A Parent's Primer on Kids Coming Out
What makes a tradition worth keeping? It should be useful, relevant and a unifying experience for those involved. If a tradition fails to meet this baseline, it devolves into a social convention done out of necessity rather than meaningfulness. It's important to examine and isolate those positive aspects to apply to today as a means to reach the future we envision.
"There's a dominant narrative. And if you're other than the dominant narrative, there's a coming-out experience," Thomas said. "When we have these historically oppressed identities as a part of us, there is a balance between preparing and trying to be as safe as possible. And also, hopefully, not taking that to such an extent that we're not able to live out our fullest childhood, to not have that interfere with our childhood."
Being supportive and nurturing
When some element of your child's identity doesn't resemble the mainstream—be it religion, race, gender identity or something else—it's your responsibility as a parent to facilitate their ability to explore their identity safely. If discussions of marginalized communities and your child's role in society feel too heavy to have with your young one, remember the consensus among sexual education providers these days is that it's never too early to discuss gender and sexuality with our children.
"A lot of parents say, 'I can't talk about sex, I don't know anything about sex, I'm afraid I'll make a mistake'—fine, make a mistake," said Jane Fleishman, Ph.D., a sexuality educator and sex therapist. "They don't have the skill. That's really what they mean. They're afraid. The kid has a lot of curiosity and the parent shuts down."
While avoiding these topics may feel polite, or at the least more comfortable, you're doing your child (and the adult they'll grow up to be) no favors. Introducing the topic of prejudice or otherness may feel counterproductive to cultivating a nurturing environment, but it's relevant and necessary no matter what a child's sexual orientation or gender is. These discussions will enforce a child's trust in the family as a safe place, as well as an understanding of the world.
These discussions will enforce a child's trust in the family as a safe place, as well as an understanding of the world.
"We have forgotten how much complexity children are capable of. [For example, when] children are learning multiple languages at the same time. [That complexity is] the same as what children can learn in our home," Thomas said. "'This is how we view gender and sexuality. This is how we relate to these social [values]. And the dominant culture is not the same.' But to have the factors of a supportive family makes all the difference in the world."
The supportive family atmosphere doesn't just help a child feel comfortable coming to their parents with hard questions. It also means that should your child ever come out, the event is more of a free exchange of information than the confession of a secret.
"I think it really is valuable for a child to say who they are. So in that way, we could call it coming out," Thomas said. "And for that to be heard, validated, all of those things is an empowering experience—for a person to be able to say these things about themselves and for them to be heard rather than for them to be put on them, which we do. A young, effeminate AMAB (assigned male at birth) person we might call gay. And that person really hasn't had a chance to say whether or not they are, whether they're effeminate, gender fluid, if their sexuality is gay. It's put on them."
Creating an inclusive culture
So, coming out does serve a valuable purpose, in that it allows a child to state their identity as their own. It's at this point parents have a responsibility to bear the weight of that identity with their child, especially by emphasizing solidarity as a family.
"The most beneficial starting point for the whole family system is for the family to actually take on the identity of, let's say, 'We are now a trans family. We have a trans person in our family, that makes us a trans family,'" Thomas said. "That's an incredible place to start."
With this approach, a child feels that what makes them different actually contributes to their family, as opposed to feeling like an outsider or a problem. In contrast to terrifying, high-stakes experiences where a child holds their breath when they come out and prays their caretaker loves them regardless, Thomas focuses on how coming out can be an act of individuality and loving self-ownership.
It may seem now like coming out is a necessary step in any LGBTQIA+ person's life, but Thomas can see a world where those pressures are reduced. In fact, many queer people today are choosing not to announce their identity, but rather let each life speak for itself.
"In an ideal world, how could we eradicate this experience of having to come out?" Thomas asked. "What I like to remind people is that we talk a lot about inclusivity, but inclusivity means that we have successfully created an environment where everybody was involved in creating the culture, which we do not have. We're in the phase of integration, where we have a dominant narrative and we're working hard to try to be more accepting of other narratives."
With care and plenty of open conversations, families can create that inclusive culture, at least in the home, bringing their children one step closer to acceptance in the outside world.