Parenting a queer child comes with unique considerations. After all, LGBTQ+ people, despite advances in protections and rights (though, more recently, some terrifying pushbacks), may be better off than they were 20 or even 10 years ago, but this fact, sadly, remains: Often, queer people are still treated as second-class citizens.
So imagine how your kid feels. Every day for them is not exactly a Pride parade. Even at school, where they should feel safe every day, they might be dealing with cruel playground bullies who lob dangerous anti-queer slurs at them or teachers and staff who are feeling trapped by political pressure and anti-diversity school boards. Outside their school building lurks the great, big, heteronormative world, which, through religious, political and censorship attacks, is constantly telling them that who they are is wrong. These external pressures are all the more reason for a parent to love and accept their LGBTQ+ kids for exactly who they say they are.
But there’s so much more to caring for a queer kid, and if you’re reading this now, you can at least know that, yes, you’re headed in the right direction. Here are eight ways you can be the best ally to your LGBTQ+ child right now.
1. Be unconditionally accepting. Easy, right? But maybe not as easy as you think. Because it’s not just the words you use — it’s your actions, too. Does your little girl feel a sense of belonging when she wears a queer-affirming shirt? Does your little boy love My Little Ponies like I did when I was 6? Don’t judge their interests, and don’t get in the way of them — to your kid, this may imply homophobia. This is what they love, and this is who they are. And it’s your job to meet them in the very moment that they’re expressing their identity to you, no matter their age. After all, we all had school crushes, right? Why should a same-sex crush be treated any differently?
“If a 9-year-old is thinking about their sexual identity, they are obviously not too young to have thoughts about the subject,” says Roz Keith, executive director of Stand with Trans. “This doesn’t mean they are ready to engage in sexual activities — it just means that when they watch a show or a movie and have a celebrity crush, they may be crushing on someone of the same sex.”
Dalton Connally, founder and CEO of Connally Counseling, an LGBTQ-affirming mental health service in Ann Arbor, adds, “You may think that 9 years old is too young to think about sexual identity, but it isn’t, or they wouldn’t be asking the question.”
2. This isn’t about you. “Many parents only think about themselves and don’t consider their child’s feelings,” says Annie Martin, deputy director of development at Affirmations, Michigan’s LGBTQ+ community center, and herself the parent of a queer child. “This is a time for uncertainty and enormous emotional growth. Give your child the space to figure out who they are. Don’t decide for them.”
And if they confront you, telling you they feel you are exhibiting anti-gay behavior, don’t get defensive. Believe them. Respond not as if this is about you and your emotions, though you may feel hurt to hear this, but about them, entirely. Because it is. “Finally, realize that if you as a parent are confused and need more information, that’s on you to get support,” says Martin. “Not your kid.”
3. Be open to growing as an ally. Straight parents, no matter how many episodes of “Queer Eye” you’ve watched, you’ll never understand what it’s like to be LGBTQ+. So let yourself be guided by queer friends and family who can relate to your queer kid, but most of all, listen with compassion and understanding to the needs of your LGBTQ+ child. Your kid knows who they are better than anyone else, even if you think they’re too young to understand who they are. “No matter what their identity or sexual orientation, all you need to do is to believe them,” says Keith. “Questioning them or declaring that this is a phase will potentially do irreparable harm.”
4. Learn from your kid. If you’re reading this right now, you’re already making considerable progress! But also, Keith says, why not let your child be your teacher this time? After all, odds are they’ve already been, while on their journey to self-discovery, exploring their identity on their own through books and YouTube videos. Ask them if they’d be willing to share that experience with you.
Buy them some books that you think may speak to their experience (an entire list of age-appropriate books is here; some of Keith’s favorites are “The Transgender Child” and “The Transgender Teen”). Find an in-person or virtual support group in your community to get peer parent support from those who are on the same journey you’re on. Acceptance, after all, is more than saying “I accept you.”
As Martin says, “Acceptance means looking at the language that you use with your child, the values and ideas that you have around sexuality and gender, educating yourself on the topic and experience, and paving the way for your child when they’re ready to share with family.”
5. Engage to show your support. And don’t just do it at a Pride parade in June. Yes, that month has traditionally been Pride Month, but even that has changed — Pride is recognized in the summer, but your child’s identity should be recognized and celebrated year ’round. In fact, why not get yourself a rainbow pin and wear it in public every month? Show them that you’re the ally you say you are all year long. My mom did in many ways, but especially when she took me to a Cher concert shortly after I came out at 18. I had never seen so many queer people in my life; it might as well have been a Pride parade. The point is: I didn’t feel alone anymore, finally. Thanks, Mom. And thanks, Cher.
6. Ensure affirming care for your kid. Is your child’s pediatrician unsupportive? Stop going. Is your child’s school teacher holding back on supporting your kid when they’re bullied for being lesbian? Call the school. This is not the time to sit back and watch homophobic adults treat your child as if they’re inferior. It’s your job to not only support your kid but make sure everyone around them supports them too — be an advocate, all the time, as often as you’re called on to advocate. Find them a queer therapist. Seek out a gay pediatrician. And if they’re not already close to a gay relative or a queer friend of yours, now’s the time to pull those LGBTQ+ people in your life closer. Out to dinner with the family and you see the server wearing a Pride pin? Tell your lesbian girl how cool it is to see someone expressing themselves so openly.
When I was a kid, one of the first gay people I knew was my dermatolgist. And I only knew he was gay when he saw me on the brink of suicide. He must’ve recognized something I wasn’t yet comfortable openly acknowledging — that I was gay — and simply told me, during an office visit, that he was gay. I finally saw an adult version of myself in the world, and it — he — changed my life.
7. Be aware of poor allyship consequences. Everything you say and do matters — and even more than you may think. Telling a queer kid they’re too young for a Pride parade when other parents are taking their straight-identifying kids to more traditional events like a Thanksgiving parade implies that you don’t support them. That rejection can lead to destructive behavior and fuel mental health issues, including depression and suicide. A 2022 national survey conducted by The Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and mental health organization for LGBTQ+ youth, reported that suicidal thoughts have trended upward among LGBTQ+ youth people over the last three years. The Trevor Project found that 45% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, while fewer than one in three transgender and nonbinary youth found their home to be gender-affirming. Martin called these stats “really frightening.”
“These are the reasons why your child needs your love and support unconditionally and giving them a safe space,” she says. “The world can seem cruel, but your kind words, understanding and willingness to stand with them as they traverse their path in life will, in the end, play a huge role in making sure they are happy and healthy adults.”
8. Tap into useful resources. Now’s the time to be clicking the night away on Google. Look up LGBTQ-affirrming therapists in your area who will create a safe space for you and your child to speak openly. It’s important to remember, too, what skilled, effective therapists are designed to do: allow your kid to honestly explore who they are. So if you’re bothered by having a queer kid, know that gender-affirming and queer-supportive therapists are only there to encourage introspection and growth, not push some “gay agenda” that scares fearful parents away.
You can also get involved at Affirmations and take your kid to one of their youth programs, whether that be Reading Rainbow, a book club for kids ages 8 to 12, or the Youth Drop-In Center, a safe learning and networking space for youth ages 13-18 to watch a Netflix movie together or play board games. Other Michigan orgs to keep on your radar are the Ruth Ellis Center, Stand with Trans and Transcend the Binary. “Many use our center without their parents knowing,” Martin says. “One young person said, ‘I stay away from the house and come here because I hope the more I stay away, the less they notice that I am gay.’”
And support isn’t just out there for your child — it’s out there for you, too, as you navigate this brand new period of parenthood. “Find support for yourself, “Martin says, “because there are millions of other parents who have traveled this road, and they are willing to share with you.”