Sexual orientation and outing among teenagers
“Dear parents, I’m straight.” Or gay?
This article is primarily aimed at heterosexual parents, as sexual education in families with same-sex parents is based on different prerequisites.
“Mum, I still have laundry. Oh, and I’m going out with Lea now.”
Coming-out is such a thing: Many young people postpone the moment for a long time, brooding over possible reactions, shame and rejection. Some people only come out in adulthood, some keep the often-ambivalent feelings about their own sexual orientation to themselves throughout their lives.
But then there is also the picture-perfect coming-out: which is not one at all. For example, when the daughter falls in love for the first time and at dinner simply says: “Mum, Dad, I have a girlfriend. Or: I am totally in love, what should I do? And the parents deal with it exactly as if the daughter was in love with a boy. Empathetic, interested, enlightening. And, of course, concerned for the welfare of the child.
How a coming-out unfolds and whether it is necessary at all does not of course simply depend on the young person, but above all on parents, environment, education, religion and place of residence. Thus, also differently socialised parents have completely different questions, if it concerns homosexuality of their own children. Open, diversity-trained and interested parents are more likely to ask how they can educate, support and accompany their child at an early age, while religious or conservative parents, for example, are more likely to deal with old prejudices and the new reality because of prejudices, doubts and fears about the future and social position.
The reactions a coming-out encounters in a family can be as diverse as the different social situations and social milieus in which they occur. So, it may well be that parents had little contact with homosexuality in their own biographies, but nevertheless, once confronted with it, quickly become supportive and interested counterparts. Also, parents may have always claimed to be “tolerant” and yet react with rejection, fear and prejudice when their own children come out.
Why is my child homosexual? Is it our upbringing?
Ideally, parents should not waste time on the question of how it could happen that their own children do not conform to the heterosexual norm. The past has shown that research into the causes of homosexuality often interested people primarily because they wanted to fight homosexuality or understood it as a mistake. So, anyone who wonders how homosexuality arises should always ask themselves: Why do I want to know? Homosexuality is no different from heterosexuality, it is not a deviation, an error of nature or a disease. Homo- or bisexual people are born that way and will stay that way. How strict, yielding, “female” or “male” parents have been towards their child has no influence on the development of their sexual orientation.
Attempts to expel homosexuality from the child with pseudo-scientific methods or to educate them to be heterosexual from the beginning are therefore not only painful for the child, but also doomed to failure. Not admitting, abusing or condemning one’s own child’s sexuality can even cause great psychological damage: Studies show that teenagers are four to seven times more likely to suffer from depression, self-harming behaviour or eating disorders when exposed to an environment that does not accept their sexual orientation and identity. For traditionally living parents, happiness and satisfaction may be inextricably linked with the development of a classical, heterosexual nuclear family. But the attempt to impose this idea of happiness on one’s own children will only make it more difficult for them to find their own happiness. The more accepting parents behave, the more likely the child will one day become happy and be able to build fulfilling relationships and partnerships.
Are there any signs that my child is or will become homosexual?
Occasionally, homo-/bisexual people are reported to have been attracted to the same sex from an early age in a childlike way. However, this can also be the case with people who later live heterosexually, since child sexuality functions quite differently from that of adults. Homosexuality and heterosexuality generally only develop during puberty. It is also neither a sign of becoming homo-, bi- or transsexual later in life if children have hobbies or interests that parents do not perceive as gender-equitable. In any case, it is a cliché that homosexuals do not correspond to their intended gender roles: Lesbian women are not automatically more “male” and gay men are not more “female” than heterosexual women and men. There are gay men who appear “masculine”, as well as lesbian women who are very feminine. And there are people who do not feel they belong to one sex or behave according to one sex, but still prefer one sex. The attempt to interpret the possible sexual orientation from interests and behaviour of children or teenagers simply fails because homosexuality and heterosexuality are not character traits. Our sexual orientation only determines who we find sexually more attractive and who we do not.
“Come here, everybody, Sjenva and Shirin are getting married!”
It is not unusual for kindergarten girls to want to marry their best friend, or for boys to marry their best friend. Whether boys, who are “dating” their best friend, or girls, who tell everyone they have a penis, once live hetero-, homo-, bi- or even transsexually later, is completely open. Children try themselves out and also play with sexes to understand them. Children are not yet prejudiced against homosexuality, but they do not understand it until a certain age. Even if they use words like “gay” or “lesbian”, they often don’t know what they actually mean, but have just picked them up somewhere.
Many teenagers occasionally have homosexual contacts
It is also common for teenagers to have sexual experiences with same-sex teenagers during puberty. In most cases, this is not yet an expression of adult sexuality, but rather an experiment, which of course can also create desire. These games usually take place behind closed doors without the parents being informed. If they do burst in, it is important for them to react calmly, apologise for the disturbance and simply withdraw. Since teenagers will usually be uncomfortably touched by their parents’ approach to their own sexuality, parents can indirectly address the situation by telling funny or embarrassing stories from their own puberty. This way, young people can be taught that they will not be condemned.
Young people need time to find out which gender they find attractive.
Exploring and finding one’s own sexual orientation is a long process for most young people, which can also be associated with insecurities and fears. Before young people come out in front of friends, acquaintances and parents, they often have to take the step of coming out in front of themselves. The less the knowledge and public living out of homo- and bisexuality are integrated into the environment and education, the greater the conflicts young people are exposed to who feel an attraction to the same sex. Young people generally find it easier to explore their preferences and experience themselves if they are brought up in a tolerant environment. In many cases, young people who perceive gay or lesbian tendencies in themselves seek contact with young people who experience something similar at a certain point. However, the more rural they grow up, the more difficult it can be to find peers with whom you can exchange ideas.
Parents should be patient persons of contact.
It is important for parents to know that friends are usually the first contacts for young people when they want to communicate with each other. They should accept calmly that they are not necessarily the first to learn about their child’s sexual orientation. At the same time, they should always take it seriously when the child finally tells them. Parents can assume that the inner process that eventually led to the coming-out was not easy in most cases. To then tell the child that it is certainly “only a phase” would mean not taking it seriously.
I think my child is gay or bisexual. Should I talk to them about it?
Experts advise parents to adapt to their child’s pace of coming-out. Direct speeches can be unpleasant and embarrassing for young people, especially since many young people themselves do not yet know where they stand. But parents can make their children feel supported by clearly showing that homosexuality and bisexuality are not taboo for them. The more parents pave the way for their children, the easier it is for the children to confide in them.
What is important here is that when a child is in puberty, it will usually be embarrassing for him to talk about his own sexuality. If you want to address the topic of homo- or bisexuality, sensitivity is appropriate. Bring the topic to the table, for example, using detours. Talk casually about celebrities and their partners, or homosexual couples from your own environment. Talk casually about homosexual partners as you would about heterosexuals. This way you can teach your child the simple fact that homosexuality and bisexuality are not more special or abnormal than heterosexuality. And of course: Talk about “homo/bi” and “heterosexuality”. The counterpart to gay, lesbian and bi should never be “normal”.
Counter homophobia: Diversity should always be part of sex education
The best support is always good education, and homosexuality is not just an issue for homosexuals. Regardless of their own sexual orientation later, children should learn at an early age that there are not only heterosexual, but also homosexual relationships, and that there are also children who have two mothers or two fathers. Ideally, children should learn that homosexuality and bisexuality are no exception and nothing special but are equal to heterosexuality. At school, young people often encounter clichés such as “dykes”, “queers” and “faggots”. Since “gay” is unfortunately still a popular insult word, parents should always talk to their children about it when they or their friends use the word in a derogatory way.
How can I support my child after coming-out?
In any case, parents should clearly show their children that they love and support them just as much as they did before. One way to demonstrate this support can be to stand up strongly for the rights, feelings and interests of the child. For example, if the conservative grandmother or sexist uncle is expected to react with offensive comments or discriminatory behaviour, parents should clearly side with their children. If the child is afraid of revealing sexual orientation to relatives or the environment, parents can offer to work with the child on how to deal with prejudice. Keep in mind that in some cases young people are still too shy, insecure or argumentatively inexperienced to defend themselves alone against prejudices and attacks.
Helping to make contacts
If a child has problems getting into contact to other homosexual teenagers, parents can also help, for example by finding a lesbian or gay youth group in their area.
For teenagers who do not live in larger cities, the only option is often the internet, which can also be dangerous, especially for young people who are not yet educated. Parents should inform themselves about offers like Gayromeo or Grindr in order to be available as a contact person.
Support at school
After the coming-out, parents should actively show interest in how the school environment reacts to it. If the teenager has problems in school, for example from classmates or even teachers, parents should also be on their side. Parents can turn to teachers, for example, whom their child trusts.
Respecting the pace of the child
Especially important: Respect the pace your child sets. Talk together about who in the environment should know about the homosexuality of the child and who would rather not yet. An outing, especially in more traditional and less enlightened environments, often takes place in circles: First the best friend, then the parents, then the school, then the relatives. Don’t tell anyone without asking your child first! In villages and small towns, rumours and gossip sometimes arise that are not always benevolent. If you get wind of it, hold against it and take sides! It is important that you also stand up for your child in public. The same applies, of course, when they hear rumours about other parents’ children. Resolutely countering prejudice is an important form of support.
Show interest in their affairs
A casual and cordial form of support can also be to show or share with your child material on LGBT* topics that they find interesting. These can be brochures, newspaper articles, videos or simply funny memes.
On the whole, however, the following always applies: If your child has come out, you don’t suddenly deal with them in a completely different way. Your child is still the same person as before, homo- or bisexuality is not a new trait and not a new family member.
How can parents deal with their own fears and concerns?
Surely many parents have their own fears, which they have to deal with: Will we ever have grandchildren? Is my child protected from HIV? How can I protect my child from sexual abuse, and what kind of education does he or she need? Many parents are also afraid of possible reactions from family and social environment.
It’s important and ok for parents to share their fears with their children. However, they should not take up so much space that they equal or even overlay the child’s insecurities. You should also show that you are dealing with it and do not blame the child for your own problems.
Some parents are also concerned about the HI virus, which can cause AIDS. Although homosexual men are a particular risk group for HIV, the pathogen can also be transmitted in heterosexual and lesbian contacts. Instead of falling into alarmism, however, parents should simply make sure that they educate their children well or provide educational materials.
In Germany, parents can contact the alliance of parents, friends and relatives of homosexuals (http://www.befah.de/index.php/infos), which offers information, local groups and contact points.
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