“Discover who your child is – that’s an adventure”: on LGBT+ kids and allies
Speaking from experience as a queer-positive sex educator, Dr Nadine Thornhill specialises in child and adolescent sexuality and co-stars in Every Body Curious – the YouTube series for kids aged 9 to 12 that features real children, some with disabilities, learning about bodies, consent, sex and relationships. Episodes include Just Say Gay, Orientation and Love Is Love.
Here – and in our Speak Out video – Nadine talks about ways we can change our language, what you can say and do if your child comes out to you, and how all parents and kids can be LGBT+ allies…
“🌈I didn’t have the words or knowledge to understand why or how I was different.
I just always knew. And I knew I had to hide parts of myself or change certain behaviours
in order to be acceptable” – actor Paul Sloss, writer/star of 10-minute film Out 🌈
Straight people don’t generally question their sexual identity – they don’t have to come out as straight. But automatically LGBT+ people have had to confront difference in themselves and be self-aware. How young might someone be when they start having LGBT+ feelings, even if they don’t come to terms with them or express them till later on?
Dr Nadine Thornhill Some people say they recognised that there was something different about the way they experienced attraction or related to romance as young as age 2 or 3.
Tell us about how accepting kids can be of gender-fluid identities…
Nadine Kids can accept and synthesise what we might think of as complex concepts because they’re in that phase of taking in information about the world. If as a child you’d been taught that there’s only red and green, and you built your social concepts on this binary, and then you were told: “Actually there’s yellow, orange, turquoise and infinite shades of red and green”, that’s going to be incredibly disruptive. It would mean unlearning something you’ve accepted as axiomatic and replacing it with something that seems far more complex.
Part of it is the nature of children being more open to the information they’re getting rather than being entrenched in ideas they’ve had all of their lives.
From left: Evan McLeod, age 6, in America; Korben goes to his prom, Norfolk, UK; Colin Stuart, 6, & his dad in Australia
With young kids, knowing about LGBT+ identities can be quite simple: that families don’t necessarily have a mum and a dad, that two people can love each other no matter who they are and that love is love…
Nadine Young children don’t have the ability to think of things in the abstract. So yes, if you present them with the idea of 2 people of the same gender or somebody who identifies differently than the gender they were assigned at birth, it’s easier for them to be like: “OK. You do you. I’m watching my shows and playing with my toys and hanging out with my friends. I’m living my life; you live your life. It’s all good.”
On your website you proudly say: “I’m a black queer cisgender woman.” How do you feel about the way you came out to your parents now that you’re the mother of a teenage son?
Nadine When I was very young, I wasn’t even aware that being gay, bisexual or anything other than heterosexual was a thing. I didn’t even know that I didn’t know. I didn’t have the language, the concepts. Later I realised: it’s really about how you experience attraction, and I do not experience attraction based on gender. I’m not really picky about the kinds of genitals I like, or the kind of bodies. So it was like: “I’m not really straight – I guess I’m queer. That makes sense. That tracks.” Coming out was never an event – I was just like: “Now this is how I describe my sexuality.”
With my mother I’d posted something on Instagram, and she said: “I didn’t know you were queer” and I was like: “I kind of forgot to tell you ’cause it didn’t seem like a big deal.” And she was very reassuring and effusive. She called me back that night to make sure I knew that she loved and supported me no matter what.
I like the idea that before someone comes out to someone else, they have to come out to themselves. But it can take a lot of courage for a child to trust their parent with this important truth about who they are. When a child comes out, what’s your advice in terms of what a parent can say or ask, or how to listen?
Nadine 🌈 Try not to make assumptions about how your child is feeling, but really pay attention to where they are emotionally. They might be scared, nervous or anxious. That might be a cue to go into reassurance mode and be like: “Thank you for telling me. I love you.” Those are 2 things you can say regardless.
🌈 Take the lead from your child. Some kids might want to do it casually, like: “I don’t want my parent to make a big deal about it.” If you get that vibe you can say: “Thanks for telling me. I love you. Totally open to talk about this whenever you want to.” Keep it chill. Sometimes kids want to keep it moving.
You don’t have to press them for a lot of information, but let them know that you’re open to talking about it as much or as little as they’d like. You can ask: “Is there anything you need from me now – or moving forward?” They may not know, but open that door so they know you’re there as their support person.
🌈 If you’re struggling with some of your feelings, which can happen, find outlets for support – a therapist, a counsellor, friends or family who can hold that space while you process. It’s not your child’s job to manage your feelings, but your feelings are still valid. Look for people who are also invested in supporting your child and their wellbeing without saying things like: “Maybe your kid isn’t queer” – they are! – people who can help you get to that place of acceptance, because sometimes it doesn’t happen right away.
Out and proud: famous people and their gender-nonconforming kids… Row 1: Charlize Theron & Jackson, Sting & Eliot, Magic Johnson & EJ. Row 2: Jennifer Lopez & Emme, Dwyane Wade & Zaya, Jamie Lee Curtis & Ruby
If a parent thinks their child might be LGBT+, is it OK for them to bring it up with them?
Nadine Let your child come to you. If they haven’t said anything, there’s a reason. They may need to work through some stuff, or they may want to talk to friends, a sibling or someone else first. It can be difficult to think: “My kid’s going through something. I really want them to talk to me” and you want to be the first person they go to – but sometimes you’re just not, and it’s no commentary on you as a parent.
My advice to all parents is to think about how we talk about people with queer identities and queerness – and how we bring that into our home. Who are your friends and the people in your community? What media do you consume? When you see depictions of queerness or you encounter queer people, how do you talk about them? If you’ve been positive and supportive, it will be easier for your kid to come out to you if they need to.
Doing everyone proud – LGBT+ people making headlines and history… Row 1: Alan Turing, Ian McKellen, Josephine Baker. Row 2: Elton John, Virginia Woolf & Vita Sackville-West, Freddie Mercury. Row 3: Billy Porter, Andy Warhol, Tom Daley & husband. Row 4: RuPaul, Rock Hudson, Cara Delevingne. Row 5: Billie Jean King, Janelle Monáe, Harvey Milk
LGBT+ visibility and normalising difference are important. I like the idea of parents asking their child if they know any kids, relatives, historical figures or celebrities who are LGBT+
Nadine Absolutely. If you have a tidbit about some cool queer historical figure to share with your kid, that’s great. If your kid is into a celebrity they might not know is gay, it would be totally cool to open up those conversations.
What can parents say or do to help their kids who are LGBT+?
Nadine 🌈 With younger kids, regardless of their sexual or romantic orientation – which a lot of times we as adults won’t be aware of because they haven’t developed the language to talk about it or that’s just not where their focus is as kids – there are many books, TV shows and internet content targeted at children that include folks with queer identities. Bring those into your home.
🌈 Be open about the queer people you know – friends, family, co-workers, community – but only be as open as they are comfortable with you being: don’t out them.
🌈 Think about your social circle. There are a lot of really dope queer, trans and non-binary folks you might want to get to know and hang out with – and they have families, so chill with those families sometimes just because they’re rad and could be awesome friends.