“My 8-year-old son is self-identifying as gay. He has grown up in a household where sexuality is openly discussed and his aunt is gay. Is this too young to understand? I asked him if he understood what gay meant and he said, “Um, Mom, I want to marry a boy when I grown up.” My husband and I have a difference of opinion on how to proceed. Please help.”
Question Submitted Anonymously
Answered by Julie Tarney
First off, I want to congratulate you and your husband for creating a gay-positive environment in your home. When every parent can say their child is growing up in a home where sexuality is openly discussed, we will have moved that much closer to a society that fully accepts and respects the spectrum that exists in how we love and who we love. I’m hopeful you both realize how loved and safe your son must feel to share what he knows about himself with you.
As a society we tend to assume that all kids are straight, but that is just not true. In addition to teaching your son about sexuality and the variety that exists in romantic attractions, I applaud you for giving him the language to express his sensibility of love and affection. His simple explanation of wanting to marry a boy when he grows up reflects an understanding of what the possibilities are for love, and how natural it is to be gay.
Your son’s answer about what it means to be gay also makes me wonder if maybe he has a crush on another boy. And that, too, would be perfectly natural! Experts say kids usually develop their first childhood crush at age 5 or 6. Kindergarten teachers will tell you that playground weddings at recess are not uncommon, and I can even remember my son fashioning a wedding dress out of toilet paper even before he was 3. If your son is crushing, he obviously isn’t feeling any pressure to crush on a girl or think there’s something wrong with him for wanting to marry a boy someday.
Even adults who think a first crush is cute and innocent, not an indicator of the child’s sexuality, typically still default to the idea that a child is going to fall in love with and marry someone not of the same gender. That tends to be true even when there’s someone in the family who’s gay, like his aunt.
It sounds to me like you and/or your husband assumed your eight year old was straight, and now that he’s told you otherwise, with a good grasp of what it means to be gay, you are surprised and don’t understand how he could know that at his age. I don’t think you’re alone in that belief, but I’m here to tell you that he is not too young to know who he is.
Most people think that gay people come out as teenagers (or later), and that they couldn’t possibly know about sexuality before puberty. But with heightened visibility of LGBTQ people and a progressive shift in social attitudes—your own family, for example—children are feeling safe to come out at younger ages. My son was eight years old when he told his dad and me in 1998 that he was “different from other boys.” He didn’t have the education or language that your son has to be so articulate, nor did he have LGBTQ-themed children’s books or the vast number of openly LGBTQIA celebrities in music, sports, or television that exist today.
You asked for advice on how to proceed, and that’s normal! This is presumably uncharted territory for you and your husband. Some parents worry about their child being happy or having a difficult life because they’re gay. So if you’re among them, here are a few Do’s and Don’ts I have for you on how to proceed as the parents of a happily out, gay 8-year-old.
DO: Believe him. Trust your son to know himself, regardless of his age. How he thinks about his sexuality today might change, or it might not. My son first came out to his dad and me as bisexual. Later, he told us he was gay—and later still as nonbinary. Validate and accept him for where he is today.
DO: Love him unconditionally, whether he’s gay, bisexual, or straight. Tell him you love him and always will, just for being the amazing kid he is.
DO: Follow your son’s lead and be open to further discussion. Let him know he can always talk to you about anything and that you’re there to answer any questions he might have about love or relationships as best you can.
DON’T: Focus on your expectations. His coming out has nothing to do with you or what you imagined his life would be like.
DO: Be patient. Personal growth is a lifetime journey of discovering who we are, and our orientation is just one small part of that.
DO: Talk to his aunt. You might be surprised to learn there was a time gap between when she realized she was gay and when she first told someone. Talking to other gay people, too, can help put the coming out age in perspective for you.
DO: Mention his orientation to his teachers (with your son’s permission, of course). Let them know you expect him to be fully supported at school.
DO: Take some time for yourself to get comfortable with the idea that your son identifies as gay. If you have more questions along the way, I strongly recommend you pick up a copy of This Is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids. The book’s question-and-answer format makes it easy to find just what you’re looking for.
DON’T: Worry so much. Save that for when he wants to get his driver’s license!
DO: Find a parent support group. If you or your husband are having difficulty adjusting to the idea that your second grader is gay, seek out your local PFLAG chapter. You’ll quickly learn that you’re not alone.
DO: Educate yourself. Understand the issues that LGBTQIA kids face in school. Become involved in the movement for equality, even if that means simply becoming a voice for your child’s rights as an individual. Familiarize yourself with LGBTQ history: kids and adults alike should know that queer people stretch back across every generation of human existence, and that there’s nothing wrong or abnormal about being gay. Finally, learn the language of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. It’s an ever-expanding glossary, and there’s a good chance your son may already know more terms than you or your husband do.
DO: Hug your son often. Tell him you love him. Repeat.
Julie Tarney is an advocate for LGBTQIA youth, speaker and author. Her award-winning memoir, My Son Wears Heels: One Mom’s Journey from Clueless to Kickass (University of Wisconsin Press 2016) and blog of the same name are about her experiences raising a gender nonconforming child in the Midwest in the 1990s and what she learned from him along the way about gender identity, gender expression and self-acceptance. Julie is a board member for the It Gets Better Project, blogs for HuffPost Queer Voices and is an active member of PFLAG NYC’s Safe Schools program. Her book won Bronze in the 2016 INDIES Book of the Year Awards. A longtime resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Julie now lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she can often be found cheering in the audience at her creative director and sometimes-drag-artist son Harry’s performances.