Understanding Orientation & Identity
Today, PPLM Parent Education Program Manager Amy Cody offers an excellent feature on how parents and caregivers can engage with their kids in conversations about sexual orientation and gender identity. Amy covers basic definitions, as well as insightful thought and action points.
Why It's Important to Talk about Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Whether or not you talk with your kids about sexual orientation or gender identity, young people receive messages about this topic from various sources including their peers, the media, and the Internet. As parents and caregivers, you have a crucial role in dispelling myths, challenging stereotypes, and expressing the idea that everyone deserves respect regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity. People's beliefs about sexual orientation vary and are based on their religious, cultural, and family values. While some families already discuss this topic, for others it may be challenging.
When talking about sexual orientation and gender identity, many different terms may be used. These definitions can help make conversations clear.
Sexual orientation refers to a person's physical, emotional, and romantic attraction to individuals of the same and/or opposite gender. Heterosexual (or straight) refers to a person who is attracted to and/or falls in love with someone of the other gender. Homosexual (or gay or lesbian) refers to a person who is attracted to and/or falls in love with someone of the same gender. Bisexual refers to a person who is attracted to and/or falls in loves with someone of either gender. Questioning refers to a person who is unsure of or is exploring their sexual orientation. Some people know from a young age that they are attracted to people of the same or opposite gender. For others, it can be an evolving process.
No one knows for certain why people have different sexual orientations. There are many theories including genetics, prenatal and socio-cultural influences, and psychosocial factors, as well as a combination of all of these. But we do know that sexual orientation is not something that is chosen. Nor is it something that can be changed by medicine or therapy.
Gender identity is a person's internal, personal sense of being a man or a woman (or a boy or a girl). Transgender describes a person whose internal feelings of being male or female differ from the sexual anatomy they were born with. Some people ask, "Isn't transgender just like being gay?" No. Transgender describes a person's internal sense of gender identity while sexual orientation describes a person's feelings of attraction toward other people. Transgender people have some issues in common with gay, lesbian, and bisexual communities like: "coming out" (when a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender person tells another person her/his sexual orientation or gender identity), access to non-judgmental health care, self-esteem, and violence. However, gender identity is not the same as sexual orientation.
Before talking with your children, it's helpful to consider the messages you want to share. As a parent of an adolescent, you might want to share the following using clear, age-appropriate language:
Important Things to Consider for Parents and Other Trusted Caregivers of a Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender or Questioning Adolescent
The below was adapted from an article appearing on the Advocates for Youth website by Lisa Maurer, MS, CFLE, ACSE, Coordinator, The Center for LGBT Education, Outreach and Services, Ithaca College. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of PPLM.
1. Engage with your child. Your gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (GLBTQ) child requires and deserves the same level of care, respect, information, and support as non-GLBTQ children. Ask questions, listen, empathize, share, and just be there for your child.
2. Go back to school. Get the facts about sexual orientation and gender identity. Learn new language and the correct terminology to communicate effectively about sexual orientation and gender identity. Challenge yourself to learn and to go beyond stereotyped images of GLBTQ people.
3. Find out what kind of support, services, and education are in place at your adolescent's school. Does the school and/or school district have a non-discrimination policy and is there a Gay/Straight Alliance group? Find a bookstore with a selection of books and magazines on GLBTQ issues, or a GLBTQ community center nearby. Do you know any "out" people, or their friends and loved ones, to whom you can turn for information? (Before doing so, ask your adolescent if it's okay for you to share about his or her sexual orientation.)
4. Find out the meeting location of the local Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). Many parents say that their connections with other parents of GLBTQ kids made a world of difference in their progress toward understanding their young people. Finding another person you can trust to share your experience with is invaluable. Many people have gone through similar things and their support, lessons learned, and empathy can be very valuable.
5. Don't make it ALL there is. Just because your child has come out as GLBTQ does not mean the young person's whole world revolves around sexual orientation or gender identity. It will be a big part of who the youth is, especially during the process of figuring it all out, including what it means to be GLBTQ. Still, being GLBTQ isn't the sum of life for your child, and it is vital to encourage your child in other aspects of life, such as school, sports, hobbies, friends, and part-time jobs.
6. Praise your GLBTQ youth for coming to you to discuss this issue. Encourage the youth to continue to keep you "in the know." If your child turns to you to share personal information, you must be doing something right. You are ask-able. You are sending out consistent verbal and non-verbal cues that say, "Yes, I'll listen. Please talk to me!" Give yourself some credit-your GLBTQ child chose to come out to you.
7. Educate yourself on local, state, and national laws and polices regarding GLBTQ people. Consider educating yourself about this and finding out what you can do to work toward extending equal rights to GLBTQ people in the United States. Two Web sites that are good places to start are the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and Human Rights Campaign.
Useful Resources for More Information
The following local and national resources can offer information and support, whether you or your children are gay, lesbian, or bisexual, you know someone who is part of the LGBTQ community, or you just want to learn more information about this topic.