Raising LGBT-Affirming Kids When You’re an Imperfect Ally
As long as I’ve been a parent, I’ve always wanted to do everything I can to raise kids that feel comfortable in their own skin and feel loved unconditionally, kids who will be able to exist just as they are in our family and in the world knowing they are wrapped up in love by those they count on to support them.
Kids who have the confidence to stand up for others when they need to.
Part of that means teaching them a healthy, normalizing view of LGBT individuals so that they feel free to safely explore their own identities as they grow up and so that they can be better allies to their friends, loved ones, and community.
As a cisgender, heterosexual person who isn’t always a perfect parent or a perfect ally, I know that inclusive, supportive parenting takes work, and I know that starts with listening to LGBT voices.
Last year for Pride Month, guest blogger Fernande Galindo stopped by Coffee Nebula to share an LGBT perspective on raising LGBT-affirming kids in this incredible post.
This year, I wanted to share some of the things I’ve learned on my journey for readers who are, like me, cisgender or hetero parents working on raising LGBT-affirming kids while learning to be better allies themselves.
Thanks to an amazing community of LGBT friends and loved ones and a ton of great resources from LGBT educators, I’ve managed to put together some of the things I’ve learned.
But first, let’s quickly define a couple of key terms:
Cis- is derived from the Latin meaning “on the side of.” Sometimes shortened to just “cis,” cisgender describes a person whose gender identity reflects their sexual assignment at birth. This term is often combined with “het,” short for heterosexual, to mean a person who identifies as their birth-assigned sex and is only or primarily romantically attracted to the opposite sex or gender.
In a literal sense, “to affirm” means to offer emotional support or encouragement. To be LGBT-affirming means to acknowledge and support LGBT individuals. Bright Futures Psychiatry explains LGBT-affirming as making space for people who identify as LGBT while accepting what their identity means to them and being “willing to avoid ignorance about their experiences” and “agreeable to that person having rights that fit their identity.”
One of the best definitions I’ve found to describe imperfect allyship comes from Emily Souder of Mother Hustle:
Imperfect allyship is a concept reflecting the notion that a person can identify as an ally of an oppressed group of people (people of color, for example, which is the group I focus on here) while also accepting that they aren’t going to “get it right” with their actions each and every time. They might say the wrong thing, or get confused. An imperfect ally may even freeze or feel paralyzed about what to do next. They accept that they don’t know everything (because let’s be honest, of course they don’t). What they have, though, is a heart and spirit open to learning, re-learning, and doing better.
One thing the world seems to be short on these days is normalizing the experience of admitting when we’ve been wrong and embracing a willingness to learn, grow from, and openly discuss our mistakes. This is also one of the hardest things for most people to do…it certainly is for me.
Like a lot of ’80s and ’90s kids in the Bible belt, I’ve had to spend many years of my adult life working to gradually untangle much of the problematic and harmful biases I held and continue to hold about LGBT people and issues.
Until I was about 20 years old, most of what I knew about what it means to be LGBT came from one of three places:
- My fundamentalist church
- My community
- Pop culture
I grew up in a church that was informed by a hardline fire-and-brimstone approach when it came to anything that didn’t fit with late 20th-century conservative values, cherry-picking Levitical law accordingly.
When I say that I was religious, I mean I was extremely religious. I annotated my Bible, did the daily devotionals, took notes during every sermon, and parroted back everything I was taught without question. I went on mission trips, knew all the Christian pop music parody songs, and even taught Sunday School for a while.
While I love and respect the faith of all of my fundamentalist friends and family, I eventually came to realize that my church had a habit of repackaging some pretty hateful beliefs as “Christian concern.”
Without getting too deep into the theology or repeating any of the hurtful language, I still feel extremely remorseful today when I reflect on some of the beliefs and assumptions I held based on those teachings and openly shared in public spaces when talking about LGBT folks.
It’s especially easy to hold onto these ideas when your entire understanding is based on othering and offensive tropes written by cisgender heterosexuals. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, LGBT representation in films and on TV was poor. When it did exist, it tended to be woefully stereotypical and primarily focused on gay men. I am ashamed to say that for many years, my concept of LGBT was primarily shaped by the Blue Oyster Club scene from the Police Academy films (for a gay man’s perspective on how toxic this era was for LGBT individuals, check out this essay from Eric Jimenez-Lindmeier).
And while I’ve spent most of my adult life working on deconstructing my preconceived notions and finding better ways to be an ally to LGBT folks, I know I’ve got a long way to go. While I can’t undo any of the damage I’ve done to others in my own ignorance, I can choose to speak openly about those mistakes to normalize personal growth for my kids.
If you’re just now starting to learn about LGBT issues for the first time, all of this can seem overwhelming, especially if you’re coming from a background similar to mine. Here is a terrific discussion of intent versus impact to help you navigate missteps as you work on trying to educate yourself.
Encourage Kids to Be Themselves
The rise and fall of the gender reveal party serves as a somewhat bizarre metaphor for why emphasizing traditional gender roles isn’t the healthiest way to celebrate a new child’s individuality. It’s almost a little too on the nose that so many of these events have quite literally gone up in smoke.
But even without the explosions, forest fires, and alligator abuse (I’m not kidding) that somehow keep popping up at gender reveal parties, these events shine a light on so much of the worst baggage that comes with social expectations about gender by emphasizing stereotypes.
These are just a few cringy examples of gender reveal dichotomies:
- Tutus versus touchdowns
- Pink versus blue
- Baseballs versus bows
- Guns versus glitter
Someone will surely object that these are supposed to just be “in good fun.” The problem with that thinking is that there’s a direct line between this type of thinking and boys being told they shouldn’t cry, girls being given dolls while boys are given tools, boys getting pressured to join sports when they’d rather pursue fashion, or kids afraid to tell their folks they’d rather take a boy to the prom than a girl.
Studies have shown that rigid and stereotyped gender roles can negatively impact a child’s self-esteem. According to Common Sense Media, “a lifetime of viewing stereotypical media becomes so ingrained it can ultimately affect kids’ career choices, self-worth, relationships, and ability to achieve their full potential.”
I don’t think getting jazzed about a kid’s gender necessarily comes from a wrong-hearted place. After all, it’s the first thing you really know about a new baby while you’re waiting to meet them. It gives you the first glimpse into who they might be. If people could see their kids’ eyes or hair color, I honestly think we’d have parties celebrating those facts. But one of the best parts of raising kids is in realizing that they are their own unique person. Why put limitations on who they are before they’re even born?
And for that matter, why do one set of kids need to wear body-fitting clothing that don’t even have useful pockets? Why should another group of kids only have boring clothing in primarily neutrals, blues, and reds? Why can’t kids just play with whatever they want to? What about a certain style of clothing or a certain color of toy even makes them gendered? If you think about it, it’s pretty weird that we gender things like skinny jeans and toy guns to begin with.
On the other hand, letting kids explore all of their interests encourages intellectual curiosity, and letting them dress however they want to dress gives them an outlet for exploring their unique personality and how they want to express who they are.
A family’s support and acceptance is crucial to every child’s well-being and safety. Even if you don’t yet know if your child is LGBT, make sure they understand that your home is a safe and loving environment to be themselves, regardless of their sexuality or gender identity.
According to the Institute of Medicine, LGBT youth have a greater risk of poor physical and mental health than their cisgender and heterosexual peers, while the Pediatric Clinics of North America found that “family support and acceptance is associated with greater self-esteem, social support, general health status, less depression, less substance abuse, and less suicidal ideation and behaviors among LGBT youth.”
The Pediatric Clinics also found that family support for LGBT teens is correlated with lower incidence of substance abuse and is especially protective against depression for transgender youth.
For advice on how to respond if your child comes out as LGBT, check out this article from Family Equality.
This advice comes from our good friend Casey, who tied the knot with his husband Jory last year. “Society tells us we are islands and that our actions are just our own,” he told me, describing this culture as “toxic individuality.”
But to be part of a healthy community, we need to teach kids to engage in a type of community stewardship, working together to make the world a better place. As Casey explained, “I think the word I am looking for is citizenship. To help them understand that we are all united and other people’s experience affects the world around them.”
To find out more about raising activist kids, I spoke with another dear friend, Olivia, whose teenagers have been involved in community activism alongside her for years. “I think I’ve taught mine through example – in my jobs and how I live, taking them to rallies and to talk to legislators. Letting them know they have a voice and it matters.”
Start by teaching kids to stand up for others and focus on raising confident kids who aren’t afraid to speak out against bullying. According to the CDC, 33% of self-identifying LGBT kids reported bullying within the past year as compared to around 17% for among their heterosexual classmates. These kids are also more likely to be cyberbullied or to avoid school out of fear for their safety. For resources on anti-bullying education, check out this tool kit.
One of the most important things you can do to be a better ally and raise the next generation of allies is to listen. And for some reason, it can sometimes be one of the hardest things to do.
Make a point of actively seeking and listening to many diverse LGBT voices. Below are a few more resources for further reading:
7 Easy Ways to Be an Ally When You’re Cishet
LGBTQ Terminology Glossary with helpful videos from It Gets Better Project
Video on understanding sex and sexuality with Crash Course Sociology
Bonus for TV Geeks
If you love great teen and tween-rated family-friendly TV with a positive, normalizing representation of LGBT individuals as much as we do, here are a few of our family’s favorite recommendations to check out:
Xena, Warrior Princess (Roku)
The Owl House (Disney)
Steven Universe (Cartoon Network)
Schitt’s Creek (Netflix)
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (Netflix)
I love reading your comments and listening to what you have to share, so please feel free to add to the discussion below. Thanks for reading, and I hope you have a beautiful week in your nebula.