As a young person, I didn’t have any queer adult mentors to teach me about the positivity of exploring my sexual orientation, not to mention my gender identity. Most of what I learned about being LGBTIQ came from ’90s mainstream media and my Gay Straight Alliance in high school.
After high school, a couple of my friends eventually came out as gay. I listened and learned from them about their coming out stories and journeys. I also learned a lot from my queer friends of color in college.
I am out as non-binary and trans-femme in some spaces of my life, but not all, specifically not with my family. My family refuses to acknowledge my gender identity even though I have come out to them four times. And while I came out as queer as a young adult, I have yet to come out to my family about my sexuality.
Many of the comments people say to others wrestling with their sexuality are similar to what they say when someone is exploring their gender identity. The comments aren’t the same, but they are similar, because cis-ness and straightness are confounded as being the same experience by the cis straight world. That being said, there are many things I’ve been told about my sexual orientation and gender identity which hurt me both as a young person and as an adult.
I remember when I was fourteen, I was hanging out with one of my best friends. I told him I wanted to tell him something serious. Right away he responded, “Please don’t tell me you’re gay.”
I wasn’t going to tell him I was queer. I wasn’t even questioning my sexual identity then. And to be honest, I don’t remember what I ended up telling him. But what his words essentially told me was that he would not support my journey and would not be a safe person to come out to.
Being that I’m still in the process of coming out as adult, I think about the subtle cues I was given as a child — whether from individuals or mainstream media — about questioning straightness and contemplating queerness. And, when things are said to me as an adult about my being queer, my inner child hurts. Those cues I picked up as a child are triggered.
There are steps you can take in order to be a safe person in the life of a child questioning their sexuality. You don’t have to perpetuate the cycle of shame and stigma. Here are seven things I recommend not to say to a child wrestling with their sexuality.
1. “You’re just confused; you’re really straight.”
I came out to a friend who holds conservative views about sexuality. I told her I was dating a man, and she insisted I was straight. This straight supremacist tactic functions on a few levels.
On one level, heterosexist reactions to a queer person’s life tell someone that questioning straightness is “strange”, “weird”, and “not normal”. It in turn implies that the queer person themself is “abnormal”, which erases, denies, and trivializes the reality that there are multiple sexual orientations.
By telling a child they’re “straight”, this re-imposes on them what they’re already questioning, which is the cultural supremacy of straightness.
When a person says they are exploring their sexuality, the person listening should take it as honorable and humbling that the person chose to tell them. A child disclosing they are wrestling with their sexuality is a brave, bold, unapologetic act. It’s also a strong indicator that they are correctly responding to their need to take care of themself and prioritize their emotional well-being.
Telling a person they are “confused” and “straight”, in contrast, severely damages all of these healthy internal processes a child is experiencing, which can result in severe mental health issues.
2. “What would your parents think? You don’t want to hurt them.”
Often one thing young people think about in regard to exploring their sexual orientation is what their parents would think. Although prompting a child to reflect upon what their parents would think may be beneficial, this can be a double-edged sword.
Telling a child or a young person to prioritize what their parents would think models and imposes unhealthy boundaries that could have everlasting influence on the child’s emotional well-being and interpersonal relationships. It results in children learning to prioritize the emotional needs of others over their own, which fundamentally forces a child to be inauthentic to themself and the world.
Telling a child to prioritize what their parents may think of them or others reinforces the isolation they’re experiencing with respect to their sexuality. This isolation then increases their emotional distress. Many young people experience a multitude of mental health issues when fearing and/or facing negative reactions to the exploration of their sexuality, such as severe stress, depression, and anxiety.
If you’re going to ask a child to think about what their parents would think, this should only be done to strategize around how to tell their parents and to anticipate the pros and cons of doing so. It should never be done as a means to dissuading youth from questioning their sexuality.
3. “It’s because someone abused you.”
As a social worker, I encountered a situation with a young cis male teen who said he was exploring his sexuality. However, he had misgivings about exploring his sexuality because he thought his exploration was related to him being sexually abused by his uncle. I informed him that exploring his sexuality had nothing to do with being sexually abused, and that these are two completely separate things. I told him that straight people commit sexual abuse too, and that abuse is a function of power over someone else. Some of his feelings regarding this also came from his mother, who had these same sentiments.
I told both the young boy and the mother that if one is to question what “causes” being queer, then one must also question what “causes” heterosexuality. This was a very rhetorical but also substantive way for them both to simply get out of this false framework that queerness is something “caused” by something else. I decided to end the conversation there with the mother so as to not overwhelm her.
In this situation, my young teen client and his mother were associating the teen’s sexuality with the abuse from someone of the same gender. However, we often hear the stereotype that cis women question their sexuality because a man abused them. Instead of assigning queerness to survivors as if it were an expression of their trauma, we should deconstruct how abuse functions within the context of heterosexual supremacy.
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I would recommend never telling a child or young person that exploring their sexuality is due to someone abusing them. Instead, young people should be supported in both healing from their trauma and exploring their sexual orientation. Part of assisting our youth in this way is to build a culture of consent and dismantle heteronormativity and rape culture.
4. “It’s just a phase — you’re feeling this way because it’s trendy.”
Another problematic thing to say to a child wrestling with their sexuality is “it’s just a phase”. This is problematic because it again trivializes the reality of a person’s sexuality. One’s sexual orientation is not something a person can “overcome” and “get over”. It is part of person’s journey into authentic selfhood.
“It’s just a phase” also re-enforces the false idea that the “phase” arose from an experience or idea that “caused” the person to explore their sexuality in the first place.
Unenlightened adults may claim queerness is “just a phase” because they perceive it as a young people’s “trend”. Not truly understanding queerness, these adults may surmise it’s a trend or fad because young people see it on TV and it’s becoming more accepted.
However, exploring one’s sexuality is not a trend. The exploration and diversity of sexuality is documented in the many histories of various cultures and communities. It’s a very common experience.
Imposing the idea that exploring one’s sexuality is a trend, in addition to teaching a person unhealthy boundaries and acting as a form of erasure of historical culture, also teaches a young person that they are “too vulnerable” to or “easily impressionable” by the world. This further teaches a person to prioritize other people’s views of themself over their own.
What I would recommend imparting to a young person or child is to say that exploring one’s sexual orientation is very common and normal, and they are not alone. Sharing with a young person some of the histories of sexuality in various cultures and communities may assuage their feelings of isolation. I would also add that exploring one’s sexual orientation is a healthy part of growing into the person one wants to be.
5. “But you can only be attracted to one gender.”
Often, children and young people are unaware of the multitude of sexual orientations in existence. More often than not, they only know about being straight or gay.
I would not recommend telling a child or young person that there only exist two sexual orientations. In reality, there are multiple sexual orientations, such as bisexual, queer, pansexual, and asexual, to name a few.
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Telling a person they must choose to only be straight or gay further invisibilizes and denies a child’s exploration of their sexuality. If they like boys and girls, telling a young person they can only like boys may deny their bisexuality.
6. “You’ll get AIDS and STDs!”
The most common thing I think children hear is that they’ll contract sexually transmitted diseases if they explore their sexuality outside heterosexuality, especially HIV. This is a heterosexual supremacist scare tactic. Sexually transmitted diseases are as much of a concern in straight communities as it is in queer communities, and is equally as prevalent in both communities. Telling a child they will contract STDs pathologizes queer communities, as if only queer communities should be concerned with such things.
Pathologizing queer communities in this way also serves to pathologize the youth you’re talking to. It imposes the message that, just by exploring their desires, they are already “unclean” and have the potential to become even more “unclean”. Further, it makes them even more hypervigilant about their own potential community.
As a social worker who has worked with young people, what I recommend to any person seeking to become sexually active, queer or straight, is to meet with a health care professional.
7. “But you don’t know anything about that lifestyle.”
Something that is often said to to young people wrestling with their sexual orientation, which I heard my own parents say about my gender identity, is that “you don’t know anything about that lifestyle.” This “lifestyle” rhetoric re-imposes the age-old straight supremacist dictum that being queer is a choice. One cannot choose to be queer; one is born queer.
Calling queerness a “lifestyle” is a form of trivialization. It implies that the life one is already living would be completely different if they pursued a full and open queer life, which is not necessarily true. If a person is wrestling with their sexuality, they are already living a queer life or on a queer journey.
References to queer people’s supposed “alternative lifestyle” also further marginalize them by insinuating that a queer life is far removed from “normal” life and even something to be cautioned against. Often the assumption about what a queer “lifestyle” consists of is littered with homophobic tropes such as unsafe sex and hypersexuality. A supportive person would educate and deconstruct the negative stereotypes projected onto the queer community by the straight world.
What I would recommend when speaking with a child or young person who is wrestling with their sexuality is to not so much to help them find their “true” sexual identity but, rather, provide them with space to be compassionate and gentle with themself on their journey. This means assisting them in being mindful about their reflections on that journey.
It also means reminding them that they don’t have to figure out everything at once, and that their sexuality is a lifelong exploration.
Supporting a child on this journey should be a process wherein the supportive person consistently imparts to the young person how brave and powerful it is to verbalize their emotional needs. Because while the journey is a time of vulnerability and pitfalls, it is also a beautiful opportunity for growth.
[Featured Image: Photo of a teen sitting cross-legged on a red bridge outdoors next to a moped. They have light skin, long dark hair with bangs, and are wearing a baseball cap, watch, floral t-shirt, denim shorts, and sneakers. They are looking into the camera with a worried expression as they rest their face on their hands. In the background is green vegetation and streaming sunlight. Source: Pexels]