Coming out is one of the hardest things a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ) youth can do, especially coming out to their parents. I can still recall the heart-stopping anxiety that I felt on that night I chose to come out to my parents. My plan was set. I was going to tell them during a visit home. I brought my sister and her husband into the plan, partly as an insurance policy to ensure I’d follow through, but also for support. And as the night wore on, my mind wrestled over how I would initiate this conversation. My sister, who waited all night for me to pipe up, finally said, "Well, I think we’re going to go to bed now," and I knew it was my last chance. Through tears, I blurted out to my parents, "I have to tell you something. I’m gay." Their response was nothing but love and support. And, deep down, below my crippling anxiety of that moment, I knew that’s what their response would be.
As National Coming Out Day (October 11th) approaches, I’m reminded of the importance of supporting our friends and family through this process. It is so important for parents and other trusted caregivers to be comfortable talking to their children about all aspects of sex and sexuality, including sexual orientation and gender identity, just as my own parents were.
This October, as Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts (PPLM) celebrates Let’s Talk Month, I want to encourage parents to assume their role as their children’s primary sexuality educator. When it comes to any topic related to sex and sexuality, peers and the media do play a role in shaping teens’ beliefs, but numerous studies show that kids want to hear from their parents about sex and their values, and that parents are influential in their teenagers’ decision making. Sex, STIs, and contraception are important components of sexuality education, but so are family and individual values, self-esteem, and healthy relationships.
Equally as important, a comprehensive sex education program should include open discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity. While some families already discuss this topic, others struggle with it. All parents can play a crucial role in dispelling myths, challenging stereotypes, and promoting the idea that everyone deserves respect regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Beginning these conversations at a young age creates natural opportunities for building a respectful, trusting relationship that can later make your child more comfortable coming out if and when they identify as LGBTQ.
Parents’ support is especially crucial for LGBTQ youth who face hardships at school and among their peers or who struggle with negative images of LGBTQ people in society and popular culture. Transgender youth—those whose gender identity, or innermost feeling of being “male” or “female,” does not match their biological sex—or those questioning their gender identity often have separate needs from LGB youth. Every child needs to know they are loved and always have their parents’ support as they find their way in the world.
Of course, fulfilling that role as sexuality educator is not always simple. Upon learning one’s child identifies as LGBTQ, a parent may experience a variety of emotions, including grief, confusion, love, support, and anything in between. A child coming out can be challenging and enriching for families in very different ways and it’s important that everyone knows where they can go for support, whether it’s relying on each other, seeking professional help, or looking to community organizations. At PPLM, we help parents navigate these challenging conversations and empower them to take a lead role in educating their children about sex and sexuality through our parent education program, Let’s Be Honest. To reach a member of PPLM’s education team and learn more information, call (617) 616-1658 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
One of the keys to supporting your child is to understand and take advantage of other local and national resources available to parents and LGBTQ youth. Here are a few you can turn to:
- PFLAG: An education, advocacy, and support group for LGBTQ people and their family and friends, with local chapters throughout New England: www.pflag.org
- Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition: An advocacy and education group working on issues affecting transgender people: www.masstpc.org
- It Gets Better Project: An online video project to support LGBTQ youth and their allies: www.itgetsbetter.org
- GLBT National Hotline: A toll-free hotline for peer counseling, information and referrals: 1 (888) 843-4564
If you are a parent or aspire to be, for this National Coming Out Day and Let’s Talk Month, consider what it means to create a loving and supportive environment for every child, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Any time coming out stories are shared, they always begin with the reaction of their parents. Always. It is worthwhile to reflect on your own values and educate yourself so that if a young person in your family comes out, you can be an informed and supportive parent. Programs like PPLM’s Let’s Be Honest offer the resources you need to be there for your child and build a strong foundation for a trusting relationship. As loving parents, you have the right and responsibility to be the primary sexuality educator of your children and provide them the support they need.