It took me a long time to come out to myself as bi-sexual and queer. I came-out as queer as a young adult. I have yet to “come-out” to my family as queer. However, I have come-out to my family as a non-binary trans-femme, but they are in denial about my gender identity. They still presume me to be a straight cis person. Although they have met my partner, who is assigned-female-at-birth and genderqueer, it would never dawn on my parents to think that our romantic partnership is queer and not straight.
I didn’t have any queer adults mentors as a young person to teach me about the positivity of exploring my sexual orientation, not to mention gender identity. Most of what I learned about being LGBTIQ came from the mainstream media in the 90’s, and when I was in the Gay Straight Alliance in high school. Over the years, after high school, a couple of friends 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 people of color friends in college.
I am out as a non-binary 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. I feel the things that are said to people when they are wrestling with their sexuality are similar to what people say when someone is exploring their gender identity. They are not the same, but they are similar, because cis-ness and straightness are confounded as the same experience by the cis straight world. That being said, there are things that I have been told in regards to my sexual orientation and gender identity which hurt me both as a young person and as an adult.
I remember when I was 14 years old, I was hanging out with one of my best friends. I told him that I wanted to tell him something serious. Right away he responded, “Please don’t tell me you’re gay.” I was not going to tell him I was queer. I wasn’t even questioning my sexual identity then. And to be honest, I don’t even remember what I ended up telling him. But what he ended up telling me essentially was he would not be a person to whom to come-out or support my journey.
Being that I am still in the process of my coming out as adult, I think about the subtle cues I was given as a child about questioning straightness and contemplating queerness whether it was personally or from the mainstream media. And, when things are said to me as an adult about me being queer, my inner child hurts, and those cues I picked up as a child regarding my sexuality are triggered.
The things that I would recommend not to say to a child wrestling with their sexuality is the following:
- “You’re just confused, you are really straight.”
One thing I would recommend not to say to a child wrestling with their sexuality is to tell them that they are “confused” and/or that they “are really straight”. I came out to a friend who holds conservative views of sexuality. I told her that I was dating a man, and she insisted that I was straight. This straight supremacist tactic functions on a few levels.
On one level, it tells someone that them questioning straightness is “strange” and “weird” and “not normal”. This then implies that they themselves are “abnormal”. This also erases, denies, and trivializes what is real, which is that there are multiple sexual orientations. By telling a child they are “straight”, this re-imposes on them what they are 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 a honorable and humbling experience that they chose to tell them. A child disclosing they are wrestling with their sexuality is also an act which is brave, bold, unapologetic, and a strong indicator of the need to take care of oneself, and prioritizing one’s emotional well-being. Telling a person they are “confused” and “straight” severely damages all of these healthy internal processes which a child is experiencing which can result in severe mental health issues.
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- “What would your parents think? Do what you parents want. You don’t want to hurt your parents.”
Often times one thing that children and young people think about in regards 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 which could have everlasting influence on their emotional well-being and interpersonal relationships. They can learn to prioritize the emotional needs of others over their own. It fundamentally enforces a child to be inauthentic to themselves and the world. Telling a child to prioritize what their parents may think of them or others reinforces their invisibility about their sexuality which increases their mental health issues. Many young people experience a multitude of mental health issues because of being silent over exploring their sexuality, such as severe stress, depression, and anxiety. If someone were 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, but it should never be done as means to dissuade them from questioning their sexuality.
- “It’s because someone abused you.”
As a social worker, I encountered a situation with a young cis male teen who said that 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 this same premise expressed with the cis women as well. We often hear the stereotype that cis women question their sexuality because a man abused them. We all know this is a false. 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 straight supremacy.
I would recommend never telling a child or young person that them exploring their sexuality is due to someone abusing them. If anybody is in a social setting similar to the one I experienced with this young teen, I would recommend supporting the young person to heal from their trauma and support them in exploring their sexual orientation. Much of this would consist of educating a young person on the consequences of heteronormativity, rape culture, and focus on building a culture of consent.
- “It’s just a phase, or 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 this again trivializes what is real, which is that exploration of one’s sexuality is not a thing that a person can “overcome” and “get over”. It is part of person’s journey into authentic selfhood. “It’s just phase” also re-enforces the idea that the “phase” is falsely precluded on an experience or idea that “caused” the person to explore their sexuality in the first place. “It’s just a phase” is also something that is said by unenlightened adults who feel being queer is a young people’s “trend” because young people see it on TV and is becoming more accepted. Exploring one’s sexuality is not a trend. The exploration of sexuality is documented in the many histories of various cultures and communities, and is thus a very common experience today. Imposing the idea that exploring one’s sexuality is a trend again teaches a person unhealthy boundaries. It is also a form of erasure of historical culture. It teaches a young person that they are “too vulnerable” or “easily impressionable” by others and the world. This further teaches a person to prioritize other people’s views of them over their own which may contribute to mental health issues.
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 that they are not alone. Sharing with a young person some of the histories regarding sexuality in various cultures and communities may break their feelings of isolation. I would also add that exploring one’s sexual orientation is healthy part of growing into the person one wants to be.
- “You can only be attracted to one gender”
Often, children and young people are unaware of the multitude of sexual orientations. More often times than not, they only know about being straight or gay. I would not recommend telling a child or young person that there only exists two sexual orientations. In reality, there are multiple sexual orientations, such as bi-sexual, queer, pansexual, or asexual to name a few. Telling a person that they must choose to only be straight or gay further invisibilizes and denies a child’s exploration of their sexuality. If they like boys or girls, telling them they can only like boys may deny thier bi-sexuality. I would recommend teaching a young person about the multitude of sexual orientations which can assist them on their journey to understanding their own sexual orientation.
- You’ll get AIDS and STD’s
The most common thing I think children hear is that they will contract sexually transmitted diseases or AIDS. This is a straight supremacist scare tactic. Sexually transmitted diseases is as much of a concern in straight communities as it is in queer communities, and is equally as prevalent in both communities. Telling child they will contract STD’s pathologizes queer communities, as if only queer communities should be concerned with such things. More specifically, this further pathologizes the communities which they are exploring and of which they potentially want to be apart. This results in pathologizing their person and their desires. It imposes on them a message that, just by exploring their sexuality, they are already “unclean”, and have the potential to become more “unclean”. It further more makes them hyper-vigilant of 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.
- “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 by my parents say in regards to my gender identity, was “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. Withstanding that queer and trans folks do live lives, this “lifestyle” rhetoric is a form of trivialization. It implies that the life one is already living would be completely different from the one someone is living at this moment in time, which is not true. If a person is wrestling with their sexuality, they are already to a certain extent living a queer life or on a queer journey. It also other-izes one’s own sense of self by projecting a distance between the life one is living now, and the life one desires to live, as if this “other” lifestyle is something to be cautioned. It also pathologizes queer lifestyles which most unenlightened people assume is composed of unsafe sex, hyper sexuality, and other negative stereotypes. 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 “help them to find their ‘true’ sexual identity” but, rather, to provide them with space to being compassionate and gentle with themselves in their journey. This means assisting them to be mindful about their reflections in 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. I also believe supporting a child should also be a process wherein the supportive person consistently directs the young person’s attention to how brave and powerful it means to verbalize their emotional needs. It is important to impart that the journey itself is both a time of vulnerability with pitfalls but also beautiful and an opportunity of growth.
[Featured Image: Teen sitting on a bridge outdoors next to a bike. They have long hair and bangs with a baseball cap, t-shirt, denim shorts as they rest their face on their hands. Pexels.com]