health management. Empower them to not just ask for help, but to feel comfortable working with you to manage it well. This can be as simple as having them call to make the appointment, doing the research with you to find an adequate therapist, or discussing the different treatment options. Make sure that they are a valued part of the process and that they know how valued their collaboration with you is.
Even if their mental health care requires more drastic steps, such as hospitalization and institutionalization, it is important that they be a part of as many discussions about their health as possible. Their input should be encouraged and respected—though that doesn’t mean it should be followed always.
Tying this all together, their competence should be respected, valued, and encouraged. When your child knows that you believe them to have agency over their life, or at least certain aspects of their life, and that you respect that agency, they will be more willing and able to talk with you. Better yet, they will be more receptive to you reaching out to them because they will understand that you’re not trying to disenfranchise them; rather, if you create an environment in which they can explore and grow into a mature young person, they will be more willing to collaborate with you, especially with something like their mental health. Most importantly, they will be better able to admit if they are experiencing mental health issues.
I firmly believe that encouraging and empowering your child to take a more active role in their mental health management will instill more self-awareness if they have mental health issues. This belief is rooted in addiction research by Dr. Carl Hart of Columbia University and the Drug Policy Alliance. According to Dr. Hart, when given the daily choice between their preferred drug and money, people with addictions who had admitted themselves to a hospital rehabilitation program almost always chose the money, even though the money wouldn’t be dispensed until the end of their three-week hospital stay, and the drug would be administered in the moment. What this demonstrates is that when people with addiction decide they want to make a change in their life, they are capable of making rational decisions. Whether they can follow through on their rational decisions is a different matter entirely.
More broadly, this suggests that when those dealing with mental illness are given more agency, they generally have the ability to make the rational decision. To make that rational decision, they must have some understanding of their needs—they must have some self-awareness of the problems they are dealing with.
As a parent, you have the ability to help your child cultivate a sense of responsibility for their health. By focusing on the larger systems that influence your child, and adapting them so your child feels empowered and self-aware enough to take initiative with regards to mental health regulation, you will not only help your child get better help, but you will set them up for success as they mature into an adult.
Erika Lynn is a white, feminine of center, mentally disabled organism who loves to frolic in fields and splash in the ocean. She’s lived a life as multiple genders and sexual orientations and enjoys critically exploring how gender and sexuality influence many aspects of our lives. Her approach to activism is intersectional, and she strives to be as race, ability, class, gender, sexuality and body conscious and positive as possible.
- Question submitted Anonymously and Answered by Laurin Mayeno
I’m sorry that your son is having a hard time at school, which I’m guessing is really tough for you. My son Danny was also bullied at that age. During his middle school years, the bullying got worse and he sometimes thought it would be better not to be alive. The tough part for me was worrying about his safety and feeling somewhat helpless to support him. The good news is that there is a lot that you can do that can make a huge difference for your son.
You probably know that you and your son aren’t alone. Children who are LGBTQ or perceived to be gay experience anti-gay bullying at high rates. Bullying increases the risk for suicide, as well as many other problems such as anxiety disorders and difficulty adjusting socially. Thankfully, there are many people working to change this reality.
To support my son, I had to be very clear about my own feelings and beliefs. If I myself couldn’t accept my son for who he was, I wouldn’t have been able to be there for him. It helped to have people I could talk to who were allies to both Danny and me. Don’t forget to get whatever support you need, including information, emotional support, and social support.
I think the most important thing I did to support Danny was to talk with him to help him build internal strength to deal with the bullying and to let him know he wasn’t alone. I listened to his feelings and helped him see that there was nothing wrong with him. I let him know I was on his side. Darlene Tando, who is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and gender blogger, says “Parents can help their child by unconditionally supporting who they are on the inside so they know without a doubt ‘I AM AWESOME JUST THE WAY I AM.’”
This idea is echoed by Carrie Goldman in her book Bullied: What every parent, teacher and kids needs to know about ending the cycle of fear. One survey she found showed that telling an adult at home is one of the things that makes it better for children who are bullied. This is especially true if that adult listens and validates their child’s feelings. It is also helpful to provide advice and check in continually to see how things are going. If you think your child is at risk of suicide, consider seeking professional support.
Things that make it worse for children include telling them not to tattle, telling them to solve the problem on their own, telling them to change their behavior, and ignoring the problem. Watch out for a pitfall that many parents fall into: never blame a child for being bullied. Under no circumstances should your child be made to think that their behavior or dress is causing the bullying. Your child may choose to dress differently or modify a behavior to avoid bullying. If this happens, it is important that they understand that this is only a tactic to make life easier. It doesn’t address the real issue, but it might make them less of target.
Another thing that was important for my son was finding peers who were supportive. Danny was fortunate that there was a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) at his school. There he found a circle of friends where he could be himself and be supported. He also learned about LGBTQ issues and came to terms with his own gay identity. The bullying didn’t stop, but he was stronger and had friends to help him deal with it.
It is very important for your son to have friends who are supportive as well as a sense of belonging. If he is lonely or isolated, help him find a place to belong. Does your son’s school have a GSA? Whether or not your son identifies as gay, it may be a place to find allies and friends. Explore ways to help him build friendships, including activities outside of school. Connections to peers can be a lifeline to help him build up a positive sense of self.
Finally, what about intervening to stop the bullying? Students have the right to feel safe at school, and school personnel are more likely to take action if you report it. Some schools are more responsive than others. On the other hand, your son may not want you to intervene. He may feel embarrassed or fearful of being labeled a “snitch.” There are no easy answers. Listen to your son and use your best judgment. You may decide to report it, especially if you think your son’s safety is at stake. Document the bullying incidences so that you have complete information and know your rights. Almost every state has anti-bullying laws. If you do report it, find out what actions the school is prepared to take and make sure your child is informed and supported.
Things got much better for my son after his first year in middle school and I’m hoping that is the case for your son as well. I’m so happy that he has you by his side as he goes through this challenging time. I wish you all the best!
Laurin Mayeno is the proud mixed-race mother of a multiracial gay son who is very passionate about creating a just and welcoming world. She is a film-maker, blogger, children’s book author, storyteller and community educator who uses her voice to build understanding and support for LGBTQ and gender-creative youth in their families, communities and schools. She founded Out Proud Families in 2013 to make more resources available that address the experiences of families of color and mixed-race families.
- Question submitted by Anonymous and answered by Dannielle Owens-Reid & Kristin Russo, co-founders of The Parents Project
Dannielle & Kristin Say:
This is a very, very common question, and it requires us to think about two things: first, the intricacies that attract us to other human beings, and second, the nuances of appearance, gender, and presentation.
On the attraction front, generally speaking, most of us don’t zero in on one small part of a person to figure out whether or not we would like to possibly date them. We don’t say, ‘Well, he has blonde, shoulder-length hair, so I am DEFINITELY interested in him.’ If you use your own life-experience to think about what attracts you to others, you will probably have a hard time making a simple, concise list.
Some of our attractions might be based on appearance, sure, but others are likely based on things like confidence, kindness, humor, and shared interests. So, the first part of this is to understand that appearance is one of many factors. When you meet the girls that your daughter is dating, remember that there are probably dozens of reasons why she is interested in this other person, and not only because of their short hair or their button-down shirts!
So, okay — your daughter is dating people that she is attracted to for a variety of reasons, but that still leaves you wondering about this ‘masculine woman’ vs ‘masculine man’ conundrum. Onward to the nuances of appearance, gender, and presentation. One of the best ways to pull this apart is to think about what you are saying in the reverse. Dannielle has a good friend who is mistaken for a lesbian all the time — she appears very masculine, she has short hair, loves to build things, and dresses in clothes from the boys section. However, Dannielle’s friend is not gay - she’s been happily married to a man for eight years. Now, if we follow your theory above, you might similarly ask her husband “If you’re married to a woman who is masculine, why not just be with a man?” We can guarantee her husband would look at you like you had 56 heads. It has never even occurred to him that, because his wife wears men’s shirts, he should consider being gay and just finding someone else.
If you want to take it one step further, you can apply this to your own attractions. If you are a person who is attracted to men, then if “masculine men” and “masculine women” were the exact same… you’d be able to date the same girls your daughter is into!
…That probably makes it very clear that it’s impossible to run a parallel between people based on outward appearance alone.
The bottom line here, if there is a bottom line (this is complicated stuff!), is that we all embody characteristics that can be considered “masculine” and “feminine.” We all have these to varying degrees and in different combinations, and those combinations are attractive to different people. Your daughter, it seems, isn’t attracted to “masculine men.” From what you have observed, perhaps she is attracted to “masculine women”… but that, too, might be an over-generalization. It may not be the short hair or the button-downs, but something about the way these women carry themselves, the way they walk through the world, the way the speak to her, that she finds attractive. We can’t ever truly know all the pieces that come into play in the relationships of others, but it is important to allow for those relationships to be just as real, just as meaningful, and just as connected as anyone else’s.
If my son is gay, so be it. Maybe he is. Maybe he’s not. Maybe he’ll be a cross dresser. Maybe not. I have no control over any of it. All I can do is be supportive….
Alert: This dad is adorable.
We recently had the opportunity to chat with Lynn Zettler about her daughter’s coming out moment. This is the third installment in a series of interviews with experts and parents of LGBTQ kids. In the coming months, we will be speaking with more parents and experts about their various experiences and perspectives.
How did Lauren come out to you?
Lynn: It was almost by accident. It was over the phone, which was unfortunate. We are very close and talk a lot. She lives in New York and I live in Indiana, so we talk a lot by telephone. I knew that something wasn’t quite right. She was probably 25 at the time, so I didn’t know if maybe we were just having a little bit of a pulling apart because she was entering a new stage in her life, but I could tell there was something different. I asked her a couple of pointed questions and she came out. And then it was a crying fiasco kind of thing.
What was your initial reaction?
Lynn: Lauren’s situation is a little unique because she was actually married to a man at the time. We had always talked about her relationship with him and he was a great guy; we all loved him. We still do. But she could tell that something wasn’t quite right, and when she figured this out, it was just very emotional for all of us. I grew up Catholic and I think I was dealing with a lot of things at once. Number one was the sexual orientation, but the other was “Oh my gosh, you’re already married—does this mean that you’ve cheated?” I was struggling with that as well, because that’s a very emotionally charged topic. It was like I was dealing with all these things wondering “Oh my gosh what have you done? And why? And why didn’t I see this coming?”
Did you have any idea before that Lauren was gay?
Lynn: In the year before, she’d been hanging around with a lot of lesbians. But my daughter is an artist and a musician, so I didn’t find that odd. I thought that it was probably very normal and typical, because the artistic crowd tends to be more open to all kinds of things. Looking back now, though, I do remember seeing some signs and signals. Nothing strong. Lauren’s a very girly girl and she had several boyfriends and like I said, she married. But now, of course, I think she was doing that all because she thought that’s what was expected of her and it wasn’t really who she was. At the time I did not see that at all, so it was a complete shock.
It was very intense that evening. I give her then-husband a lot of credit because he took the phone and said, “Lynn, you just need to end this right now and she needs to talk later.” She was very emotional and I was very emotional, and we couldn’t solve anything at that point. We needed space. I needed some space to process it and she did, too. She didn’t intend to come out to us that way—it was just all of a sudden. I asked a very pointed question and she couldn’t lie. She had to fess up and be real.
When she came out to you, what was your biggest question or concern?
Lynn: Embarrassingly, we make it all about us. So for me, I thought, “Oh my gosh, we had this huge wedding and this huge celebration and it was fantastic and it was a great party.” Which was followed with, “Oh my gosh, what will everyone think? What will everyone think of her? What will everyone think of us?” And I think that’s a very normal kind of thing to think about. Yes, it’s embarrassing because it’s kind of self-serving or selfish, but it’s natural. And unfortunately, in our culture it’s all about acceptance and who’s going to accept and who’s not. Is our family going to? We have a very large, extended family. Those were my very first thoughts. And then you also ask yourself, as the mother, “What did I do? What did I do wrong? I must’ve done something wrong.” Especially because, “How did I miss this?” It wasn’t even that I was saying what she was doing was wrong, it was more about “How did I miss this – that she had to take this path to get there?”
Who was the first person that you told and what was that conversation like?
Lynn: The exact first person would have been my husband, because we were at home and he overheard me getting emotional, although he wasn’t part of the conversation. So I told him and I think he was just in shock. He was more worried about taking care of me at that time, because he could see how emotional and upset I was. I think he couldn’t even get his head around it at first, and it took him quite a while. I think he denied it for quite some time, thinking, “No, I think she has an intimacy problem. She needs to look at some other things. Has she really thought about all that?” And I just remember saying to him, “Honey, this is so painful, I don’t think she would have come out having not already thought about those possibilities.” Also, I’m very close to my mother and my sister and I don’t remember which one I called first. My sister had a very interesting reaction when I told her. I didn’t even have to say it. I said, “Something’s going on with Lauren that I need to tell you about.” And she said, “Is Lauren gay?” And I said, “Thank you for not making me say that.” Because it was still very emotional at the time. And she said, “Lynn, I’ve been looking at everything she’s been doing. She’s hanging out with all these lesbians. I see it all over the place. It just kind of seems like that fits for her.” So it made it easier to have a family member who was supportive and very understanding.
How did you find support when you were going through all of this?
Lynn: Support was really interesting, because I’m very research-oriented. I’m a scientist by nature. So of course I jumped on the internet. I felt like, “I have to educate myself about this” all of a sudden. The LGBT community was always something that was in someone else’s yard and I didn’t really have strong opinions about it. I just felt previously, “I don’t have to deal with it personally, so it’s really not an issue” and then all of a sudden it was my issue. I was just looking for anything I could find. There’s not a lot out there. That’s why I love so much what Dannielle and Kristin are doing. I did find one website that told a mother/son story and it was very helpful because it talked about her perspective and her husband’s perspective. It made me feel better because it gave me permission to have all the feelings I was having. One of the things I realized from that website is that you grieve. You go through a grieving process and it’s because you had this picture in your mind of who your child is and who your child will be and that goes away and you have to form a new picture. And so you’re just grieving something that you thought was going forward. But the other side of that is you get to create a new future expectation. But it’s an adjustment. So there wasn’t a whole lot of support.
Do you feel differently about it now than you did initially?
Lynn: I feel tremendously different about the situation. It’s been four years, and I’m so proud of her. I’m much more open about support. I tell people my story whenever I can because I don’t care anymore if they have a judgment about it. I want them to know who I am and what I stand for regardless. It’s still a journey because who she is, is someone I’m still learning about. She still has so much depth to her that I never really knew or understood. So I’m still learning from her on a regular basis. And I love that, because she exposes me to things I never would have thought to be exposed to or to embrace. But I’m very open to that and I enjoy it tremendously. It makes me learn a lot about myself. It’s been a journey, but a very positive one. And for the most part, we have been very fortunate that most of our extended family has been very supportive and very accepting. You always have a few, and some people I know have a lot of pushback, but fortunately we haven’t had a lot. We’ve had small incidents, but I haven’t let that ruin anything. She is who she is, and I love who she is.
How do you think you were able to change your mindset about it all?
Lynn: I think it was a step-by-step process, because I cannot imagine what it must be like to come out as anything other than straight. It must be petrifying. And there’s fear for a parent, too, because you’re always thinking, “If I tell them about my child, will they change their opinion? And do I care? Or do I want to deal with that right now?” So there were some judgments I would make like, “I’m not going to say anything to that person. I have no interest in their opinion so I’ll stay away from that.” Whereas people who I really cared about and were part of her life—I wanted them to accept her. So I think that every time I told someone and got positive reinforcement it made me stronger. And it made me take that next step to just be more transparent. And I would push my boundaries a little bit.
One year she came home and we walked in the gay pride parade for a company that I used to work for. So that was one step. It takes courage, but every step that you take makes you grow. It’s just like public speaking: the more you do it, the easier it is. It’s kind of like the more you let people know who you are, you will keep the relationships that matter and for the people who don’t agree, then maybe they aren’t the right relationships for you right now. And that’s okay. People have their own journey to take and their own understandings that they need to work through. We all have these things based on how we were raised about what’s right and what’s wrong. Unfortunately, we’ve been taught to be very black and white rather than to realize that there’s a full spectrum of things in this world that make a huge difference to a lot of people. And the spectrum is what we should be looking at. Not the black and white and clear lines of definition—because one size never fits all. It just never does.
If you could do it over again, would there be anything you would change about how you responded to her?
Lynn: Looking back, if I could do it all over again, that particular night I think is a really kind of horrific memory for both of us, even though it lead to a lot of positive for us. If I could have been less emotional and just asked her what she needed, that might be one thing that I would change. And also, if I could wave a magic wand, I was looking for a book—any kind of book for parents of someone who’s come out. I found out from a friend, that some other local parents who were dealing with the same issue. But I have to be honest—when I called them, they were handling it much worse than I was. They weren’t accepting of it, and they were shielding their family from it. They were dealing with it from a totally different perspective. And that didn’t make it easier, which comes back to the support question. There’s not a lot of support. A lot of parents are afraid to talk about it. Of course now I think it’s becoming more and more accepted. The whole marriage thing was the additional layer I needed to deal with, but the important thing was just saying, “No matter what, I love you and we’ll figure this out.” That’s probably the only other thing I would change—just to make sure she knew, because I know she had to have been petrified that we would react in a really bad way and that we wouldn’t be there for her.
What advice would you give to a parent who is experiencing something similar to what you experienced with Lauren?
Lynn: My advice would be to do a lot of listening and not reacting. Save your reactions for your spouse or for someone else. But with your child, just do a lot of listening and reassuring them that you still love them. I think that’s the best thing you can do. If we have a problem with not accepting, that’s our problem. It’s not our child’s problem. They’ve got their whole other, you know, everything they need to deal with. It’s our problem, so deal with that in a different way. And just give your child the support that they need. I think it’s good to ask lots of questions; I needed to educate myself. “Tell me more about this. What does this mean? What does that mean?” There were certain terms I didn’t know. I also have a cousin who came out probably 15 or even 20 years ago now. I called her as well just to say, “Explain to me what Lauren is going to be looking for and needing.” And she reassured me, “We want the same things you do. We want the same things straight couples want. We want families and we want to spend life with a loved one. That’s what we want.”
So ask a lot of questions, do a lot of listening, and look for that support system you can do your processing with. Process it out. It’s fine. Don’t try to hide the feelings you’re having, because it’s okay. It’s normal. You’re going to have conflicting feelings, you’re going to have feelings of embarrassment, you’re going to have feelings of…you may even have feelings of shame. You may have feelings of, “What did I do wrong?” You’re just working your way through something, because we’ve been conditioned to look at it a certain way. And your paradigm just got blown up. So we need to just work through it and create something new for ourselves. And if you can do it successfully, it’s fabulous on the other side. The new paradigm is so much more free and open and just interesting and you learn so much. And that just adds to your life.
Lynn Zettler is the mother of two and has been married to her partner, Mark for over 30 years. Lynn is a proud ally of GBLT and is a strong advocate for supporting GBLT youth. Lynn is the President of Core Impact Coaching and serves as an Executive and Business Coach in Carmel Indiana.
Read more on The Parents Project, a first-of-its-kind digital resource for parents of LGBTQ kids.
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For Every Book Pre-Ordered, We Will Donate A Copy To A PFLAG Chapter!!!
We think it is very important to get This is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids in the hands of people who need it most: parents of LGBTQ kids. So, we have an important announcement:
Through September 8th, every single pre-order for This is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids will be matched by our publisher, Chronicle Books, with a donated book to a local PFLAG Chapter!!!!
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This is pretty amazing.
Please share far & wide!!
Dannielle & Kristin
by Sarah Simon
“You’re freakin’ spectacular, and if anybody tries to hurt you or tell you otherwise, I’ll give them a tracheotomy with a Bic pen…” Is what I would tell my LGBTQ(or cis/heterosexual) child every day of their life, but especially in the days leading up to their departure for college. If you’re reading this article, I’m going to assume that you’ve done your due as a parent of an LGBTQ youth—you’ve been understanding, accepting, and loving. You’ve read every article, book, and blog post about creating a safe space and being respectful of and open to your child’s experiences, and put actual hexes on those who have sneered at, whispered about, or plain old bullied your bundle of joy.
But being the Lori Duron of a parent I know you are, you may be wondering how you can still provide that system of support for your child as they begin the schlep into adulthood. Unfortunately, in this day and age, even though “it gets better” is sometimes true, being LGBTQ in the workforce, college, or anywhere else is no Sunday funday. When heading off to college, your child will need you, still—albeit in a different way than before. Lucky for you, yours truly, an LGBTQ student, has compiled a list of ways you can prepare your child for college, leaving you both feeling confident, at peace, and ready to take on this new chapter in your lives.
1. Research the pants off the school
If you are in the wild midst of the college research/application process, look into the environment in which your child will be living. Look for broad things like the percentage of LGBTQ students, or clubs that focus on queer issues, but look at small things, too—was there a drag show on the campus calendar? Was there a write-up of the drag show in the college newspaper? What was the tone of the article? Put your supah fierce sleuthing tiara on and figure out how your child will meld into the fabric of the campus.
If your kid already picked a school, that’s great! You can still do this research, and if you find that the campus is lacking in resources, talk to your kid about it, and look to the larger community surrounding the school to see what’s what.
2. Be supportive when your child comes to you with new self-discoveries
I think we can all agree that college is a time for exploration. Your child will have all kinds of eye-opening experiences that might lead them in new and exciting directions. For example, maybe your once bisexual/sexually fluid daughter is realizing that the pendulum is swinging in only one direction at this point—and that direction is gay. Maybe your child calls you up wanting to talk about changing the pronouns you’ve previously used in referring to them. No matter the case, if your child comes to you expressing any kind of changes in their personhood, being supportive and open can only help them along, and perpetuate a healthy relationship.
3. Plan for Safety
Get yourselves down to your local sporting goods store and grab some Mace, whistles, screamers, brass knuckles, or, as my parents would suggest, maybe a full suit of armor? I hate that this is a legitimate concern. Usually, only cisgender girls get sent off to school with this self-defense smorgasbord (cue feminist rage), but I’m not going to pretend that, at large, members of the LGBTQ community aren’t at risk in some way. Look, this is terrifying, I get it, and I don’t want to freak you out. Odds are, everything will be completely fine—your child is smart, the campus most likely has a blue light system, and the world isn’t all bad. But, still, I’d rather be prepared for anything and everything, wouldn’t you? Self-defense is always a good trick to have up your sleeve. Literally.
4. Let your child make their own choices
Chances are, your child’s gender identity/sexual orientation affects the way they want to present themselves, in some capacity. Plus, what teenager doesn’t want to revamp their image before college, be it through choosing dorm room decorations or through new clothing? Often times, in high school, LGBTQ teenagers don’t feel comfortable being completely who they are because of annoying bullies (who are the WORST). This is your child’s chance to come into themselves and start off on a foot that is true to who they are. Maybe your daughter has been eyeing up a more androgynous haircut on Tumblr? Chop, chop, chop it off! Perhaps your non-binary child would love a pink, bedazzled garbage can for their dorm room? Throw it in the cart, sweet thang! No matter what it is that you are shopping for, give your child the freedom to make the choices that reflect who they are and who they will become, rather than who they’ve had to be in the past.
5. Make like Idina and “Let it Go”
High school was probably rough. Maybe your child was bullied, oppressed, shut down, ignored, lonely…or maybe they thrived and piqued, in which case—great! Either way, there was probably at least one incident in which your child felt out of place due to others’ intolerance of their gender identity/expression or sexual orientation. Talk to your child. Remind them that college is a time for new beginnings—don’t allow them to go in with their defenses up. It’s a double-edged sword—in some ways, the world will always be harsh and challenging for LGBTQ individuals, but on the other hand, college is a place where most everybody can find a group of likeminded, and/or accepting people. When you talk to your child, encourage them not to forget their past struggles, but also not to let those struggles define the future connections they might make. In short, advise them to go in with caution, but also an open heart and an open mind. Guru, out.
6. Have the sex talk..again
Because of this silly, heteronormative society we live in, most of the statistics about college students and sex and STI’s and whatnot are focused around heterosexual couplings. I’ve seen many an LGBTQ friend run into an issue because they thought the rules didn’t apply to them. NOPE. WRONG. They do apply. Cycle in with your child, and in the least awkward way possible (if possible,) make sure they’re taking precautions. Not just condom wearing/birth control popping precautions. I won’t go into the sexy details…I’ll leave that for you to research (with a bottle of wine in hand.) But in all seriousness, it couldn’t hurt. Saddle up and get it done.
7. Do something fun with your child, on their turf
You could be the most amazing and supportive parent in the world who accepts their LGBTQ child, but that does not necessarily mean that you are comfortable with their identity, or that you understand it all the time. And that’s completely and totally fine. This is a journey for everyone and you’re doing great. However, as we all know, this is probably the last time your child will be living in the house full-time, and you’re going to want to make some last-minute memories before it’s over. If there is something related to their gender identity/expression or sexual orientation that your child has wanted to do, but secretly makes you bristle, try to find it in yourself to make it happen. Maybe you can read some of that bell hooks your budding feminist is always going on about and then discuss it together. Or watch that fierce “Lip-synch For Your Life” on RuPaul’s Drag Race that they love so much. The point is, in any healthy relationship, people stretch for each other. Go out of your way to make fun memories centered around what is important to your child. It will help you feel closer to this aspect of their lives, and it will show your child that you not only love them, but that you also like them. Most parents would go to the mattresses and fight for their child’s safety and happiness, but not every parent would make an effort to become part of who they are, not just a supporter of it.
8. Remember that your child exists outside of being LGBTQ
On the other hand, (I know, I know, I’m a whirlwind of contradictions…sorry), realize that you don’t have an LGBTQ child. You have a child who is LGBTQ. See the difference? Queerness is only one aspect of your child’s life…sure, it can influence a lot (the way they are treated, their safety, the way they present themselves, their friends, their hobbies), but your child is more interesting than just their queerness. With that said, make some memories on neutral turf, as well! Make pancakes together on a Sunday morning, go on a hike, go to the movies, play mini golf…literally whatever. As important as it is to embrace all of your child’s LGBTQ-ness, it is equally as important to simply embrace all of your child. (Pro tip: the night before I went off to college, my mom and I watched Toy Story 3—the one where Andy goes to college—and sobbed on the couch together and ate junk food. I highly recommend it).
9. Take care of yourself
Sending your child to college is challenging for any parent. They’re your baby, after all! On top of the usual feelings empty-nesters have, you also have to experience extra fears of safety, acceptance, and security for your LGBTQ child. Will your trans* child be able to get summer internships as easily as cisgender students, or will they be discriminated against? When your daughter walks down the street at night after a party, will people give her an extra hard time for holding her girlfriend’s hand? These are realities that parents of LGBTQ individuals have to deal with, and they are hard. To keep your sanity, use resources like The Parents Project, books, friends, or whatever it is you need to do to continue being a fountain of support, wisdom, and everything nice.
10. JUST LOVE THE LIVING BEANS OUT OF THEM
Puh-lease. As if this wasn’t already clear and you didn’t see this cheesy Nicholas Sparks ending coming from a mile away. But seriously, folks! This is literally the single most important thing you can do. Ever. When raising anybody. Love your kid. And they will love you back and everything will be great. Just love your child unconditionally—that’s the best advice I can give, because I think that’s all any child really wants from their parents.
Sarah Simon is a Sagittarius and who usually can be found with a cup of tea in her hand, and English Bulldogs on her mind. Sarah is a Junior at Sarah Lawrence College, where she studies Women’ s Studies, Queer Theory, and Psychology, and plans to get her Masters in Women’s History. She is currently an intern at the Feminist Majority Foundation in Los Angeles.
Read more on The Parents Project, a first-of-its-kind digital resource for parents of LGBTQ kids.
This is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids comes out on September 9th! Less than one month away!
Many of you, understandably/awesomely, have questions about what this book is all about, so co-authors Dannielle Owens-Reid and Kristin Russo are accepting questions and will answer four every Saturday until they answer them all!
…Aaaand be sure to pre-order your copy of This is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids, today! Your kid will thank you.