Classmates had bullied the boy relentlessly all year. He was pretty sure some of his teachers were aware of what was happening, but they seemed to turn their heads. The situation at home was not much better. His parents acted uncomfortable around him – appearing unsure of what he was going through and unable to support him. He felt different and alone, wondering if he would ever fit in and find acceptance with anyone.
As parents, we often develop a universal feeling of empathy for all kids and our hearts break for any child who is suffering. Many of us have seen our own children bear the brunt of cruel words or unfair treatment by others and know how painful that can be. But does our feeling of compassion for kids change depending on what they are struggling with? This scenario could describe a student coping with a physical disability, wrestling with depression or trying to manage an undiagnosed learning disability. But what if this situation described a student who was gay? Or transgender? How do we, as parents and role models, broaden our scope of understanding to support our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) youth?
Increasingly in the past 30 years young people have been coming out as LGBTQ. This coincides with greater social awareness and media representation of the many variations of sexual orientation and gender identity. According to the Institute of Medicine, sexual orientation is a person’s emotional, sexual and/or relational attraction to others. Gender identity is a person’s internal sense of being male, female or something else. Sexual orientation and gender identity are not a choice. Both emerge early in life and do not depend on external factors such as home life.
We all know that the elementary, middle and high school years can be challenging for children as they begin to discover who they are while managing academic and social stresses. On top of the typical growing-up challenges, LGBTQ youth also regularly experience bias, discrimination and rejection. According to a study at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, 30% of transgender youth report a history of at least one suicide attempt, and nearly 42% report a history of self-injury. “That’s tied to family rejection,” says Sarah Painer World, social worker at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Adolescent and Transition Medicine Program. “The mental health difficulties they experience stem directly from how people accept them. When we embrace our LGBTQ youth we are actually saving lives.”
That’s why it is so important for parents and teachers to support youth struggling with their sexual or gender identity. “One thing I really encourage is to listen to and reflect language choice that includes preferred name and pronouns,” says Painer World. “There are people who don’t identify socially with the gender they were assigned at birth and because of that they may choose a different name and different pronouns for how they want to be referred to and that is okay. It’s not our job to question that. Our job is to listen and reflect those preferences. When we do that we are able to show signs of support, acceptance and respect for individuality.”
As allies, it is also our personal responsibility to educate ourselves about LGBTQ issues without relying on the LGBTQ kids in our lives to do it for us. “You don’t have to be the expert,” Painer World points out. “It’s okay to ask questions that are appropriate and that do not invade someone else’s privacy. It’s okay if you mess up as long as you correct yourself and move on. But it’s also your job to educate yourself.” (Read on for a list of local and national resources on the subject.)
Every person is unique, so there isn’t one standard way to support someone who is LGBTQ. If you’re unsure of what to do to be supportive, it’s okay to ask the young person what they need.
Because the things that children learn at home trickle down into the classroom, it’s also critical that we model inclusive behavior and language in our homes. “Staff, educators and allies have responsibilities to be good role models and to mimic good behavior in terms of this,” says Painer World. “To be an ally means to be active and to take a stance. It means to model good behavior and be vocal about your support and acceptance of LGBTQ youth. It just takes one person to stand up for another.”