Content warning: Discussions of trauma, suicide, depression and substance abuse
Across the United States, conservative politicians have pushed for legislation that discriminates against and ostracizes LGBTQIA+ youth. In January, the Kentucky legislature pushed to ban doctors from providing transition-related health care to transgender youth. And in March, the governor of Idaho signed a law banning transgender girls from playing in girls’ athletics.
These laws aren’t rooted in current scientific data; they’re based in blatant homophobia and transphobia. More than anything, they reflect a commonly held belief that children and young people shouldn’t have the agency to express their gender identity and sexual orientation. And this ideology perpetuates stigma and harms young people during a critical point in their lives.
From the moment a person is born, an individual’s gender is decided for them based on their genitals. From that moment on, society’s expectations of womanhood and manhood are imposed onto them without their consent. This socialization of gender continues throughout adolescence, teaching them the “appropriate” behavior they are expected to live by. Often, these expectations are rooted in transphobia, misogyny and homophobia that harms young people, preventing them from being their most authentic selves.
The fear of LGBTQIA+ identities is based in misinformation rather than fact. And yet, people often use outdated science to perpetuate their own biases rather than expand their understanding of identity. Our cultural imagination ignores how science has proven that sex, sexual orientation and gender identity exist on spectrums rather than in binaries.
So let’s set the record straight: Our culture teaches us that sex and gender are interchangable, when in reality this is the farthest from fact. Sex relates to biological and chromosomal characteristics while gender relates to the socially constructed expectations and roles between genders. We problematically view sex through a binary of male or female, which erases the existence of intersex people. And our cultural understanding only acknowledges the existence of women and men, thus erasing the fluid nature of gender. Moreover, our culture teaches us that deviating from heterosexuality is a choice when in reality sexuality itself is fluid.
So let’s set the record straight: Our culture teaches us that sex and gender are interchangable, when in reality this is the farthest from fact.
During childhood, children develop and evolve their understanding of themselves. During this critical time, children form their concept of “self” through developing their emotions, attributes and ability to make judgements about their personhood. A part of this identity formation includes questioning and understanding their relationship to gender and sexuality. Childhood is a critical time when children challenge the gender and sexual norms taught to them. Children should be granted the ability to safely explore their relationship to the world without shame.
Therefore, parents must respect and honor their children’s exploration and questioning of their own identity. Children deserve the agency and autonomy to have this exploration respected. Children must be granted the ability to ask age-appropriate questions about gender and sexuality, rather than being diminished for their questioning. Parents must respect the fact that their children know themselves the best, rather than parents insisting they know better.
Children and youth should be empowered to make informed decisions about their gender identity and sexual orientation. When parents are unable to accept and support their LGBTQIA+ children, these children have little resources left to help them understand their identity. In the vast majority of states, children aren’t given the tools to understand their LGBTQIA+ identity. Only 29 states and the District of Columbia legally require high schools to provide sex education. But just because a state has sex education doesn’t mean it’s inclusive or driven by science. Only 17 states require the information within sex education programs to be medically accurate. Of these, only nine states require affirming and inclusive information on LGBTQIA+ identities.
Due to internalized homophobia and transphobia, inclusive knowledge about gender identity and sexual orientation is often deprived from all people. This leaves parents without the tools to understand LGBTQIA+ experiences. As a result, when a young person opens up to their family about their identity, parents respond in a number of ways. For some parents, they celebrate and embrace their child’s exploration of their identity. In contrast, some parents support their child but require time to become accustomed to their child’s identity. In the worst case scenario, some parents entirely reject their children, forcing them out of their homes. All of these reactions can have lifelong impacts on LGBTQIA+ people.
Many LGBTQIA+ people experience trauma and isolation throughout their lives. This often begins during adolescence due to lack of acceptance by their family. Furthermore, many LGBTQIA+ individuals remain closeted due to the fear of isolation, stigma and even violence.
Family acceptance can protect LGBTQIA+-questioning and LGBTQIA+-identifying youth against substance abuse, depression, and suicidal thoughts and behavior. The Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University conducted some of the first research studies on the impact of family acceptance on LGBTQIA+ children. Its findings were alarming — youth who experience high rates of family rejection were eight times more likely to report attempting suicide, approximately six times more likely to report high levels of depression and three times more likely to use drugs.
The impact of the lack of family acceptance is devastating, leading to disproportionate rates of homelessness and trauma. While LGBTQIA+ people comprise approximately 4.5% of the total U.S. population, nearly 40% of teens who are homeless identify within the LGBTQIA+ community.
Moreover, LGBTQIA+ youth aged 18 to 25 are 2.2 times more likely to experience homelessness than non-LGBTQIA+-identifying young people, according to research conducted by the University of Chicago. Moreover, LGBTQIA+ youth face higher rates of adversity, which includes a higher risk of early death.
If someone decides to have a child, it means that they’re committing to care for their child regardless of whether the child turns into the person the parent imagined they would be.
And we cannot forget how LGBTQIA+-questioning and LGBTQIA+-identifying youth will be negatively impacted by the COVID-19, or the coronavirus, pandemic. This group is at risk of facing trauma and becoming homeless. And those who are already homeless lack access to fundamental resources as many LGBTQIA+ centers are forced to reduce their capacity or close.
Parents must accept that their children identifying as LGBTQIA+ isn’t a fad or trend. If someone decides to have a child, it means that they’re committing to care for their child regardless of whether the child turns into the person the parent imagined they would be. While cultural understandings and language regarding LGBTQIA+ people may be new, LGBTQIA+ people have existed throughout history and across various cultures. Being LGBTQIA+ is nothing new, but the erasure of LGBTQIA+ people from history gives the impression that it is.
All people, regardless of age, deserve the agency to express their gender identity or sexual orientation. Regardless of whether you’re a parent, we must all do the work to create a world that uplifts LGBTQIA+ people. We can all start with steps such as educating ourselves on the various experiences of the LGBTQIA+ community and unpacking our own internalized homophobia and transphobia. At the end of the day, it’s on every single one of us to create a culture that supports rather than ostracizes LGBTQIA+ people for living their most authentic lives.