When I was 12 years old, I decided that I was an alien—that was the most rational explanation for why I’d always had crushes on boys and girls. It took six years of listening to Ani DiFranco albums and meeting other “aliens” before I learned the name for what I am. I came out to my parents as a lesbian when I was 18. It was emotional, and it took time to sort through as a family. I love my mom and dad, and I know they only wanted life to be easy for me. But if sexual and gender diversity had been woven into the fabric of our family culture, this probably wouldn’t have been such a momentous occasion.
To be fair, there was less awareness in the ’90s, and my parents had fewer resources than my generation does today. Now, two decades later, I have two young kids of my own. If they are queer or trans—or something we haven’t even come up with a name for yet—I don’t want them to feel the need to dramatically “come out” to me because I’m not assuming that they’re straight and cisgender to begin with.
“Even from a very young age, kids are dialled in and pay attention to a lot of social cues related to gender and sexuality,” says Ashleigh Yule, a registered psychologist in child and adolescent mental health who specializes in LGBTQ2S+ issues, particularly transgender health. “If we want to create an inclusive culture in our family, where coming out—as queer, trans, lesbian, bi, pan or even questioning—isn’t such a big thing, we have to be setting the right tone from day one.”
I came out for a second time in my mid-20s, this time as bisexual. I married a man, so this kind of inclusion is extra-important to me. Representing diversity affirms my own identity and helps create a home of warmth and safety for my children.
“A lot of people, especially straight cisgender couples, don’t realize how much of the content that their kids engage with—books, television, fairy tales—is very heteronormative and cisnormative,” says Yule. “Children learn by watching. If everything around them is mommies and daddies, then two mommies is a new concept.”
Many experts recommend starting small. “One of the things I talk about with parents is to make this a daily topic so that it doesn’t become a taboo subject,” says Laura Shiels, a LGBTQ2S+ Natural Supports Worker at the Centre for Sexuality in Calgary. “This can cue young people to the fact that it’s a safe conversation to have in their homes.”
Creating a safe environment is more than the conversations we have, the books we choose and the company we keep; it’s also how we interact with our kids. “The nice thing about inclusive parenting is that when your little boy wants to wear nail polish, you let him do it,” says Anne Creighton, president of Toronto Pflag. Helping our kids understand that they’re loved for who they are is our number one job. Much of LGBTQ2S+-inclusive parenting is just a spin on good general practices.
I’m a queer person, so thinking about gender and sexuality is hardly new to me. However, Diana Wark, a training centre facilitator at the Centre for Sexuality, knows that, regardless of how much knowledge we enter parenthood with, “We don’t give birth to the instruction manual.”
Shiels encourages parents and caregivers to have intentional conversations about creating an LGBTQ2S+-affirming home. “Parents should ask themselves ‘What are our values around this?’” says Wark. “They should also ask ‘How do we want to have these conversations?’ and ‘What kind of language do we want to use?’ Part of it is figuring out what our parenting values are as adults.”
Sometimes our actions can have unintended consequences. According to Creighton, one of Pflag’s golden rules is to not ask your kid directly about their gender or sexuality. “Even if it’s done in a loving way, to a child, it can sound like you’re hoping for a ‘no’ answer,” she says. “If you ask, you risk driving your kid to a place where they’ll never come out.”
Similarly, Wark says many parents understandably tell their children that they will love them regardless of their gender or sexuality, but this can be deceiving. “I like to focus a bit of attention on the ‘regardless’ piece and urge parents to instead say ‘I just love you,’” she says. “This moves us beyond tolerance and acceptance. This is the piece that makes them valuable.” We love our kids because of who they are, not in spite of it.
Today’s parents are arguably better prepared for these conversations, but being an LGBTQ2S+ youth can be challenging. Yule is encouraged by the number of parents who seek her advice to support their recently out children, but she recognizes that deeper conversations are needed. “Why is coming out still such a process?” says Yule. “It’s because the expectation that many kids inherit is ‘Oh, I should be straight’ or ‘I should be cisgender.’ We need to do a better job of shifting that narrative to represent the natural human diversity we see in the world.”
As I write this, my family is threading beads, trying on tutus and affixing rainbow wings for upcoming Pride celebrations. These events are special, but attending them is just one way we celebrate diversity throughout the year. I hope my kids know this and that they are celebrated, too—not regardless but because of all the things that make them who they are.
This article was originally published online in July 2019.