My sister was 18 when she came out. It was a chaotic time in my family of origin, with lots of tears, threats of involuntary confinement in a mental health facility, and copious amounts of family shame. When my eldest child came out at 19, her revelation was far less traumatic. Her childhood had been filled with affirmations of gender diversity and relationships with adults of various gender identities. She was comfortable sharing her story and we celebrated her openness.
National Coming Out Day, observed annually on October 11 in the United States, promotes acceptance of diverse gender identities. Since 1988, advocates and allies of the LGBTQ+ community have come together to support those who have been marginalized. Some schools and other organizations fly rainbow flags to show solidarity. Others ignore the day, assuming that children are too young to understand and participate.
As parents, we can use National Coming Out Day as a time to explore the concept of gender and talk about identity with children. Children’s natural curiosity about the world around them means that they notice gender variations by the age of 3-4 years, so they likely already have questions. However, they also pick up on social taboos, and thus may be reluctant to ask them. By raising the topic ourselves, we create a safe space for conversation.
Many societies emphasize just two gender options: anatomical males are boys/men and anatomical females are girls/women. However, current research supports a broader understanding of gendered identities. Share stories of friends and family with a variety of identities so children have diverse gender role models. Encourage kids to notice the unique ways that people signal who they are through their clothing, mannerisms, intimate relationships, and likes/dislikes, particularly when those signals fall outside binary gender norms.
As you share stories, also acknowledge the challenges that ‘being different’ can generate. Talk about the positive and negative aspects of social expectation. When social norms are comfortable, people may have a strong sense of belonging. When those norms are uncomfortable, people often feel marginalized, anxious, ashamed, and even fearful. Ask children about times they feel different from their friends, whether because of their gender or other reasons (such as disliking chocolate, being afraid of dogs, or loving an activity associated primarily with the opposite sex). Discuss the challenges they experience because of this difference.
Another possibility is to attend an advocacy or pride event in your community. Before you go, explain the basics of gender politics in your area. You might say, “Some people are happy and excited by lots of different kinds of people, and others are confused and scared when they meet someone who doesn’t neatly fit into a specific category. Because they have strong feelings, they may say and do things to show their disagreement. Please ask me if you have questions or tell me if you feel uncomfortable and we can talk about what is happening.”