How to be an LGBTQ-affirming parent

The conversations we have with our kids, and the language we use when we do, really matter.

Welcome to Is My Kid the Asshole?, a newsletter from science and parenting journalist Melinda Wenner Moyer, which you can read more about here. If you like it, please subscribe and/or share this post with someone else who would too.

In honor of Pride month, I’m thrilled to have interviewed life coach, teacher and author Chris Tompkins for this week’s #ParentExpertQ&A. Chris is the author of the important new book Raising LGBTQ Allies: A Parent's Guide to Changing the Messages from the Playground. I asked Chris to elaborate on some of the themes he covers in his book: Why and how we should talk to kids about gender and sexuality in an inclusive way; why our choice of language really matters; and how we as parents can recognize and unravel some of our own heteronormative biases. I very much recommend reading his entire book — and Chris just told me that through June, you can order Raising LGBTQ Allies at a 30% discount via his publisher’s website using the discount code RLLGBTQ30.

What inspired you to write Raising LGBTQ Allies?

The inspiration for my book came from a question my six-year-old nephew asked me six years ago. Even though I had been out of the closet his entire life and my family supported me, my nephew asked me at a family function if the woman sitting next to me was my girlfriend.

I remember thinking to myself, “How could he not know that I was gay?” So the next day, I began asking around and most of the parents I spoke with didn’t think their child was old enough to understand. Some of the parents told me that it’s something they’ve thought about addressing, but they just didn’t know what to say or at what age. In fact, when I asked my own loving and supportive mother if my siblings had talked to their kids, ages six to ten, about having a gay uncle, she replied, “Oh Chris, they’re not old enough.”

In that moment, I realized that homophobia is multilayered, sophisticated, and sometimes sounds like silence.

So, in 2015, I wrote my family a letter to address a conversation I realized they weren’t having. If my nephew was old enough to ask whether I had a girlfriend, he was able to understand why I wouldn’t have one.

The letter became an article first published on HuffPost, a TEDx talk, a workshop, and a presentation that led to me working at Los Angeles Central Juvenile Hall to help support LGBTQ incarcerated youth.

And now, that letter has become a book that I’m grateful to be able to share with more families. 

You talk about the importance of discussing gender and sexuality with kids from a young age, and not framing these conversations in heteronormative ways. Can you share suggestions for how parents might bring up the topic of sexuality with preschoolers or early elementary-aged kids in ways that are LGBTQ-affirming and age-appropriate?

Absolutely, it’s a really great question that I get asked a lot. I think the best way for parents to begin LGBTQ-affirming conversations is by including same-sex examples in every day conversations. Talk to them about how some families have two mommies or two daddies. I remember after I gave my TEDx talk, a friend of mine who I hadn’t talked to since college sent me a private message on Facebook. He said my talk reminded him of when his son was about five years old and asked him, “Daddy, why do some people have darker skin?” My friend and his son were at a department store and his son, like kids often do, unexpectedly asked the question from something he observed. It’s a perfect example of the messages that children internalize from their surroundings. It’s also an example of why it’s important to have proactive conversations with children about differences.

With regard to gender, I think it’s important for parents, caregivers, and teachers to pay attention to the ways in which we can unknowingly perpetuate gender stereotypes. I started having conversations with my nieces and nephews about gender differences when they were six and they understood. I also affirmed that it’s okay for them to like activities that not everyone else their same gender does.

Even by having conversations we’re helping young people challenge heteronormativity. We’re also helping instill a sense of autonomy in how children want to express themselves naturally. Not because of how they think they should based on the dominant heteronormative and gendered messages they get every day.

In your book you talk about the importance of using the right language when having conversations with kids about LGBTQ matters — like the fact that the word different has a negative connotation. Can you share some of the other words that you see used a lot in the LGBTQ space that are not inclusive and affirming, and explain a bit about why they are not? 

Yes, this is one of my favorite subjects to address because I really believe in the power of words. I have an entire chapter dedicated to this very subject! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard words like, issues, lifestyle, different, and trend used when talking about people who are LGBTQ. For example, I often hear LGBTQ children described as being “different” from others. I even hear it from members of the LGBTQ community themselves when they share their coming-out story. And every time I hear someone use different to describe a person who is LGBTQ, I think about young children in the room. Children who may or may not be LGBTQ themselves, but who are listening and internalizing each and every word we use. As an adult, I have a strong enough sense of self to look past the word, but subconsciously, each of us fears being “othered.”

Everything is energy, including the words we use. When we use words, we’re injecting energy, and that energy can uplift or it can separate. Words can inspire. They can also bring down.

It’s not that most of the people I’ve heard use these words want to intentionally cause harm, but my invitation is for us to consider the impact of our language.

Words like, issues, lifestyle, different, and trend are subconscious residue leftover from the outdated narrative that says being LGBTQ is a choice. The most important choice we can make when it comes to LGBTQ youth is whether we choose to love and affirm them. Which includes being more mindful of how we speak about people who are LGBTQ.

Can you share a couple of your favorite inclusive children's books that can help parents have conversations with kids about being LGBTQ?

Oh my gosh, I’d love to! Encouraging young people to read is its own gift, but gifting LGBTQ-related books is one of my favorite gifts to give. Especially when it comes to helping families navigate conversations around gender and sexuality.  In Chapter 10 of my book I share LGBTQ children’s books by age range. A few of my favorites are: I Am Jazz, Red: A Crayon’s Story, Not Every Princess, Jacob’s New Dress, the Different Dragon (even though the title includes the word, “different”), And Tango Makes Three

You make the very important point that we have all been exposed over a lifetime to homophobic messages, and that therefore we often harbor homophobic biases that we don't realize we have. What are some ways for us to recognize and unravel our biases so that we can become better and more affirming parents?

One of the most consistent questions that I get, which I’m grateful to even be asked, is, “What is the best way for me to begin to raise LGBTQ allies?” And my answer is that it begins with us. It begins with me. Yes, there’s action for me to take out in the world with my nieces and nephews, with the youth I teach, or the parents that I talk to, but the work always begins within.

I truly believe that we can only take others as far as we’ve gone ourselves. As a friend, as a family member, as an uncle, and as an ally, I can only take others as far as I’ve gone myself.

Just last week I had a dentist appointment. I’ve had this same dentist for a few years and so we were chit-chatting, making small talk, and she mentioned to me that she and her wife were going out of town to visit their friends for the first time since the pandemic. It suddenly occurred to me that after all these years, I had never considered her to be a lesbian. Beneath heteronormativity lies homophobia and transphobia. Unconsciously assuming my dentist was heterosexual is a perfect example of the homophobic biases that we can unknowingly have.

It’s not possible to be socialized in a dominant heteronormative culture and not pick up heteronormative, or homophobic and transphobic, beliefs. As such, most of us automatically, conscious or unconscious, assume our children are heterosexual and cisgender (when a person’s gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth). And while the majority of the population is heterosexual and cisgender (statistically speaking), there is much to be said about the spectrum of gender and sexuality.

When we consider the possibility that the children we know and love might be LGBTQ, it helps disrupt heteronormative thinking and it prevents the negative effects of sexual and gender minority shame from taking root within a child’s belief system. 

We also help raise LGTBQ allies when we keep inclusivity at the forefront of our consciousness—whether we’re teaching inside the classroom or inside our own home.

What is the most important thing you hope your book conveys to parents of LGBTQ kids?

The most important thing that I hope my book conveys is that this is a parenting conversation for all parents—not only for those with LGBTQ kids. Although not every parent will have an LGBTQ child, their child will jump rope or play tag with a child who is LGBTQ.

I also believe that the principles in my book can support all children. Earlier this week, the parent of an adopted daughter reached out to me. He’s reading my book and he said that it’s helped him see the dominant messages his daughter has received about what a nuclear family is “supposed” to look like. Inspired from learning about heteronormativity, he even researched “bionormativity” to understand what it’s like for his daughter to go to school with kids who mostly have biological parents and who tease her for being adopted, or “different.”

The best way for us to raise LGBTQ allies is to do the work within first, then we can share. Just because I wrote a book about how to raise LGBTQ allies doesn’t mean that I’m exempt from doing the work. I’m always learning, or rather unlearning, too. The example I gave about my dentist is why it’s important for us to be mindful, present, and vigilant against fear-based forces. Otherwise, they can sneak right in.

Ultimately, my message is simple: do the work yourself and always keep an open and honest dialogue going with your children. We teach through our demonstration, so don’t let the fear of what to say prevent you from saying anything at all. If you don’t know, ask for guidance and follow your heart—by even having conversations we’re changing the stories future generations will tell.  

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Do you have a question about your kids’ challenging or perplexing behavior? Reply to this post, and I will try to address your question in a future newsletter. I’ll keep you anonymous and may edit your question slightly.

My book comes out in less than a month!! Pre-order it here!!!!