“We’re in the storytelling business”: how It Gets Better helps LGBT+ kids and all parents
Updated: Mar 2
You’re the parent of an LGBT+ kid. You’re the parent of a straight kid. Either way, showing up as someone who accepts and respects people regardless of their sexual orientation is important. We all need to be – and to encourage our kids to be – good LGBT+ allies.
Here Justin Tindall, director of programmes and operations at the It Gets Better Project, talks about growing up queer, coming out and trying gender-neutral language on for size…
“Not for a moment have I regretted coming out” – Justin Tindall (pictured)
How young might someone be when they first start having LGBT+ feelings, even if they don’t come to terms with them or express them till later on?
JUSTIN TINDALL We all form our gender identity very young – studies have shown that toddlers have a pretty firm understanding of their gender. We all form our sexual orientation in the years leading up to or in puberty. People who are straight or cisgender – that is, who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth – don’t have to think deeply about it. But for us on the queer spectrum, experiencing those processes stands out.
When I was 3 or 4 I was different, a bit effeminate, and I liked toys usually associated with girls. At 7 I knew I was more feminine than my peers. Boys caught my attention – I was drawn to them in a way that they weren’t drawn to me. It wasn’t sexually based; I just craved their friendship. Then going into puberty I couldn’t deny who I was attracted to. It was like: “This infatuation goes deeper than friendship.” And that was scary and extremely startling.
Because heterosexuality is the default, straight people don’t have to question their desires or how they’re socialised – or to come out as straight! LGBT+ people have to be self-aware…
There’s lots of videos out there asking people on the street: “Is being gay a choice?” A lot of people answer yes. Then they get the question thrown at them: “When did you choose to be straight?” And they admit: “I never did choose. Just: this is who I am.”
Obviously the same goes for queer people – it’s not a choice.
You don’t need to experience overt discrimination to experience the trauma of growing up queer in a non-queer society. You often wonder: “Why am I different? I didn’t choose this, but if it’s not what I want, then something must be wrong with me.” That is where a lot of trauma comes from. It’s a heavy burden for queer kids to bear.
That’s why it’s so important that at school kids hear about LGBT+ identities and families, equality, respect and that love is love – to validate LGBT+ people and make them visible
Exactly. It is tremendously important for queer kids to see so they don’t experience isolation and, often, internal ostracism. Let children know there are other possibilities out there.
When we find the camaraderie of a community of people like us – our chosen family – we can embrace our identity and say: “This is something I’m proud of, that I’d never change.”
Do you think young kids easily accept gender fluidity and a spectrum of LGBT+ identities?
Kids stare in public at things that are different but it’s not hard for them to grasp if they get a simple explanation: “Those two women love each other – that’s why they’re holding hands.”
As kids age, they can adopt their parents’ restrictive belief systems and queer phobia.
But yes, kids are absolutely becoming more understanding and open-minded. I think it’s based a lot on visibility and seeing different people on YouTube, TikTok or wherever.
I’m happy for the progress traditional media has made, but it wouldn’t be where it is without change occurring in the public space. Queer people don’t need to wait for permission to display their talents, art and perspectives on social media.
If a parent thinks their child might be LGBT+, should they bring it up or wait for their child to come out to them?
Wait. With your child, there’s a big questioning phase, a grappling phase. Let them take their time, let them figure it out. It never hurts to say: “Whoever you choose to love, I’ll be the one to love you the most” and put those affirmations out there. Put out signals. Take your child to a Pride parade or when you watch TV say: “Look at that gay couple – that’s wonderful.”
What was it like for you to come out?
I only started to admit to myself who I was at age 24. A year later I came out to my family. I grew up in a conservative Mormon community in Arizona. There were tears, frustration and misunderstandings. There was a lot of panicking because my family’s beliefs are rooted in thinking that being queer was something I chose that would only bring me sadness and pain. Their reactions made it a rough time. I wish I could say that they’ve caught up to where I am.
But because I came out, I formed so many other relationships in a way that makes it all so, so, so worth it. I found a beautiful community of people who love and support me for who I am, so it balances out. Not for a moment have I regretted coming out.
I read this great line: “Often we become queer first and ourselves second.” And: “Before your child comes out to you, they come out to themselves.” If your child comes out to you, what can you say and do to be supportive?
At the very, very least listen and express a tremendous amount of love and understanding, even if you don’t fully understand. Love and understanding are the tools you can best give your child to thrive.
It can be natural for parents to say: “I still love you” or “I would love you no matter what.” That’s beautiful to some people. To others, like me, it sounds conditional, like there are limits to their love. It doesn’t feel like: “I love you, period. You don’t have to worry about that.”
Growing up, I was a mama’s boy – but when I came out to my mom she freaked out and unfortunately, although I can forgive, our relationship has never rebounded because the message I got was that her love was conditional. I don’t feel safe or necessarily trust her with intimate information anymore. I was hurt that she wasn’t going to be the person I needed that I’d thought she would be. Immediately some wounds came through deep with that.
Do everything you can to not inflict those wounds. If you need time to figure it all out, which is understandable, do it away from your child – go to community meetings, get online, talk to other parents, try to learn.
Even if you’re scared, even if you don’t understand, even if you have so many doubts, do what you can to not put those feelings onto your child – they’re burdened enough with having the courage to come to you with that information and being the most vulnerable they’ve ever been to you. You can’t redo that moment, and queer people get asked all the time: “What was coming out like for you?” They’ll always remember it.
How can parents of both straight and LGBT+ children show that they’re LGBT+ allies?
It can be helpful to avoid gender altogether – words like girl, boy, boyfriend, girlfriend. Or you can say: “Hey, do you have a special person you’re interested in at school – a girl or a boy or someone who identifies differently?” Then queer kids can see: “This is acceptable! This is something I can divulge to my parent, because whether I’m one way or the other, it has equal value in their mind.” If non-LGBTQ+ kids hear that language, then when their friends come out or when they see queer people out in the world, it’s like: “That’s normal.”
More and more kids are coming out as gender non-conforming or non-binary, so to use non-gendered language helps kids recognise that there’s not just a girls and boys – there are other options. You can say: “What are they like?” instead of: “What is she or he like?”
I’d encourage all parents to speak – especially about attraction, relationships and romance – in gender-neutral terms to the best of their ability regardless of how their child identifies.
Beyond exposing their kids to TV shows and books with LGBT+ characters, and talking about LGBT+ historical figures and people they know, how can parents encourage their kids to be LGBT+ allies?
Allyship goes beyond having a blasé acceptance of gay people or just being OK with them. Go out of your way to demonstrate that you support them and align yourself with them.
It would have been really beneficial for me, and I think it’s beneficial for all kids, for a parent to say: “I’m voting for this person. Did you know they support gay rights?” – not because you think your child is gay, but you are sending the signal that you are accepting of all people regardless of who they’re attracted to or how they identify. That shows your kid: “Ah, my parent is open-minded, so I can be too.”
Some parents think: “I’m afraid to use the wrong words with or about LGBT+ people…”
I hear this all the time. Because they don’t want to upset anyone they don’t venture there at all. There’s this idea that queer people are uncompromising, that we allow for no mistakes.
We can read intent. So if you’re doing your best to learn, it shows. We’re always willing to forgive and coach someone. If the intent is poor – like if there’s clear malice or if people say: “I don’t know all that terminology” – that can feel more dismissive and hurtful than trying and messing up. If you do, apologise and move on. It’s not the end of the world if someone says you used the wrong word. Say: “I’m glad you told me. I’ll do better next time.”
What is the It Gets Better Project, and how did finding it help you?
The It Gets Better Project uplifts and empowers and connects LGBTQ+ youth around the globe. The heart of what we do is encouraging queer people and allies to tell their story to pave the path for a young person who’s grown up in an unaccepting home and who lands on our YouTube channel or sees our TikTok content to find guidance, love and acceptance.
The first It Gets Better videos published on YouTube had a profound impact on me. I was like: “This is beautiful that these queer people are brave enough to talk about very personal pieces of their life in a public forum.” But I wasn’t putting myself in that boat until a video made by students at Brigham Young University, which is Mormon – where I was in graduate school – changed the game for me. Seeing young people who understood the creeds that had been weighing on me and dictating how I felt about myself and navigated the world blew me away. It was the point of no return. I thought: “I need to be this courageous.”
So should parents show their kids It Gets Better videos and watch them themselves?
100%. We’re in the storytelling business. We’re constantly putting out content to reach queer kids and show them: “Look: there’s this person out in the world. Does something in their story resonate, inspire you, help you feel more prepared and confident in who you are?”
Hearing queer people talk about their stories and experiences, and the terminology they use, is one of the best ways to learn, grow as a parent, empathise, get comfortable, talk about the queer experience. I’d love it if parents would watch our videos and browse our resources.
And our new imi app for LGBT+ teens and their allies has sections on stress, gender, stigma and queerness.
A lot of sex educators feel that one positive aspect of porn is that LGBT+ people, who don’t see themselves in mainstream romance or sex ed at school, can learn from watching it…
The vast majority of pornography is dramatised and staged for maximum visual quality. That’s not how sex works, right? In porn you often don’t see protection being used, or if you do, there is no lead up to the moment: you don’t get to see how it was put on. There’s none of the pre-sex conversation or consent, communication, trying to understand the person you’re about to have an experience with. It’s a very limited perspective on what sex is.
Your kids will watch porn – whether you think so or not, it will happen. So it’s better to start with parents having a conversation with their child about porn for its pros and cons. Trying to see it through a very realistic lens could be really helpful for a lot of kids.
Why do you think it’s important for parents to talk openly with their kids about sex and relationships issues, including LGBT+ stuff?
Well, your kid will have sex one day – and it might not be with the people you think it’s going to be with. Even if your child at age 13 or 14 hasn’t come to you with questions or expressed crushes or anything, it doesn’t mean they’re not feeling it. At my school, kids that age were starting to experiment and explore sexually. It would have helped me understand and prepared me much, much, much more if I’d had a parent or adult I trusted to talk to. Basically I learned about sex from not the most accurate sources: friends and what I found on the internet about heterosexual relationships that never applied to me as a queer person.
So I ended up learning a lot about being physically intimate with people of the same gender through experience. That often can be traumatic or overwhelming – it can be tough to kind of learn as you go, which is why a lot of queer people end up experiencing sexual trauma: they’re not prepared. They don’t have a good understanding of consent, safety and communication. Unfortunately many people have their first experiences of physical intimacy in a way that’s driven by drug and alcohol consumption because it lowers their inhibitions.
If learning about sex is a struggle with a lot of cisgender and straight kids, just imagine how rough it is for a lot of queer kids.
It would have gone a long way for me if my parents had done more conversing with me about sex – not just lecturing or downloading information, but having a conversation.
On a different note: I love your nail polish – gorgeous!
Thanks. It matches a black and gold outfit I have. I go to a salon – I can’t do that detail myself. No way.