Author’s note: I use the word “queer” as an umbrella term for everyone who does not identify as cishet (cisgender and heterosexual), but I acknowledge and respect other uses of the term.
I’ve been noticing a trend. Queer issues are discussed more often and more widely than ever before. But for many of us, rather than feeling more comfortable in these conversations, we only feel more anxious. We’re so terrified about saying the “wrong” thing that we find it difficult to say anything at all. Even queer folx have these worries, since we know that being queer and being queer-friendly are not the same.
Whether we're parents, teachers, or other caregivers, we know we want to do better for our kids—but how?
This anxiety seems to worsen at the thought of talking to kids about queerness, for fear that saying the wrong thing might “mess them up.” We may still carry trauma from how we were raised to think about gender and sexuality. Whether we’re parents, teachers, or other caregivers, we know we want to do better for our kids—but how?
I’m sorry to report that there’s no easy solution, no checklist to ensure a Verified Queer-Friendly Kid™. What I do have, though, are ideas—suggestions for ways you can change your habits and move beyond the binary norms in which you were raised and taught to raise kids.
1. Educate yourself. Continually.
This might seem like an obvious one, but it is so crucial because we cannot intentionally teach our kids what we don’t know. Read up on queer history and current political and social issues. Delve into gender and sexuality theories and how they’ve changed over time. Dedicate a portion of your media consumption to queer content. Offer your time to queer causes, cultural events, and your local queer community.
Try to learn directly from the people you’re trying to learn about (e.g. if you’re reading about intersex issues, prioritize an intersex author), but don’t hold others responsible for educating you (e.g. if you have a trans friend, it’s not their job to teach you about trans issues—you can do the labor of finding trans resources that have already chosen to do that work.) Also, keep in mind that no group is monolithic. Every individual has their own experiences, beliefs, and perspectives, which are also influenced by how their queerness intersects with other aspects of their identity, such as race, class, and ability. Try to diversify your sources as much as possible, and most importantly, keep learning. There is always more to learn.
I know it’s hard work. I know it’s faster to generalize an entire group from one person’s account. I know it’s easier to rely on the same information you heard five years ago. But you didn’t come here for fast and easy. You came here because you’re ready to do what’s necessary.
2. Talk to them about it at every age.
There’s a fairly pervasive myth out there that gender and sexuality are “mature” topics. White conservatives especially like to argue that children are too young for “this kind of talk,” that it might confuse or harm them in some way. This is hilarious to me because kids are definitely learning about gender and sexuality from the earliest ages, but often they’re only learning about what it means to be cishet and not about being queer. So what’s really implied here is that queerness is the danger, that children are cishet by default, and that acknowledging the existence of other genders and sexualities might “turn them” queer (which would be a tragedy.)
If more kids identify as queer after learning about queerness, it’s because they’ve finally been given the language to describe how they feel.
But we know that none of this is true. If more kids identify as queer after learning about queerness, it’s because they’ve finally been given the language to describe how they feel. And if kids come away from these conversations feeling confused, it’s because we’ve just upended the false binary gospel they’ve been taught since birth.
In the end, it only ever benefits kids to learn about queerness from the very beginning. Cishet kids can gain a more accurate view of human diversity. Queer kids can feel understood and develop a sense of belonging in the world. Even kids who haven’t formed their gender or sexuality can now see an array of possibilities before them, rather than forcing themselves to conform to a cishet standard. Contrary to popular opinion, it’s never too early to start talking about gender and sexuality.
3. Don’t presume your child’s gender or sexuality.
Many queer people can recount what it was like to have parents who assumed they were cishet and what that meant for them growing up. I know I can. It meant believing things about myself that weren’t true, simply because they were communicated to me before I could even speak. It meant interpreting my burgeoning thoughts and desires as abnormal and wrong. It meant being unable to imagine myself as queer for a very, very long time because I didn’t think it was possible. It meant believing my parents would feel disappointed or betrayed if I revealed that I wasn’t who they thought I was after all these years. It meant being alienated from myself and the queer folx around me, with whom I might have felt belonging and acceptance.
When we allow our children to lead the way in developing their own identity, we open up the world to them for connection and community.
These harms can be avoided if we don’t make cishet the default for our kids. When we allow our children to lead the way in developing their own identity, we open up the world to them for connection and community. They do not grow up thinking of queer people as “other” if they can imagine themselves as queer. And if we can imagine them as queer (even if it turns out they aren’t), then we may very well treat them differently, even if we aren’t aware that we are doing so.
The idea here isn’t to raise them “without gender and sexuality”—that’s about as useful as trying to raise your child to be “color-blind.” The idea is to admit that we don’t get to choose their gender and sexuality for them. For many folx, this concept is easier to believe than to put into practice, if only because it puts us in unfamiliar territory. The process will be uncomfortable, I can almost guarantee it. But if we put in the hard work now, it will only be that much easier for future generations.
4. Don’t presume others’ gender or sexuality.
This habit is difficult to break for most people because it’s been ingrained in us from the earliest years. We’re taught to sort our fellow preschoolers into “boys” and “girls” largely based on hair length and clothing. Later we learn to use subtler traits to sort total strangers into gender and sexuality boxes that reinforce a false binary. When we do this around our kids, we teach them that it is accurate and acceptable to label others based on stereotypes.
When I decided I wanted to raise my kids differently, I knew I needed to change my habits. I started using “they/them” pronouns for anyone whose gender I didn’t know. I learned to ask people for their pronouns on an as-needed basis, and offer my own when meeting new people. I adopted neutral terms like “partner,” “parent,” “child,” “pibling,” and “nibling”, so I could refer to relationships without assuming anyone’s gender or sexuality. These habit changes turned out to be major hurdles, but it’s certainly gotten easier over time. My kids still correct me from time and time, and I do my best to remember to thank them.
Kids start picking up on cishet stereotypes by 18 months of age, and unfortunately, pretending they don't exist doesn't make them go away.
5. Acknowledge norms for what they are.
Kids start picking up on cishet stereotypes by 18 months of age, and unfortunately, pretending they don’t exist doesn’t make them go away.
Rather than ignoring gender and sexuality norms, we can address them for what they are: made-up rules for how different people are supposed to behave. Our kids can probably point out several examples (I’m constantly surprised by some of the things kids say), and we can certainly add to that list from our own experience. We can even discuss how these norms change across time and space (hello, Louis XIV.)
The important thing to get across is that by naming these norms, we’re not endorsing them. We can explain that these “rules” aren’t just or useful like many other rules we have—and that it’s okay to break them. We can point out and even celebrate ways in which we break them ourselves. We can explain that breaking these “rules” can help to make them seem less real. And by doing so, we can challenge injustice and make the world a safer place to be true to ourselves. We can discuss norms that have been challenged to the point of non-existence and let them imagine a world where the only rules we have are just.
6. Talk about oppression and privilege.
Oppression and privilege have turned out to be one of the harder conversation topics for most of the parents I know. The difficulty seems to stem from the idea that they don’t want to destroy their child’s innocence by admitting that the world is unjust. But by creating and maintaining the illusion that the world is just, we aren’t doing our kids any favors. Not only do we set them up with false beliefs, but we leave them unprepared to interpret injustice when they see it (which they inevitably do—even preschoolers experience gender policing and gender-based aggression). If they believe the world is just, then privileges and oppressions seem deserved.
The conversation above about social norms can make an excellent transition into discussing oppression and privilege. We can point out how people who conform to those made-up rules often experience the privilege of having their pronouns respected and gender expressions complimented. In contrast, people who break those rules may face oppression such as teasing, exclusion, and aggression. Again, it is important to emphasize that these things are undeserved and unjust—that they shouldn’t be happening. I find it helpful to lead these conversations into a collaborative exploration of what a just world would look like and what things we can do now to work toward that.
Raising queer-friendly kids is a radical goal, and radical goals require radical change.
7. Relax. Really.
All our stress over “getting it right” isn’t helping anyone. While it’s good to be purposeful in our child-rearing choices, aiming for perfection often makes us unwilling to try anything. Besides, there’s no one way to “get it right”, and there’s no such thing as a perfect parent or caregiver. All of us walk the path of life—adults and children together—learning and growing along the way. And if you write to me to say, “Guess what my kid taught me about gender and sexuality today,” you won’t be the first.
Now, listen: I’m acutely aware that this whole approach is radically different than how most of us grew up. We’re more familiar with elaborate gender reveal parties based on blurry ultrasounds than we are with using gender neutral pronouns. We’re more used to the “gay best friend” trope than with stories where queer folx are complex protagonists. But we can break down the cisheteronormativity of our own childhoods to create a more inclusive, equitable world for the kids in our lives, if we’re willing to put in the work. Raising queer-friendly kids is a radical goal, and radical goals require radical change.
Amaze.org: an educational website for kids, teens, parents and educators, with sections on gender identity and sexual orientation
Gender Spectrum: an online organization to support gender diversity and inclusivity with online groups and materials for kids, teens, and families
My Story Out Loud: a digital platform for queer youth of color to read and tell their own stories, run by Advocates for Youth
Planned Parenthood: a sexual health organization with information on gender identity and sexual orientation for teens, parents and educators
PFLAG: a support organization for queer folx, their families and allies, with local chapters and online materials
The Trevor Project: a support organization with online materials for queer youth and their allies, with a focus on suicide prevention
Welcoming Schools: a Human Rights Campaign initiative with booklists, lessons, and other materials to support educators in creating queer-inclusive environments