In this week's 'Teen Talk' column, a teenager who began to understand her queer identity in middle school shares how parents can be positive guides through their child's coming out experience.

By Adiah Siler
February 11, 2020
Illustration by Yeji Kim

Before your child comes out to you, they come out to themselves. For me, queerness was an amorphous blob of complicated feelings I'd had since before I truly understood what attraction and gender were. Over time, this foreign feeling became more and more familiar, more acceptable and understandable. But I did not truly know what I was feeling until I heard the words said aloud for the first time.

I was in sixth grade the first time a friend of mine came out to me. He was a handful of years older, gangly, and awkward. He was surprised I hadn't figured it out already.

"Don't you think it's kind of strange?" I'd asked my brother that night, staring absently at the bottom of his top bunk mattress.

"No, not really. I mean it doesn't bother me," he said.

"I'm not bothered, it's just weird to think about," I responded.

I went to sleep that night with a stomachache.

The following year, a group of girls I knew all came out almost simultaneously. I was terrified—words I was scared to say, which symbolized ideas I was scared to entertain, were becoming front and center in my world in a big way. Casual conversations about identity, whether it be in the home or among peers, can be life-changing. After a little while, as these ideas became accepted in my world, I became comfortable using words to describe them. Slowly but surely, I was prepping myself to accept my own queerness.

Gender and sexual identity can be difficult to understand at first because we as a society assume "cisgender," identifying with the sex you are assigned at birth, and "heterosexual," being attracted to the opposite sex, should be the default. This makes anyone who has feelings or experiences outside of these parameters work harder than it should be necessary to discover who we are. Parents can do everything they can to make their child feel loved and accepted, but the effect of societal and internalized homophobia makes things more complex. Here's what you can do if your child comes out to make this transition, and what comes next, easier for them.

Help Navigate Internalized Homophobia

One thing I think lots of young LGBTQ members don't anticipate is the amount of homophobia that becomes internalized as they learn and grow. Internalized homophobia is when someone projects negative stereotypes about their own community onto themselves. In a society that continues to conserve bigoted values, it's highly likely that kids will be exposed to homophobia either directly or indirectly while in the school system. If they start to believe these negative opinions of themselves, it can lead to a plethora of mental illnesses and make it so that a child might not even realize they're queer until well into adulthood.

According to J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group, only 48 percent of Generation Z currently identifies as exclusively heterosexual. It's important for parents to show compassion and acceptance to others in front of their kids, so kids can learn to lead with love for others and themselves. Parents can show examples of acceptance in their day-to-day actions as well as by reading books or watching movies with their kids that have themes of love that combat homophobia. Certain types of media do an amazing job at seamlessly weaving these ideas and words into their narratives, such as books like This is How it Always Is, by Laurie Frankel, a novel for adults on having a transgender child, Wilder Girls, a queer dystopian YA book (which I highly recommend) by Rory Power, or The Breakaways, a children’s graphic novel that touches on growing up queer, by Cathy Johnson. The internet can also be a good source of queer culture. There are hundreds of resources for how easy it is to talk about LGBTQ issues in a comfortable and competent way.

Relieve Their Tears and Fears

Your child has taken great bounds to get to the point in their life where they're comfortable sharing their identity with you. Listen to what they have to say. Pick out the parts you do understand and ask questions about the things you don't. Maybe they have a crush they need help navigating, or they just want to talk through what they're feeling. Be there to guide them.

I understand it may be hard to learn your child's path is deviating from your expectations. Maybe you've seen the way LGBTQ people are treated and hate to think of your child being bullied. Maybe you had a plan for them, one that didn't involve them going by different pronouns. Maybe the idea of something so foreign is scary, or you don't understand what gray asexual or genderqueer even mean. In the long run, the specifics don't matter. All you need to do is love and be there for your child and you will learn how to move forward in this new experience together. Discovering your identity is messy enough, why make it harder? Everyone deserves to feel safe and comfortable in their environment.

Show Love and Give Space

This moment is not about how you feel or what others may think. This is about your child. Take a moment and consider how you might feel if you were in their shoes. Would you be scared? Are you raising them in an environment where they can't be themselves? Might something you say or an attitude you have hurt them, even if that wasn't your intention? How can you make sure their needs are tended to?

It's OK to feel confused or even hurt at times like these—the process of coming out can be complex and foreign to you or your child. But that being said, no amount of confusion or hurt is worth losing a loved one over. Let it be known that you're there for them, no matter your knee-jerk reaction. It's incredibly important to be calm, careful, and to be open to listening to your child. Chances are they just needed someone to confide in.

Identity is fluid, and in a day and age where we have the liberty to explore our options easily, it's only natural for today's youth to question who they are. The process of coming out never really ends—there will always be new people to tell, new partners and pronouns to become accustomed to, and new ways for queerness to alter your child's life. But in the long run, they're the same person they were before. Queerness isn't a deviation, it's just one more thing that makes your child who they are.

Adiah Siler is an 18-year-old senior at a local arts school in Pennsylvania, where she studies writing. She's active in the political scene in her community.

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