In an era when gay celebrities marry and popular TV shows commonly feature gay characters, it might seem as if Americans are now quite comfortable with the idea of gay rights. But while pop culture might be accepting, many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youths are finding that the going is still rough.
Sexual orientation, which refers to a person's pattern of physical and emotional attraction to others, starts to assert itself before and during adolescence, a time of self-discovery, great change, and questioning. Gender identity refers to whether people think of themselves as male or female. Most people's gender identity matches their anatomy, but transgender people feel different from their physical appearances.
Kids who start feeling that they are or might be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender typically struggle with whether to tell their parents — or anyone — about these thoughts.
Particularly during adolescence, kids who are viewed as being different by their peers can be the targets of bullying and harassment. Recent well-publicized suicides by gay teens and young adults had in common an element of taunting and bullying.
Experts in children's emotional development stress the importance of teaching tolerance — and increasingly, that includes greater acceptance of the LGBT community. Many schools now look for ways to curb homophobic teasing, and even have clubs that provide social and emotional support for LGBT students. Acceptance in schools, homes, and the workplace, though, is far from universal — and might not be so for some time to come.
What This Means to You
Self-confident kids with supportive friends and family might have a relatively easy time disclosing their orientation and living openly as LGB or T. But coming out might feel painfully difficult or out of the question for kids who come from conservative families, live in smaller towns, or lack supportive friends.
LGBT youths are reported have one of the highest rates of suicide attempts, as well as other health and mental health problems (including substance abuse), especially if they are rejected by their families because of sexual orientation. Their risk is increased not because they are LGBT, but because they find themselves in a world that can be hostile about a very basic aspect of themselves. Without support, they can feel extremely isolated. A 2008 study indicates that parental acceptance — or even a neutral reaction — could go a long way toward lessening these risks.
If your child comes to you to discuss his or her sexual orientation, it's important to react with love and understanding — even if that is not your first inclination. Experts say that even a slightly accepting attitude is helpful, as is not trying to force a child to change his or her orientation.
Support needs to go beyond the home. It's also important to make sure your child isn't being singled out at school. Despite changing attitudes, the mainstreaming of tolerance in schools is not a certainty. Some parents and religious groups are pushing back against incorporating discussion and acceptance of gay issues in schools. Many schools have LGBT support groups to help kids through the rough patches. If your LGBT student doesn't have support at school and is struggling, it's important to find help elsewhere. There are many excellent online resources and support groups for LGBT youths as well as their families.
Finally, if you are having difficulty understanding and accepting your child's sexuality, consider meeting with a psychologist who specializes in supporting LGBT people. Talking through your reactions and receiving guidance can help you come to terms and identify ways you can best support your child.
Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD, and Neil Izenberg, MD
Date reviewed: December 2010