I’ve observed that some parents who are open-minded about sexual diversity still struggle to talk to their children about non-hetero sexuality. From what I see, the typical pattern is to teach them about “normal” sex first, because it’s assumed that this will be unproblematic to the children, and to wait until the kids are older to broach the topics of lesbian and gay sex. Bisexuality doesn’t seem to even be on the radar very often (big surprise). And, unless there is a trans person in the family, I’m fairly sure that most children don’t even hear any related terms until they’re in high school. In this post, I’m addressing sexual orientation. Discussing trans issues with children will come in another post.
While the intention of parents is probably to avoid confusing children, this “waiting” approach may do more harm then good and may lead to more confusion in the long run. By waiting until children ask specifically about same-sex sexuality, chances are the children will be exposed to damaging stereotypes and prejudice before the parents have the change to teach them anything positive. For children who may eventually come to question their own sexual orientation, this may cause them unnecessary anguish since they will have internalised, at a tender age, that their own sexual desires are “abnormal” or taboo. For children who wind up being hetero, this may contribute to their maintenance of ideas that may lead them to exclude or even bully non-normative kids.
I’m not saying this is irreversible! I’m sure that parents can still contribute to changing homophobic in kids later on. Indeed, many queer activists and allies were raised in homophobic households or households where it just wasn’t discussed. But ultimately, if more and more children are raised to see sexual diversity as the norm, fewer and fewer children will grow up thinking that non-hetero relations are weird and taboo. Fewer and fewer people will feel awkward about introducing “that gay aunt or uncle” or “that bisexual cousin.”
I’m sure there are lots of tips out there in books and on the net. I have to admit I never read them. I just went with my own gut instincts when I started talking about sex to my son. I found that making same-sex sexuality “normal” was largely a question of deconstructing what sex was to start with. I eschewed the traditional “this is how babies” are made premise, which in and of itself excludes same-sex relations as “unnatural,” and favoured a definition of sex that had to do with sharing pleasure. I explained that sex is when people touch each other in a way that gives them pleasure but that it was different than the way parents and children touch each other (so that he wouldn’t think that cuddling with mommy or daddy on a couch was having sex.) I also told him that some people like to have sex with women, some like to have sex with men and some like to have sex with both. Finally, some people have sex with only one person and some have sex with more than one. For an initial discussion, I left it at that. He was only about 6 years old so I felt that was enough information for him to digest at that time.
Later on, he started asking questions about more specific sex acts. I would answer those and give a bit more information. I always made sure to include all gender combinations. For example, when he asked me how babies got into a mother’s belly, I explained that often, a man puts his penis in her vagina and sperm comes out, which mixes with an egg she had in her belly and make a baby. But I also told him that sometimes people choose to get sperm from a place that stores it and they get it placed in their medically, or that they can mix a sperm and egg together outside the woman’s belly and then put it in so that it will grow in the belly. This is an option for women who want to have a baby without a man because they love women or because they want to raise a child themselves. I also told him that some people, like me, went from being girls to being boys, but since they still had girl parts inside their bellies, they could sometimes still have babies. So even some boys can be mommies. Like his (although I gave birth years before transition).
When he accidentally spotted a picture of a woman licking a man’s penis, he asked me why she was doing that. I explained that it’s one thing some people like to do when they’re having sex. Then he asked me if some people lick vulvas. I said yes, some people do. There are all kinds of body parts that people like to lick. Now, some might argue that this knowledge is too graffic for a 10 year old. But if it’s OK for a 10 year old to know that men put penises inside women’s vagina’s, why is it not OK to know that some people lick each others vulva’s, penises, butts, breasts or whatever?
Bottom line: I want my son to internalise the idea that sex is not automatically about making babies and that having babies does not have to involve sex. This dislodges heterosexuality is THE norm, an idea that is propagated by the hegemonic link between sex and reproduction of the species. Emphasising diversity also makes it clear that same-sex sexuality does not threaten heterosexuality and is not a hindrance to reproduction.
Of course, exposure works miracles as well. My son has grown up knowing people of all sexual orientations. He’s seen me kiss women when I was a woman, he knows that his uncle is practically married to his male partner, he’s seen men hold hands with men and women hold hands with women. So deeply is it internalised that all this is “normal” that when he saw a female friend with another woman, he asked her if that was her girlfriend.
Now, he’s already expressed that he likes girls better. And he does have an eye for women in bikinis as some friends will attest to. On the other hand, he kissed a boy on the mouth when he was in kindergarden. Regardless of his own orientation, I’m fairly sure that he will see all kinds of relationships as legitimate and worthy of respect, which is what I want. Of course, this is an ongoing project. He’s not in high school yet and I’m sure I’ll have to keep an eye out for things he picks up there. I’ll also have to keep countering media imagery that is counter to the ideals of inclusion. But I feel that he at least has a basis.
So what are YOUR tips for explaining sexual diversity to kids? What do you do to counter homophobic stuff they wind up learning at school? If you decided later on in your kids’ lives to start talking about it, what was your approach? What worked and what didn’t? What would you recommend to parents who are just starting to think and talk about sexual diversity?