It’s the Little Things: Part 1

What does it mean to be a “good parent” to a child who is questioning his or her sexuality or gender, already identifies as LGBTQ,  is somewhere in between, or who has a friend in one of these categories? Let’s say “good” in this context means helping our kids know themselves, be good friends, and make healthy decisions. Behind those outcomes is an interim outcome: we need the conversation doors to stay open, especially where things seem uncertain or uncomfortable.

We intuitively know that little things like word choice and facial expressions matter, but the right actions and reactions often don’t spring readily to mind in the moment. And – no pressure! – the stakes are kinda high. This theme emerged in the very first interview I did for this blog.

“Parents can make it a self-fulfilling prophecy: they think [their child’s life as a queer person] is going to be hard, so they don’t stand up for them when they could, and indeed, life becomes harder than it needed to be.” – TH

Yet, as Ann Falchuk noted in her recent blog post, when it’s your kid who is questioning or coming out, parents have their own coming out process to go through, from zero to understanding to advocate, on an extremely compressed schedule. When it’s your kids’ friend, figuring out how to support that that kid, your own, and their friendship is a multi-layered challenge. But my interviews with teens and former teens brought welcome news: “good” parents don’t have to be perfect. Attention to some little things, even if uneven or awkwardly done, make a big difference.

A few small signals, or invitations to open a conversation, might seem ignored in the moment but will register:

“My grandfather, who was 94 when he died, used to watch James Bond movies with me. One day, out of the blue he paused the movie and asked me what I thought of gay marriage, and said he agreed with it. My grandparents had a house on Fire Island for years (I’m still mad they sold it) and he said they had partied with gay people out there. Taking time to talk and voice support makes a huge difference. Recently I was driving out to Long Island with my dad and there was news on the radio about the Iowa Caucus. They mentioned the Republican pledge to reverse gay marriage. My dad was reading, only half paying attention, but his reflexive grunt of disapproval was really wonderful.” -PO

“My mom always said, ‘You can talk to me about anything. The most important thing is to respect your body.’ She would say that sometimes to try to spark a conversation, and I got annoyed and angry at the time, but it was actually really important. I think it’s appropriate for parents to bring their questions and concerns. In a way, I would be more offended by a parent not being honest with their reactions even if it is painful or shows prejudice.” – MS

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Even in an era when same-sex marriage gains ground quickly, we should not underestimate the Mount Everest-like weight and carbon dioxide-like pervasiveness of the old expectations.

“A daughter of a two-mom family living in an LGBTQ-friendly neighborhood cam home from pre-school and asked one of her moms if she were sure she weren’t really a man. And many of her classmates had gay or lesbian parents.” – TH

And yet, making some small changes in language, even if you forget and don’t do it every time, can add up.

“Parents can make an effort to not create a hetero-normative environment, like by not asking ‘do you have a girlfriend?’ but ‘Are you seeing someone?’” -PO

“And don’t express relief when your kid reveals an interest in someone of the opposite sex. It undermines an opening for any discussion about sexual confusion, for your own kid or someone she knows.” – KW

“I am surprised sometimes by how many people are still using the word “choice,” and thereby implying that it’s a moral defect.” -BK

Taking the time to listen a little deeper can show what your kid really needs.

“The after-school program at my son’s nursery school had different leaders than the day program. I didn’t realize the difference in their attitudes. My son hated after-school because they made him go outside and play soccer with the other boys, while the girls could stay inside and play pretend games. He said he hated the whole thing, and I did not probe as to why. Not until he was 18 and out, and after I had started the Spanish-speaking parent support group [at the nursery school], did we sit down with the pre-school director who wanted to improve the school’s policies around gender expression. That was a big step in the healing process for him and for me.” -LM

“You have to pay careful attention to the question that’s really being asked, which is often, ‘Having two mommies is different, but is it ok?’ [Kids] all come with a bit of baggage, even from liberal families.” -BK

In movies and on TV the dialogue may be emotionally fraught, but proceeds smoothly. In real life, we have to write our scripts and deliver them at the same time, and the results (at my house anyway) are rarely pretty. Even when I eventually get across the point I was just realizing was the truly important one, I often feel I haven’t done it very well. But my research shows that movie-perfect smoothness matters much less than we parents think. Coming soon: why the “backstage tour” of a parent’s mind is better than a perfect performance.business is full of thoughts© Andres Rodriguez | Dreamstime Stock Photos

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Gender Expression

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A third spectrum is gender expression, a pattern of behaviors that typically “belong” to males or females in your community. It is heavily, if not altogether, culturally defined, and often situation-specific. Acting aggressively and speaking confrontationally in some circumstances may be “unfeminine,” but in a context of threat to her children might be “normal mama bear” behavior. You can see that studying the incidence of this gets very squishy very fast. In recent decades, the blurring of strict gender roles has made this spectrum more open for everybody, but generally more so for women than men.

Many childhood development experts consider some degree of gender-variant play normal for children. (1) When it comes to pretend, gender seems like a small stretch. Some kids’ games could be described as species-variant (“let’s be ponies”), age-variant (“I’ll be the mommy and you be the little baby”), planet-variant (“let’s go to the moon”), geologic-era-variant (“let’s be dinosaurs”), and of course, reality-variant (cartoon, magical and other characters). Some kids occasionally play at being a different gender, but for others it’s a recurring theme.

So why does frequent or consistent gender-variant play and behaviors cause concern? Parents wonder what conclusions to draw for the future, and protectively fear their child may be teased or worse in the present.

What does it mean for the future? Most studies are small, and tend to focus on the children who exhibit the most gender-variant behaviors.

A small study of boys found that three-quarters of the “feminine boys” were homosexual or bisexual using the Kinsey scale, compared to none of the boys in the “masculine” control group. (2) A longitudinal study followed 54 children who had been referred to a Dutch clinic for Gender Identity Dysphoria over 10 years, and found that “Most children with gender dysphoria will not remain gender dysphoric after puberty…. With regard to sexual orientation, the most likely outcome of childhood GID is homosexuality or bisexuality.” In their sample, almost all of those whose gender dysphoria persisted through adolescence identified as non-heterosexual, while all the girls and half the boys whose GID diminished with adolescence identified as heterosexual. (3)

An older but larger study found that 5-13% of boys and 20-26% of girls (ages 12-18) reported their own behavior as sometimes cross-gender; significant subsets reported sometimes wanting to be a different gender. (4)  These rates are far higher than the rates of biologically intersex and transgender people, and noticeably higher than estimates of non-heterosexuality.

But for many parents of kids with “nonconforming” gender behavior, the important challenge is separating concern about sexual orientation (maybe to be revealed soon, maybe in the future) from concern about teasing, manipulation and bullying right now. For young kids, the peers in and out of the dressup corner aren’t thinking about sexual activity, even if they use “that’s so gay” as a taunt. They are, in the words of a Japanese proverb, hammering the nail that sticks up. A parent has no influence on whoever it turns out little Michael-as-Glinda or Kayla-as-Batman will be attracted to a decade from now, but quite a lot of influence on how s/he feels about today’s play and the playmates reactions. More about this is in “Bias: Blatent and Latent” (coming soon).

For older kids, the verbal and physical hammering is real much too often.    GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Educators’ Network) has been conducting well-regarded broad-scale research into the social climate of schools for LGBT youth since 1999. Comparing the results from 2001 and 2011 (latest available), it’s remarkable how little has changed.

2001-10 bigSadly, although it’s becoming slightly less acceptable to say “that’s so gay,” “fag” and “dyke,”  it’s still ok in too many schools to taunt or slam into lockers someone whose behavior doesn’t match what you think a person of their gender should do. Interestingly, in this same time period the number of LGBT teens who reported hearing sexist remarks frequently or often also fell (85% to 71%) but the number who heard racist remarks frequently or often rose (35% to 42%). (5)

1. Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Health Issues and Research Gaps and Opportunities. The Health of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People: Building a Foundation for Better Understanding. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2011. 4, page 2 Childhood/Adolescence. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64808/

2. Green R: The “Sissy Boy Syndrome” and the Development of Homosexuality. New Haven, CT, Yale University Press,  1987, as reported in Kenneth J. Zucker, PhD; Susan J. Bradley, MD: Gender Identity and Psychosexual Disorders, FOCUS. 2005;3:598-617.

3. Wallien MS, Cohen-Kettenis PT “Psychosexual outcome of gender-dysphoric children”, J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2008 Dec;47(12):1413-23.

4. Achenbach T M & Edelbrock C, Manual for the Youth Self-Report and Profile. Burlington VT : U of VT Dept for Psychiatry; 1987, as reported by W J Meyer III  in his commentary in Pediatrics Vol 129 #3” March 2012, p 571.

5. GLSEN, National Schools Climate Survey 2011 and National Schools Climate Survey 2001.