“Why are you doing this?”
I hear this question frequently when people learn that I write to help parents understand how LGBTQ issues affect their teens’ lives. I am not a professor of gender studies or a lesbian celebrity. I am a middle-aged happily married heterosexual mom, who fits stereotypes appallingly well. (Yes, even the 10 years in a minivan!) My previous careers weren’t even focused around writing.
Usually, I sense that the questioners expect drama close to home: which one of my children has just come out, or which friend of theirs has been bullied or thrown out of his/her home? I almost hate to disappoint them, but my motivation is boringly common. I just want to be a more effective parent. Ok, maybe, a more successfully nosy parent? Maybe it’s the same thing: I want to understand my kids’ world a little better.
I grew up in the 70’s in Baltimore: I joke that John Waters wasn’t even out then. (He did the puppet show at my third birthday party, and some of my friends would say that explains A LOT, but that’s another story.)
Of course, I had lesbian teachers and camp counselors, and surely some of those theater kids I hung out with were queer. Also of course, none was out and orientation was almost never discussed. When whispers came up, the default defense was a denial. Not until college did I know out gay and lesbian people, and experience an even somewhat inclusive setting.
Happily for the world, today’s teens and tweens generally have a different experience. Every day seems to bring us another step closer to equal rights and equal inclusion: same-sex marriage progress is all over the news, entertainment and sports stars come out with less and less fanfare, and queer relationships are beginning to be “normal” in television and movie plotlines. This makes it easier for teens to recognize and be authentic about their gender identities and attractions, but it adds an extra layer of social issues to carefully navigated by people with, let’s face it, imperfect judgment and undeveloped social maturity. And heightened sensitivity! Tween and teen years are minefields of awkwardness, embarrassment and hurt feelings, and it’s often hard for parents to help as it is.
I had promised myself I would be as frank and unflinching as possible in any kind of relationship and/or sex talk with my kids. I thought I was doing a pretty good job. But, a few years ago, despite being comfortable with queer friends and colleagues in my adult life, I found myself stumbling in conversations with kids about LGBT sex and relationships. Yikes! Bias I thought I had left behind? I looked hard at what was making me squirm: it was the newness to me of the idea of same-sex crushes and gender identity crisis at that age.
The idea of one or more of my kids and any of their friends not being heterosexual was fine in principle, but wait, did this mean I should rethink slumber parties? The values I wanted to communicate about intimacy shouldn’t depend on the gender of the partner… but how do you translate “virginity” if the situation isn’t heterosexual and cis-gendered?
When your kids ask you questions it’s a privilege (although I certainly didn’t see that in the moment on that bus). So, determined to have good, current-world answers I went looking for a book of advice. I looked in the Parenting section, but found that most anything related to these topics is shelved in LGBT Interest. But this is just the point, I thought, even straight people with straight kids could use a few more clues and cues. Maybe they’d need a cliché straight soccer mom to write such a book. Of course, I don’t write so much as collect and curate advice from current and former teens and parents, and review the science. After scores of interviews and hours in scientific journals, you can find my work in a blog (ummaboutthat.com) and a book (coming).
One big realization is that “perfect” parenting can happen even when conversations stumble. Saying, “gee, that’s so different from my sixth grade experience” is already the beginning of a great answer. Small things in our actions and reactions can make a huge difference in what we learn from our kids, in what they take away from us, and in how that feels – and that will be the topic of my next post.