Kids Are Coming Out Earlier Than Ever—Here's How to Give Them the Support They Need
Kids have their own ideas about how to come out; here’s how families can support them.
It's the question that many parents live for but may also secretly dread. Elizabeth*, a television executive, recalls the night her daughter Ali*, then a sixth grader, sprang it on her, mid–Criminal Minds episode.
"Mom, can I talk to you?" she asked.
"As long as you can say it during the commercial break," Elizabeth replied.
"I think I'm bi," Ali told her.
It wasn't the plot twist Elizabeth expected, but it also wasn't a gotcha moment. "I think I said, 'Cool! Now can I go back to watching TV?' " Elizabeth says. In other words, no big deal.
But for millions of kids, coming out is a really big deal. More Americans than ever identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and/or queer (LGBTQ+). In fact, according to a 2020 report by the Williams Institute at UCLA, it's estimated that 9.5 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds are LGBT. In an age of Queer Eye, RuPaul's Drag Race, Pose, gay Disney characters, and trans Instagram stars, kids are coming out earlier than ever.
"Visibility and safety are part of it," says Elijah C. Nealy, PhD, a trans clinical social worker in West Hartford, Connecticut, and author of Transgender Children and Youth. "There's a greater degree of acceptance. It also seems more wrapped up in identity than sexual activity"—that is, your child could identify as gay even if they aren't having sex yet.
Despite the changing times, Nealy cautions, a declaration like Ali's can still be received with denial, worry, disappointment, and even anger. Almost half of LGBTQ teens under 18 who are out to their parents say that their families make them feel bad for being LGBTQ, and 70 percent report being bullied at school, according to the 2018 LGBTQ Youth Report by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation (which surveyed 12,000 LGBTQ teens). But even those growing up in homes where coming out isn't an issue can have a hard time coming to terms with their sexuality until they're older.
I've Been There
Take it from me: I'm a mom of three and have two gay sons. My oldest, Leo, came out his senior year of college, years after his younger brother did, leaving me feeling a little blindsided. I wondered why it took him so long. I felt at turns guilty for things I said, or failed to say, and relieved that he finally opened up. I replayed key moments of his childhood in my head, beating myself up for missing signs that could have spared him from feeling so alone in his own home. I felt I had failed him.
How can parents raise out, proud, and resilient kids?
"It's not about you," my younger son, Marcello, is quick to point out. "It's about us." Or as Leo explained: "You can't force someone to come out until they're ready. It's really about self-acceptance." So if you think your child may be gay, asking them bluntly yourself isn't likely to help them come out.
Show the love
"Parents can't say 'I love you' enough," says Brian Wenke, executive director of the It Gets Better Project. That means a statement without any conditions—avoid phrases like "I love you even if," which can imply your kid has done something wrong.
Don't be put off by Moody Judys, Sullen Sams—and closed doors. "Just keep knocking and checking in on them," Wenke says. "Parents are a natural irritant to their kids, so don't let that discourage you. Simply ask: 'Anything you want to talk about? No? OK, cool.' " Just showing up builds trust.
Your Own Reaction
No matter how open you may think you are, your child's confession may throw you into a surprising tailspin of emotions. For New York child psychiatrist Jonathan Tobkes, MD, coauthor of When Your Child Is Gay: What You Need to Know, the hardest part of his son's coming out was grappling with his own feelings. It made me "want to retreat, to isolate,' " he wrote in a piece for Psychology Today. "Why did I have this reaction?"
But Tobkes' response is quite typical. "Parents have to go through a whole coming-out process, too," Wenke says. That might mean letting go of preconceived notions about LGBTQ+ kids, or confronting our own fears of how other people might react. Some pointers:
Let go of labels
Younger generations are a whole lot more comfortable with the idea of fluidity—and that goes for gender identity and sexual attraction as well. "Kids today don't like labels, even though they've come up with their own new lexicon," Wenke says.
Resist calling kids "confused" or saying things like "You're either gay or straight." Bisexuals, in fact, now make up the highest percentage of the LGBTQ+ population, and their numbers are on the rise, according to data from Gallup and the 2018 General Social Survey.
When Lily began saying she felt like a boy trapped in a girl's body, her mom, Elisa*, pushed back. She found herself telling Lily, "You're such a pretty girl, you're such a strong girl"—as if gender identity was a choice. Elisa says, "I was making wrong decisions based on thinking I was making the right ones." Once Elisa conceded she might not have all the answers, she was able to seek help. (Lily became Ara*, is now in college, and has never felt better.)
Think family first
"When you have strong families, you have strong [LGBTQ+] communities," says Caitlin Ryan, PhD, ACSW, cofounder of the Family Acceptance Project. A supportive family can literally save a child's life—children's risk of attempting suicide is eight times higher in intolerant families, she says. "In all my years of working with families, I've only encountered a handful who [are resistant]," Ryan says. "Most want to help, but don't know how."
"When I came out to my mother, she said, 'Don't tell your father,' " says Elizabeth Ziff, a member of the alternative-rock group Betty and an advocate for LGBTQ+ youth through the band's nonprofit, the Betty Effect. But "you can't [have] an honest relationship if you're hiding a piece of yourself from your own family." If it's your kid who's insisting Dad shouldn't know, ask why and see if the two of you can perhaps come up with a plan for telling him later.
Similarly, don't assume your elderly parents won't understand; grandparents are sometimes the most accepting family members, Nealy says. To wit, Sala*, a Holocaust survivor in Toronto, stood by her trans grandkid after her own daughter cut him off. "Every child is precious and has a right to live with dignity no matter who they are and who they love—that's what's commanded in the Torah," she says. "We lost [more than] 1 million children during the Holocaust. I didn't want to lose another, especially one of my own."
This article originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of Health Magazine. Click here to subscribe today!
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