“What about when your child ‘kind of’ comes out? As in ‘I think I might be…’? After a heartbreaking friendship break, my child now finally has a new group of very supportive, sometimes troubled (mental illness), gay, transgender, and allied friends. I recognize my child is questioning, but I wonder if their questioning is influenced a lot by trying to better fit into their group of friends. It isn’t my decision, obviously, but I don’t want to see them commit to something that they might later think was wrong, just for them to be able to fit in to any group. This is only the second time I’ve felt the need to urge caution in a social situation with this teen, but the lack of certainty I’m hearing makes me consider that un-coming out might be quite awkward…”
Question Submitted Anonymously
Answered by Kristin Russo
Oh my goodness. First, a very warm hello to a most thoughtful, engaged, and loving parent. The way that you carefully chose your words throughout your question highlights the fact that you respect your child immensely, and I can only imagine that your child is aware of (and shaped in incredible ways by) that level of respect. So, thank you.
I think there are two big things that exist at the core of your concern: First, is your child being influenced by their new friends? Second, will they be embarrassed if they “come out” and then have to change that identity down the road?
Let’s start with the question of influential friendships. The way we look at that word, “influence,” can sometimes suggest that your child isn’t also an active participant in their relationships, which is likely not true. I would love to instead use words like “impact” and “inspire” to talk about this situation, because good, supportive friends can (and should) open up our minds to new things about ourselves and the world around us. It is very possible that your child is questioning their sexuality, gender expression, or gender identity because they are becoming close with a group of peers who are showing them that they are a complex, nuanced person. Sadly, the world doesn’t often teach us to question the “norms” we see around us: heterosexuality, binary gender (only having the choice between checking the box that says “boy” or “girl”), and gendered expectations (girls being encouraged to wear makeup, boys being encouraged to play sports) are the loudest and most pervasive messages we see and hear in magazines, on television, and even in schools and amongst friends and family. The journey of questioning those “norms,” and examining how we fit within or outside of those structures (or how we explicitly challenge them) is a beautiful process that—for many—begins in adolescence. It is important to view this process of questioning, and the impact of your child’s friendships on their curiosity, as powerful and important parts of your child becoming a confident, complex adult. Now, if your child was spending time with new friends and was beginning to engage in activity that was harmful to themselves or others, then of course that would be a cause for concern. This questioning and exploration, however, is a cause for excitement and celebration—and especially so because they’ve also entrusted you enough to share a part of that journey!
Your next concern, surrounding the possibility that your child might come out and then change their mind in the future about their identity, is rooted in how much you love them and how much you want to protect them from embarrassment, rejection, or ridicule of any kind. The truth here is that many of us navigate very fluid identities and go through periods of questioning, discovering, and then questioning all over again. You are correct in thinking that some people (young people, older people, LGBTQIA people, and allies alike) can be a bit less flexible in understanding those shifts or changes. I have come out over the past two decades as bisexual, a lesbian, queer, and then bisexual again; I had some people in my life who made those shifts very challenging, but I also had many people in my life who affirmed my identity each and every step of the way. The best way that you can support your child is by affirming who they are as they go on this journey, letting them know that no matter who they are or what word(s) they use to describe themself, you will always stand in their corner and seek out more information to better understand them and the larger community. Should your child come out as bisexual tomorrow and, two years down the line, begin identifying as straight…that doesn’t invalidate their experience while they identified as bisexual. Their friends may already know this, or they may not—but as a parent you can help to teach them that a shift in identity never, ever invalidates the way they identified in the past!
To give you a small, personal example: My mom didn’t have resources back in the late 90s that could help her understand this element of fluid identity, and it made my journey much more fraught with worry. After I’d come out as a lesbian, I would panic about the idea of falling in love with a man. I thought that, if I did, my mom would only ever look at my experience prior as something that was a “phase.” In fact, had I fallen in love with a man, that would not have been the case at all—I had already had meaningful, impactful, life-changing relationships with women, and those relationships and the exploration that came before them were all a real and valid part of who I was, regardless of who I was dating, and regardless of what word(s) I might have chosen to describe myself. My mom understands much, much more about my identity now—some of that came from our conversations with each other, and some came from resources that she was able to access on her own, just like you are doing here. The most powerful gift that you can give to your child as they question is the knowledge that you will believe them now, and you will believe them later, whether the words they use are the exact same or completely different. Continue to be open with them about your own education, too, because for both of you this process will always be an ongoing one. My mother and I have taught each other so much about communication and about identity over the years, and I know that you and your child will continue to do the very same for each other.
Kristin is the CEO & Co-Founder of both Everyone Is Gay & My Kid Is Gay. She also hosted & produced the first season of First Person, a video series on gender and sexuality from PBS Digital. She co-authored the book This is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids (Chronicle, 2014), is the co-director of A-Camp, and holds a Master’s in Gender Studies from the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan.