The world is changing, and once again, young people are out in front, leading the charge.
Cultural attitudes about gender identity and sexual orientation are shifting, with a growing number of people saying they support gay marriage and equal rights for LGBTQ people. Kids got the message about this change earlier than some of their parents did, and as a result many are being more open with friends and family members about their gender identity or sexual orientation.
This is a good thing, but it can also cause stress when parents and other family members don’t know how to respond to young people’s newfound feelings of freedom.
Mary Rymanowski LICSW, a behavioral psychotherapist at Park Nicollet/HealthPartners, has years of experience counseling LGBTQ youth and young adults. While coming out is easier than it used to be, Rymanowski believes, the process still can be a source of stress and anxiety for everyone involved.
“We live in a climate where more adults and young people are open to the gender spectrum,” Rymanowski told me. “Kids feel it is safe to come out at younger ages, and parents should understand healthy responses when it happens.”
Rymanowski recently wrote a column offering advice about how parents can talk to and support their LGBTQ child for HealthPartners’ “Healthy Living” blog. I called her up, and we had a good conversation about how to provide young people the tools they need to thrive in a changing world.
MinnPost: How do you think the world has changed for LGBTQ youth?
Mary Rymanowski: I’m middle aged. I can remember how things were back when coming out was a really big thing, when there weren’t as many terms that people could use to define themselves and their sexuality. Today there are terms for just about any sexual orientation. The range of definitions that are out there is mind-blowing. I find it so exciting. For a while there was just GLB, then there was GLBT, and now it’s GLBTQ, which I think really covers the many ways that gender is identified.
MP: Do these newly expanded definitions affect the way young people think about gender and sexuality?
MR: Even though many experts talk about gender identity being on a spectrum, gender is actually is not a linear thing. I love the way that many young people today describe themselves as “gender fluid.” I like the image it gives of young people fluidly moving through different definitions: They are very comfortable experimenting with identity until they find something that fits their self-definition.
When I came out many years ago, gender identity was much more compartmentalized. The choices were really A or B. Today we’ve gone from a binary society to a non-binary society. That’s opened a lot of discussion and options for young people but also a lot of confusion for many people who are older, like myself. One of the best parts of my job is talking to youth and young adults. Their perspective opens me up to a world that has so much expansiveness.
MP: Do parents always understand this expansive, fluid approach to gender identity and sexual orientation?
MR: Not always, at least at first. A couple of years ago one of my co-workers came up to me and said, “My daughter just told me she was bisexual.” She was shocked. She hadn’t seen this coming. She was confused because her daughter had a boyfriend. I asked my co-worker, “What do you think your daughter meant when she said she was bisexual?” I tried to explain to her that with young people the definitions can be fluid. What did it mean for her daughter to be bisexual? I said, “You shouldn’t make a lot of assumptions. You can’t force her to define herself more than she wants to.”
You have to let younger folks talk things through. Don’t try to force them to define themselves in black-and-white ways. They may be evolving through different ways of describing themselves involving gender and sexual orientation. For folks that grew up in the older, binary world, it’s hard to accept this, but it is important to back off and just allow young people to think things through as they develop their sexual identity.
MP: Do you think the coming-out experience is different than it was in the past?
MR: In the past, I was part of an LGBT-identified therapy program. This was way back in the late ‘90s, early 2000s. We as a team provided a safe place for people to be LGBTQ and also a place for people to explore their emerging selves. A lot of our clients back then were young folks who hadn’t yet come out to their parents. They were in the process of coming out and trying to figure out whether it was safe or not. There was a lot of conversation and planning around that.
Today things have changed drastically. Many families are just so much more accepting. I usually encounter kids who have already come out to their families, and their parents come in with them. Being LGBTQ it is no longer seen as a mental illness. That’s why I think more kids and young adults are able to be more open they would have been maybe 20 or even 10 years ago.
MP: It seems like so many kids are coming out. Do parents ever ask you if this is just a trend, just young people trying something out because their friends are all doing it?
MR: That’s the kind of question I often get from parents. When their children announce new gender or sexual identities, parents sometimes ask, “Will this last?” I tell them I think this is a part of a larger shift in the how we view the world. The world has simply become less binary. In this day and age there is just more openness and acceptance of a person not being straight. There is still discrimination, of course, but I truly think that there is so much more openness and acceptance in our culture, and kids know more about themselves than adults give them credit for.
MP: How did you understand your own sexual identity when you were a growing up?
MR: I can remember when I was in elementary school I had pictures of both a famous male singer and a famous female actress on my closet door. My mother assumed I had a crush on the singer and I wanted to be like the actress, but the truth was I had a crush on both for a while, and then I decided I preferred the actress.
Part of it was my own questioning, “Am I straight or not?” I thought, “Let’s see how it goes.” Generally speaking at a young age we’re able to figure out a gender identity. As we get into our teenage years we start to explore our sexual orientation. This was a time where I started to figure things out. It lasted all the way into high school and college. By the time I got into college I knew for sure that I was a lesbian.
MP: When did you come out to your parents?
MR: I decided not to come out to my mother until I was in a relationship. I wanted to show her that this was not something I was just trying out. I wanted it to be an actual thing. I figured if I were in a relationship, it would be clear that this was a solid decision.
MP: How did your family respond?
MR: They accepted it and welcomed my partner into the family. It just happened that I had a girlfriend who was more closeted with her parents. She became an open part of my family, but I wasn’t an open part of hers.
My family’s complete acceptance was really important to me. I come from a culture where extended family is everything. If I wasn’t able to share who I was with all of my relatives, that would have been a big hole in my life. Fortunately I was able to share that part of me with my extended family. There was a feeling of completeness with it.
MP: If a parent suspects that their child might be LGBTQ, should they ask them?
MR: Parents today are more able to understand how to have the conversation and be open to their kids’ responses. They are starting to see that for many young people sexual orientation is not black or white. Fewer kids are hearing responses from parents like, “I don’t want to hear about it.” Or, “What’s wrong with you?”
But don’t rush things. Young kids may have really close attachments to their friends. Sometimes parents wonder if those friends are just friends. They might want to ask, but some of the younger kids, even all the way up to the ages of 14, 15, 16, aren’t sexually active at all. The response to a question like that would likely be “They’re just a friend.” I say just wait and see. Let it come out naturally.
As adults we want our kids to have a life that’s set out where everyone can count on certain things. It is hard to sit in that space of gray. But I encourage that. It is all part of emerging and allowing our kids to be able to evolve into who they want to be.
MP: But what if a child is exhibiting all the signs, wearing opposite-gender clothing or asking to be called by a different name? Should a parent still hold back? Won’t that seem like they’re not offering support?
MR: I say don’t assume, because younger kids as well as adolescents do a lot of experimenting. They might be using their wardrobe as a way to express themselves differently, to understand that this is what a boy does or this is what a girl does. As they get older they may be trying different types of wardrobes to express themselves without signifying that they are one thing or another. If a girl dresses up as a boy for a while, she may not be saying, “I am a young man,” but simply, “This is how I feel today. I feel like dressing as a boy.” They might leave the house dressed as a girl the next day. It’s all part of experimenting with their self-identity, but it doesn’t have to mean they are LGBTQ.
Sometimes in adolescence young people like to test boundaries, to see your reaction. But when you have a child that is young, like age 5 or 6, who consistently says that they are a different gender than the one assigned at birth, that’s a different thing.
MP: Because that sounds like it’s more than experimentation?
MR: When you have a child who persistently says that they are the opposite of their biologically assigned gender and they say it again and again, parents need to pay attention and ask questions. These kids may really need your support.
MP: I know that being LGBTQ isn’t a mental illness, but aren’t some LGBTQ kids at higher risk for mental health problems?
MR: Where the higher mental health risks come in are usually with kids who have been rejected by friends and family. That’s when we see LGBTQ kids more at risk from a mental health standpoint. Kids who come out and then are rejected by their family or even kicked out of the home and sent into the streets are much more likely to experience depression and anxiety, for instance.
The short answer is mental health services are needed most when kids are having clear difficulties coming out or their families are having difficulties accepting their reality. If a kid does not have support, this process can feel incredibly lonely. The good news is that more schools have things like GSA or other LGBT groups where kids can go when things feel overwhelming. Mental health care is key, but peer support is essential.
MP: What’s the best way to support a young person through the coming-out process?
MR: I think that one of the best things that a parent can do is to offer understanding, respect and support. Show yourself to be non-judgmental, so that you gain your kid’s trust. Adolescents generally say they trust their friends first and their parents second. They work these things out among themselves and then they inform their parents. Some parents feel put out by this, but I assure them that it is a natural developmental phase. You may not be the first to know, but you still know.
One thing a parent can do when their child is coming out is to ask if they feel they are in a good place, if they have the support they want or if they feel need to talk to someone. Then you can step in and help them make a connection. To say, “I love you” means everything in the world to a child.