Experts, educators, moms, dads, grownups, and a teen offer advice on reaching across generations
By Dawn Ennis
Let’s not kid ourselves. We remember how “out of touch” our parents seemed when we were younger. And now, today’s “Gen Z” looks at us and thinks the same, or worse.
Sure, their fashion, their style, music, and distractions are different. Their expressions of gender are wildly at odds with what many of us experienced, or wished for, at their age. And their rebellion against what we consider norms nowadays is unlike anything seen at Stonewall. Also, they laugh when we use terms like “nowadays.”
The good news is, there are ways to cross the divide, bridge the “Gayby gap” between generations. What follows are recommendations from everyday LGBTQ+ folks and physicians, social workers and school principals, and even a 15-year-old teen who came out in December, to me: She is my transgender child. Even though I’m marking nine years being out this month, I’ve also been learning from her every day since.
Of course, this guide isn’t just for our communities. We encourage you to share this with the cisgender and straight folks in your circle, too. First, read what some grownups who identify as bisexual suggest in terms of starting a conversation.
“Listen to your kid. Really listen”
“There is no ‘special conversation.’ It’s letting them lead and when they ask questions, answering them honestly,” said Cynthia Rutt of Branford. “It’s raising them in a space where they feel safe to speak. They aren’t forced to declare anything. They just know they’re loved and respected no matter what. I’ve counseled my hetero kids the exact same way I raised my questioning and queer kids. As long as kids know they’re loved and safe, they’ll communicate and grow.”
“Stay open minded. They’re still the same kid you knew 20 minutes before this conversation happened,” suggested Connecticut resident Jesse Lynn. “Don’t worry about how young they are or how they know. They’re figuring themselves out right now, and the best thing you can do for them is to love them, to treat them with dignity and respect, and give them the room to figure out who their best, most authentic selves are. When I came out to my parents as a teenager, they gave me the best response possible: ‘Ok. I love you.’”
“Listen to your kid, like, really listen when they tell you who they are,” recommended Eleanor Jones, a former school teacher in Washington State and the mom of a trans boy who made headlines in his hometown by fighting to compete in soccer with the other boys on the team. “Use positive language, like, ‘Thank you for sharing. That was really brave of you. I’m here for you and support you always. You’ll always be my kid, and I’m so proud of the human you are. I love you always.’ Things like that set the stage of love and support even when you might not be ready or know what the future holds for any of you.”
“I made it really clear to my kids that they didn’t have to ‘come out’ to me. They are who they are, and whoever that it is ok with us,” librarian Amy Case Rosenfield of Farmington told CT Voice. “I think Eleanor said it so well. Listen. Love.”
“Don’t assume your kid is cishet in the first place,” suggested Alex Andra, also of Connecticut.
“Let them know it’s ok to be different, to explore, discover, and can discuss what they are experiencing,” offered Jennifer Knight of Toronto. “‘Yes, you’ll always be my kid. I am proud of you and only want you to succeed in whatever direction you’re going.’”
The Doctors’ Prescriptions
“My best advice is to listen to and support your children,” said Dr. A.J. Eckert, medical director at Anchor Health in Hamden and an assistant clinical professor at Quinnipiac University’s Frank H. Netter M.D. School of Medicine. “Be a safe person to talk to without judgment. If you find yourself putting your personal beliefs and values on your child, do the work either on your own or with a therapist to reconcile these views.”
Eckert themself is nonbinary. “If your child comes out to you as LGBTQ, don’t react in a way that will make them feel judged and othered,” they told CT Voice. “Don’t be your child’s bully, don’t interrogate them or make them go to therapy. If your child uses terms you don’t understand, look for resources and educate yourself. Do the work so your child knows you care for and support them. Build a relationship in which your child feels seen and heard. Affirm them, and support their identity and sexuality exploration. Love them no matter what because family support and acceptance can make the difference between a depressed, anxious, and suicidal teen and one who thrives.”
“Try very hard to check the initial knee jerk reaction which sometimes leads one to want to shut something down or think an identity is not real,” advises Britta Schute, nurse practitioner at Hartford Healthcare in Canton. “Rather, take a pause. Do some research. Do not expect your child to educate you, and allow more time for the child to share what that identity means for them. It is less important why or how someone developed an LGBTQ+ identity and most important that they shared it with you. There is no reason to believe that your child will not live life to the fullest as their true, authentic self, but possibly the opposite if they do not try!”
“I would encourage parents to audiotape themselves in their interactions with their queer youth. Play it back when they have complete privacy,” advises Richard Stillson, Ph.D. of Hartford, who is also known as Mucha, a drag queen. Dr. Stillson identifies as nonbinary and gay. “Listen for the tone of your voice, the content of your messages to listen for how many judgments versus validations you detect. Adjust accordingly, so they have the validations that far outweigh the judgments. And always have a daily dosage of telling them how you love them for who they are.”
What The Experts Say
“I think that the most important thing we can do is talk to our kids, whether they are cisgender or transgender, whether they are LGBT or straight,” said Sam Ames of San Francisco. They’re trans masculine and the director of advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ+ youth. Their organization has its own Guide to Being an Ally to Transgender and Nonbinary Youth.
No matter how younger people identify, “They need to know that what is happening in the country right now is wrong and that they are worthy of love and support,” said Ames, referring to the scores of anti-LGBTQ+ bills and laws being enacted across the United States this year. “We know how powerful a factor acceptance is in the lives of LGBTQ youth. The truth is that’s not unique to LGBTQ youth. Good parenting is about love and acceptance and support. Our research shows that LGBTQ youth who report feeling supported and accepted by the adults in their lives have significantly lower odds of attempting suicide. And what we try really hard to remind people is, that’s true for all youth. All kids deserve acceptance. All kids deserve support.”
The GenderCool Project is another organization working to help replace misinformed opinions about transgender and nonbinary youth, by arranging positive experiences in workplaces nationwide. It’s youth-led—Eleanor Jones’ son, Bobby, is one of the GenderCool Champions—and was co-founded by Jennifer and John Grosshandler. He’s the board chair, a straight cis ally and a tech industry account executive in Chicago. Together, they’re raising four children, one of whom happens to be transgender.
“Being supportive of your child’s sexual orientation and gender identity is the best way to improve communications with them,” Grosshandler told CT Voice. “Showing them that no matter what, they’re still your child, and you’ll love them unconditionally, will naturally lead to mutual trust, empathy and candid conversations. In the end, you don’t have to be able to relate to their experience in order to accept them and support them.”
Getting called to the principal’s office is not usually the start of an affirming conversation, but associate principal Micah Allen Porter in Denver isn’t your usual principal. He’s out, proud and gay, and offered this advice for conversing with LGBTQ+ youth: “The evidence shows that a single trusted adult outside of their home is critical for young LGBTQ+ people. Encourage or help them find that person. Be intentional and transparent with:
- Conversations as a family about supporting the LGBTQ+ community
- Reading about raising and supporting LGBTQ+ youth
- Attending events supporting your local LGBTQ+ center
- Shift your house of worship membership to a religious center that’s LGBTQ+ (if you’re not already doing so).
“Being open and vocal around your child or children about supporting the LGBTQ+ community will make a world of a difference,” Porter told CT Voice.
“Give Me Time to Work Myself Out”
“I just appreciate space,” my 15-year-old, who now goes by Leif, told me. She came out to me and her siblings as trans femme five months ago. She is still slowly rolling it out, at her own pace. “I want understanding and awareness that I can come to you any time,” she said. “I appreciate my parent who gives me space but also is there for me. I want someone who understands what I’m going through and is not trying to pressure me into doing anything. I want someone to just give me time to work myself out and not try and put anything on me.
“A lot of parents are kind of clueless,” Leif told me. “They give space, but, like, in a bad way, and they don’t do anything for their kids. They just let them be on their own, which sounds good in theory, but kids still do need guidance. So, as much as parents don’t exactly know everything about LGBT if they’re not LGBT, they should still try to be the leaders that they signed up to be.”
Some of Leif’s friends are still in the closet, at least to their parents, and she had this advice for parents who suspect their child is LGBTQ+: “Don’t be so invasive. Not you, but a lot of parents try to ‘crack the code,’ meaning they try to figure it out. ‘Aha! You’re gay! I knew it!’ I don’t think parents should do that, and what they should be like is, ‘If you are: Cool. If you aren’t: Also cool. We’re open and we’re fine with everything.’ And I feel like that would just make people a lot safer and feel a lot better about coming out.
“But I feel there’s societal pressure to come out, with a big, explosive statement: ‘I’m gay!’ or ‘I’m trans!’ A big coming out thing is just kind of unnecessary,” said Leif. “You shouldn’t be required to come out and make a big deal of it. A lot of kids nowadays, at least in my case, are just laid back. ‘Yeah, I am trans. So what? So what?’”
And look at that: She said “nowadays.” Sometimes, perhaps they really are listening to us. The question is, are we actively doing enough to listen to them?