“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?