One of life’s big challenges is working out our sexual orientation. It’s the issue that our happiness ultimately hinges on, because going against our orientation will lead to a lack of fulfilment and fractured intimate relationships. As parents, we have a responsibility to both live in our own sexuality authentically and to help our children do the same. It’s not always easy, as we face our own fears and prejudices — especially the ones we don’t know we have.
Thankfully, in the Western world at least, we have moved past stoning people who are attracted to the same sex. But that’s not to say prejudice isn’t still alive and well and living in a heart near you. While many of us like to think of ourselves as liberal around sexual orientation and gender identity, it’s still a hard road to travel in a largely overtly heterosexual world. Even gay friends of ours struggled to accept their son coming out because they knew the pain he would potentially face as a gay man and they wanted to spare him that. They also knew it meant the chances of him having children would be narrowed and they mourned the potential loss of grandchildren. Thankfully, that too is easing up as more and more gay couples have children and they have been found to be not just as healthy and happy as kids from heterosexual parents, but even better!
Social conservatives have been taking pot-shots at LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender) parents forever, but a 2014 Melbourne University study — the largest one ever conducted on non-heterosexual parenting — surveying 315 same-sex parents and 300 children, found the only legs conservatives have to stand on are their prejudices. The study reported that in multidimensional measures of child health and wellbeing, the children of gay couples scored about 6 per cent higher than kids in the general population on measures of health and family cohesion. The results line up with previous international research taken on smaller sample sizes.
‘It seems that same-sex-parent families and the children in them are getting along well, and this has positive impacts on child health,’ lead researcher Simon Crouch told the ABC. He said the study found same-sex parents ‘take on roles that are suited to their skill sets rather than falling into those gender stereotypes’ and the result is a ‘more harmonious family unit and therefore feeding on to better health and wellbeing.’
We’ve known lots of kids from LGBT families over many decades and absolutely support the findings of this survey. None of those kids are any more screwed up than our own — they’ve all faced similar issues throughout their childhoods, adolescence and adult lives and will continue to do so. Let’s just put this one to bed, people!
We still absolutely believe that boys need good men in their lives to model off as they stride into manhood — in the same way girls need good women — but being the child of LGBT parents does not preclude these relationships. Our experience is that same-sex parents are generally very comfortable with their kids modelling off good men and women in their wider communities.
Assuming you are on board with your teen figuring out his/her/their sexual orientation and gender identity, this brief terminology update — with thanks to the Human Rights Campaign — should bring you up to speed, and give you a starting point for understanding and facing any sexuality issues your teen is having:
• Sexual orientation: an inherent or immutable enduring emotional, romantic or sexual attraction to other people.
• Gender identity: one’s innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both or neither — how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves. One’s gender identity can be the same or different from their assigned sex at birth.
• Gender expression: the external appearance of one’s gender identity, usually expressed through behaviour, clothing, haircut or voice, and which may or may not conform to socially defined behaviours and characteristics typically associated with being either masculine or feminine.
• Transgender: an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or expression is different from cultural expectations based on the sex they were assigned at birth. Being transgender does not imply any specific sexual orientation. Therefore, transgender people may identify as straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc.
• Gender transition: the process by which some people strive to more closely align their internal knowledge of gender with its outward appearance. Some people socially transition, whereby they might begin dressing, using names and pronouns and/or be socially recognised as another gender. Others undergo physical transitions in which they modify their bodies through medical interventions.
• Gender dysphoria: clinically significant distress caused when a person’s assigned birth gender is not the same as the one with which they identify. According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the term — which replaces Gender Identity Disorder — ‘is intended to better characterise the experiences of affected children, adolescents, and adults.’
That’s probably enough homework to be going on with! There is plenty of information available on this subject — don’t be afraid to reach out for help early in the piece if you think your teen is struggling. We can’t stress this enough.
You can kind of see what we are getting at here. It’s not your job to decide your teen’s sexual orientation or gender identity — that’s their work — but they will need you right alongside them as they form their full sexual identity. To be honest, if they are straight, you can breathe a sigh of relief that their sexuality is not another major life issue you need to help them with in a sometimes cruel world; but if they’re not, lean into the challenge — they are going to need you.
By Ruth Kerr and Richard Aston, parents to four adult children in a blended family. Ruth and Richard co-authored Our Boys – Raising strong, happy sons from boyhood to manhood based on their 15 years’ experience working at Big Buddy – a social agency that matches well-screened male mentors with fatherless boys.