Talking with teens about gender and sexual identity

When I was growing up, there were only two genders: male and female. Your genitals determined which one you were. There was no discussion or decision. If you were a male, you were supposed to be attracted to females, and vice-versa. Again, there was no discussion.

Of course, one reason there was no discussion in my house – or millions of other American homes – was because the adults pretended that no other options existed. As I grew up, I encountered the words “homosexual” and “hermaphrodite;” they were fearful words, not to be spoken. The poor folk so labelled were either shunned or considered circus freaks. And so like most American children, I was sheltered from learning about the real world.

I was fortunate to easily align with cultural expectations about my gender and sexual orientation. As a heterosexual female, I dated and married men. But at the same time, the sexual revolution and the gay liberation movement made me aware that “normal” might not be exactly what my parents said.

Today, I know so much more about biology and genetics and sexual function and mental health. I have been fortunate to know all kinds of people; my understanding of the world has become broader and more accepting and loving. I am still a happily married heterosexual female, but the world is much larger and more magical than what I learned as a child.

But now I am stumped. In this new open world, how do our children navigate puberty and adolescence? I am seeing young people (and some adults) who are ambivalent about their gender and sexuality. As a young girl, I did not care a whit about “Teen Beat” or who was the cutest Beatle; all my friends did, and it made me feel different and left out. Today, a young girl in that same situation might wonder if her difference was a matter of gender or sexual preference.

Encountering this situation, I want to say “WTF!” Gender and sexual preference are not a matter of choice. Feeling like you are different than your peers is perfectly normal. Also, this situation might not be related to any other aspect of your identify.

But when you are young and confused, how can you tell?

It seems to me that our children can be confused by this new world where it seems “everything is possible.” We may not be like our parents who denied reality – but are we talking about reality in a way that helps our children or not? I think that children need more than just a bunch of information about all the options with platitudes about “being who you are.” I think our children need

  1. Help to realize that gender and sexual preference are not choices – children don’t get to change their mind back and forth about this. Some people change during puberty, but I believe that almost everyone intuitively knows their own gender and orientation long before adolescence. I also believe that an observant and kind parent usually knows this too.
  2. Help and time to mature enough to find out who they are. Most kids already know about their gender and sexual preference, but those are only two parts of who we become. Maybe it is more important to think about the things where there are choices: setting healthy personal boundaries, being considerate of others, taking a place in the community, deciding what occupations are interesting, etc.
  3. Support to get them through the ups and downs of puberty without being unduly pulled in too many directions. Days of longing for a boyfriend followed by a reluctance to be around boys at all – this doesn’t mean that your sexuality has changed. This is just puberty and it sucks. It gets better with time and we all need to be reminded of this sometimes!
  4. Help to be gentle with friends and acquaintances. Because they are immature, children can be harsh and judgemental. They may ostracize those who are different, while trying to conceal their own differences. I think that children who are more accepting of others, can also be more accepting of themselves.
  5. Love and to know that they are loved, no matter who they are, or how confused they are.

Am I wrong about this? Do you have suggestions or experiences in navigating gender and sexuality with your own children? Or just an opinion that you want to share? I am still trying to figure out my practical belief system here. I could have bad information, and I am open to new ideas.

I know that religion provides the proper answer to these questions for many people. If you and your children are among those people, good for you! However, this post is not about religion, and those are not new ideas to me. I will delete any comment – positive or negative – that proposes religion as the solution. Sorry, but those comments are off-topic for this post, and they often generate a lot of unhelpful anger on all sides.

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