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Part of being a teen is figuring out who you are — including your sexual orientation and gender identity. No matter what your teen’s identity, they’re likely to have many questions. Here’s some information and tips for talking with your teen about identity.

What should I keep in mind?

Sexual orientation and gender identity are 2 different things. LGBTQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (or queer). Lesbian, gay, and bisexual are labels that describe sexual orientation, just like straight or heterosexual.

Transgender and gender nonconforming are terms that describe the gender identity of people who don’t identify as the gender they were given at birth. Cisgender describes the gender identity of people who do identify as the gender that they were given at birth.

Questioning means figuring out your sexual orientation or gender identity. queer has many different meanings, but it’s often used as an umbrella term to describe a sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender presentation that’s not straight and cisgender.

Even though sexual orientation and gender identity are 2 separate things, many people who are lesbian, gay, or bi and those who are transgender or gender nonconforming have similar experiences growing up. They may grow up with a strong sense that they’re different from the people around them, and fear rejection from their families and friends.

If your teen has recently come out and you’re finding it hard, know that you’re not alone. You may feel worried about your teen’s health or their acceptance in your community. Or you may feel guilty for your attitude toward LGBT individuals in the past, like using words that you now know are hurtful. But it’s never too late to show your support and create safe spaces for your teen.

Finding a community of parents of LGBTQ children can be a big help in working through these issues. PFLAG is a great resource for families of LGBTQ youth. There may be other local organizations in your area that your teen’s school, your local LGBTQ center, or your nearest Planned Parenthood health center may be able to help you find.

Even as LGBTQ individuals gain more acceptance and visibility in mainstream culture, some people still have harmful ideas about gender and sexual orientation. This leads LGBTQ teens to have higher rates of homelessness, self-harm, mental health conditions, and suicide. But LGBTQ teens who feel supported by their family and community grow into happier, healthier adults.

How do I talk to my teen about sexual orientation?

When it comes to sexual orientation, try not to assume that you know anyone’s orientation until they’ve told you themselves. While it’s true that there are more straight people than people with other identities, assuming that all people are straight until they say otherwise sends the message that straight is normal. In fact, there’s no “normal” sexual orientation, and no one sexual orientation is better than any other.

If you and your teen have never talked about sexual orientation, look for chances to let them know that you think people of all sexual orientations deserve respect. You can talk with them about LGB friends or family, or even characters on TV or celebrities as a way to say that you respect people of all sexual orientations and to ask your teen what they think.

If you yourself are lesbian, gay, bi, or queer, talking about your own coming out process can help your teen feel close to you, and may help them feel like they’re not alone if they’re questioning.

Talking about respecting lesbian, gay, bi, and queer people won’t change your teen’s sexual orientation. Showing your respect for the LGBTQ community can help your teen accept themselves if they’re trying to figure out their sexual orientation or trying to decide whether to come out to you. And if your teen isn’t LGBTQ, it sets a good example about respecting people who are different from you.

What should I do if my teen comes out as lesbian, gay, or bi?

Parents are often the last to find out that their teen is LGBQ. Why is that? Because you’re the most important, so the stakes are really high. Many teens fear that they’ll disappoint their parents, or may even fear being disowned or kicked out.

Having your teen come out to you can feel overwhelming at first. You may have questions about the best way to react when your teen comes out. The most important thing to know is that they’ll be better off if they have support at home.

Here are some dos and don’ts when it comes to understanding and supporting your LGBQ teen:

  • Do let them know you love them. LGBQ teens may need more reassurance than straight teens that their parents love them.

  • Do use the same word your teen uses to describe their sexual orientation. Make note of the word your teen uses to describe their orientation and use only that word. And if your teen doesn’t want to use a label to describe their orientation — even if they’re in a same-gender relationship — that’s okay, too.

  • If you suspect your child is LGBQ, don’t pressure them to admit it. Some people don’t question their sexual orientation until later in life. Others figure out their sexual orientation while they’re young but don’t feel ready to come out to their parents or anyone for many years — and that’s okay.

  • Don’t assume it’s just a phase — but be aware that sexual orientation can be fluid for some people, and labels sometimes change. No matter what, the important part is that you accept and believe what your teen says about their own sexual orientation, and know that there’s nothing you can do to change it.  

  • Do respect your teen's wishes about who they want to come out to. Some people choose to come out to everyone in their lives and some prefer to tell only a few people. It's up to your teen to decide. Encouraging your teen to hide their sexual orientation sends a message that you don't approve of them. Do your best to support your teen in their choices about being out.

  • Do help them figure out how to come out to people. Discuss different ways they might handle the situation if coming out doesn't go as planned. This is a skill your teen will need to have throughout life, so helping them now will show you love them and are there for them.

How do I talk to my teen about gender identity?

Gender identity is all about how you feel inside and how you show your gender through your appearance and behavior. It’s a feeling that begins early in life. Not everyone’s gender identity is the same as the sex on their birth certificate. That means not everyone who has a penis is a boy or man, and not everyone who has a vulva is a girl or woman.

Gender identity isn’t about what kind of anatomy you have — and asking transgender and gender nonconforming people about their bodies is NEVER okay.

Gender stereotypes separate the world into “masculine” versus “feminine” qualities. For instance, gender stereotypes tell us that only women wear pink. But actually, anyone can wear pink, and it doesn’t mean anything about their gender identity (or their sexual orientation, for that matter). Gender stereotypes limit people, and forcing your teen to live up to gender stereotypes prevents them from being their best selves.

Transphobia is the fear and hatred of transgender and gender nonconforming people. It’s the belief that transgender and gender nonconforming people are delusional, doing something against nature, or trying to trick people. Transphobia is extremely dangerous. Transgender and gender nonconforming people — especially people of color — too often face discrimination and violence.

Parents of teens can play a crucial role in preventing this violence. Talk with your teen about how it’s important to respect and defend transgender and gender nonconforming people from violence and hate. Let them know that it’s never okay to bully someone because of how they express their gender. Help them learn how to fight against bullying.

If your teen has questions about gender identity, they can learn more here.

What should I do if my teen comes out as transgender or gender nonconforming?

Because gender identity is something that forms early in life, by the time your teen is in high school, their gender identity has already been set. Whenever it is that they choose to come out to you, whether it’s in high school, before high school, or long after, they need your love and support.

Here are some of the basics when it comes to talking about gender identity with your transgender or gender nonconforming teen and your family.

  • Do tell your transgender or gender nonconforming teen that you love them. They need to hear this from you and know that you see who they are and love them as they are.

  • Do use the gender pronouns and name your teen wants. Changing your name and pronouns (like from “he” to “she”) to match your gender identity is a common part of coming out. “He/him/his/himself” and “she/her/hers/herself” are not the only gender pronouns around, either. Many gender nonconforming people use “they/them/theirs/theirself,” “ze/zir/zirs/zirself,” or others.

  • Get to know trans-related terms and labels.

  • Don’t use words like transgendered, transvestite, tranny, or he-she — they’re outdated and can be hurtful. Ask family members and friends to not use these words either.

  • Don’t assume it’s just a phase. A teen is not too young to know their gender identity. Most actually start realizing this when they’re toddlers.

  • Don’t act like it’s a mental health condition. Trans and gender nonconforming folks aren’t delusional and don’t need mental health counseling. However, they may suffer from mental health conditions like depression and anxiety as a result of not being accepted, believed, or because of violence they may experience.

  • Do respect your teen's wishes about who they want to come out to. Some people choose to come out to everyone in their lives and some prefer to tell only a few people. It's up to your teen to decide. Encouraging your teen to hide their gender identity sends a message that you don't approve of them. Do your best to support your teen in their choices about being out.

  • Do help them figure out how to come out to people. Discuss different ways they might handle the situation if coming out doesn't go as planned. This is a skill your teen will need to have throughout life, so helping them now will show you love them and are there for them.

  • Don’t accuse your teen of being “over sensitive.” Transgender and gender nonconforming people have the right to express when something someone says is hurtful, and it’s a good thing when young people stand up for themselves.

Remember that being transgender or gender nonconforming isn’t a tragedy. It doesn’t mean your teen will live a lonely life or encounter violence wherever they go. In fact, coming out and transitioning is the beginning of a freer and truer life for many people, and is something to celebrate.   

How do I create a safe space for my LGBTQ teen?

A safe space is a place where your LGBTQ teen can be themselves without fear of homophobic or transphobic bullying, harassment, or violence. It’s a place where the people around them — as well as the people in charge — agree that negative behavior and attitudes toward LGBTQ people is unacceptable.

Home needs to be a safe space for your teen to grow, explore their interests, and work towards their hopes and dreams. LGBTQ teens have a slightly different set of needs when it comes to feeling safe, secure, and supported at home.

  • Ask your teen what they need from you to feel supported.

  • Look for signs of depression or self harm, and if you notice any, ask your teen if they’re okay and if they want to speak with a therapist or counselor.

  • Ask them about their friends and welcome their LGBTQ friends into your home.

  • Meet anyone they’re dating, ask them questions, and check in with your teen about the relationship over time.

  • Talk with them about safer sex and birth control. (Yes, even lesbian and gay teens should know about how pregnancy happens and how to prevent it because many LGBT-identified youth have sex that can put them at risk of unplanned pregnancy at some point.)

  • Make it known that homophobic or transphobic speech — including jokes — isn’t acceptable in your home.

  • Let them read books and watch TV shows and movies about LGBTQ characters, and let them explore online LGBTQ communities. (But be sure to talk about how to stay safe online.)

  • Let them wear the clothes they want to wear.

Doing well in school is hard when you’re worried about being hurt or bullied, or when you don’t feel respected by your teachers, coaches, and mentors. When it comes to making school a safe space for your teen, you can actually do a lot.

  • Ask your teen about their experiences at school — whether they feel safe, if they’re ever bullied or harassed, if they know other trans or gender nonconforming students, and if the school has any LGBTQ student groups.

There may be places that aren’t safe for your teen if they’re out, or dress in nonconforming ways. But making rules about where they can go and what they can wear can make them feel unaccepted. Keep an open dialogue with your teen about their safety so you can help them navigate those spaces and figure out what’s best for them. Telling your teen “I want you to be able to express yourself how you’re most comfortable, but I want us to figure out together how you can do that safely.” will show you love and respect them and that you’re there to help figure out challenges with them.

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