"Big fat ugly lesbian."
Those are just some of the names I was called in elementary school by my peers. Up until that point, I didn't know what being gay was, but I remember coming home from school one day and telling my mom a girl in my class called me a "dyke."
I still remember her facial expression: Not only shocked, but visibly upset. It was a "bad word," she said, and I was to never repeat it. The conversation ended there and it wasn't until high school that I had a more in-depth discussion with my parents.
Looking back, I wish even a decade ago, there was more awareness around talking to kids about the LGBTQ community and what it means to "come out." Since then, however, society has grown and evolved and these conversations and teachable moments are starting to happen at a younger age.
For parents, conversations with kids about coming out or being queer may come naturally or, depending on how they were raised, it might be a bit awkward. Regardless, this dialogue is important to have because everyone deserves to feel safe, validated and respected for who they are. If I had known about the LGBTQ community as a child, not only would I have felt more comfortable, but I would have also been a better friend to those who came out.
So how can parents encourage their child to be accepting of the gender and sexuality of their peers? Yahoo Life asked a therapist for tips on how to talk to kids about coming out and asked parents of LGBTQ children to share their own experiences with the way other kids have handled their child's sexual orientation and gender identity.
Start the conversation
Having a discussion with kids about gender and sexuality is easier said than done, but just broaching the topic can be a good starting point for families.
"Speaking with your child about coming out early on can help to send the message that they're unconditionally loved and accepted for who they are, creating greater safety and trust between the parent and child and in turn sending the message to kids that they can do the same for their peers," says Kate Nichols, a licensed social worker and psychotherapist at Cycle Breakers Therapy who frequently works with the queer community.
Nichols also says if a child asks questions like, "What do you think of gay people?" and "If I was gay or trans what would you do?" this could their attempt at broaching the subject. Not only may they be trying to start the conversation, but they're also looking to get a sense of the attitudes of those around them towards the LGBTQ community.
Remember the Golden Rule
Treating others the way you want to be treated, also called the Golden Rule, is especially applicable when a child's friend comes out to them or vice versa, so Nichols says it's important to emphasize this philosophy.
"Treat others as you'd like to be treated. Respect others' differences. Don't make fun of people for who they are and don't bully anyone," Nichols says.
Monica Gupta Mehta is CEO and founder of Normalizers, a non-profit organization dedicated to the support and education of LGBTQ youth. Gupta Mehta, a mom of three kids, two of whom identify as nonbinary, says when her child, Summer, came out with their gender identity and shared their autism diagnosis, she saw one friend in particular have touching reaction.
"I will never forget Summer's best friend's reaction when I explained to him that Summer is autistic," Gupta Mehta says. "After carefully explaining what autism was and how it affected Summer, his friend turned to me and said, 'The labels don't mean anything to me — I know who Summer is and I like Summer.'"
"That was the exact same way Summer's closest friends approached them [coming out as] nonbinary," she adds.
Unlike Summer, Lacy Larson's child, Creek, wasn't met with the same acceptance and kindness among peers when they came out. "Our child has been told they are a sin, called unimaginable names and insults and told to kill themselves," Larson, co-founder of The Right Pillow, says.
With experiences varying so greatly from child to child, parents who hope to teach their kids to support everyone, regardless of gender or sexuality, must be proactive in having conversations with their kids.
Encourage words of support
If a child's friend comes out to them, they may not know what to say and that's OK. The important part is for parents to educate their children on kind helpful responses that can be used in these contexts.
"Parents can suggest their kids offer words of support and affirmation to their friends like, 'I'm happy you felt comfortable telling me that and I'd like to know anything else about it if you want to tell me when you're ready,'" Nichols says. "It can also be helpful for the child to remind their friend they care about them by saying things like, 'I'm happy to be your friend and I'm here for you.'"
Gupta Mehta's other nonbinary child, Ash, was met with a hug and funny joke when they came out which they say took a lot of stress out of the situation.
"The first friend I came out to, when I came out to them they just gave me a hug and made a pun about my sexuality label," Ash tells Yahoo Life. "It was really nice for a couple of reasons: I was really scared my friends would think I was attracted to them because I like girls, but just the hug showed that they weren't going to be weird about it."
"The pun was just a really nice way of lightening my mood, because I was so scared of coming out," they continue. "It just made the whole thing feel more lighthearted — I was a lot less scared the next time I came out."
According to Nichols, responses like the ones Ash received are pretty common if the child they've told comes from a background where they grew up learning to respect and accept queerness.
Help foster safe spaces
According to a study by The Trevor Project, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among young people, with LGBTQ youth being four times more likely to seriously consider suicide.
To help kids feel less alone, fostering safe spaces is crucial. Humans are hard-wired to feel connected and validated by others, especially those in the LGBTQ community. By having these conversations with our children, we in turn help other queer kids find a community of accepting people they can surround themselves with.
"Our child has found a small group of children who identify similarly," says Larson. "This has made all the difference in the world for them. Having a community of kids who share similar interests, empathize with one another's struggles and challenges and show compassion to each other is so important."
Provide resources for your kids
While parents don't always have the correct responses to everything, there are online resources available that parents can turn to learn about the LGBTQ community. They can also direct their to children to these resources if they're interested in learning more for themselves.
Gupta Mehta and Ash, for example, run a TikTok (@MonicaTheTeacher) where they discuss the importance of safe spaces in the queer community and provide education and information to people about how to discuss topics like sexuality, gender identity and coming out.
Although talking to kids about coming out or their friends' sexualities can feel overwhelming for some parents, Gupta Mehta says it's essential.
"Allyship is extremely important, as growing up in a heteronormative society leaves many LGBTQ youth feeling lonely, isolated, abnormal and even scared for their safety," she says. "Finding a supportive community can make all the difference."
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