When I came out as gay to my parents at 21 years old, one of the concerns my parents had was the opinions of other people. I’ve always said, my mother responded in the way that is expected of people with queer children when they confirm their queerness. It is not something you simply accept or support. You must resist and protest to signal your mourning for the loss of a heteronormativity you and your peers have agreed to uphold.
This agreement is a collective undertaking with which heterosexual people subtly threaten each other to maintain the social order which benefits them, and their children in many ways, are extensions of that order. This reality is reflected in the ideals on which families are constructed, through words like “legacy”. This legacy through which children are often held to ransom is largely dependent on the certainty of cis heterosexuality. To many, these ideas are simply a consequence of the ‘natural’ order of things, but it is a cause of that order.
Sociologist, Pierre Bordieu offered an interesting perspective on the matter which states that the idea of a normal family is constructed on a constellation of words such as ‘house’, ‘home’ and ‘household’ which seem to describe a social reality, but actually constructs it. In this way, the nuclear family and how children are parented in that family tries to construct a social reality, agreed upon by others. The tool with which parents often construct that reality, sadly, is fear.
For many queer children, the introduction to the rules of gender is signaled by punishment. A boy wanting to wear nail polish, or a girl refusing to wear dresses under any circumstance could be simply a form of expression, but in the face of a deadly neurosis about gender and sexuality, queer children are often shamed and threatened into normativity. The first misfortune is that parents and doctors choose gender for children based on the sex assigned and that gender has an inevitable sexual destiny.
Children are often blissfully unaware of those choices and their consequences; going about their lives with nothing but the inclination to do what feels right and good for themselves. They learn that they are boys and girls through the penalties they pay for breaking the rules, not through the affirmation of what comes naturally to them. Because parents are afraid of the consequences non-normative children could have for their social standing in a society that holds them to ransom, they make pawns out of their children in a game they did not agree to play.
This fear and punishment-based parenting style has devastating consequences for queer children later in life, if they reach later life. The rates of suicide amongst queer youth climb year on year. Being taught by a primary caregiver that being who you are and expressing yourself in a way that feels comfortable, is shameful and embarrassing for them, impacts negatively on queer children’s self-esteem, self-worth and overall mental well-being. Having no affirmation also negatively impacts on the ability to form healthy relationships, platonic and otherwise. The inability to trust and relate to others causes queer people to isolate themselves, again making them susceptible to mental health challenges.
For parents, especially of queer children, realizing that parenting cannot abide by agreements you have made for your own self-preservation is paramount. There is a healthy degree of fear for the well-being of the child who will face adversity in the world, that should inform your parenting. Parenting queer children without considering the context of a queerphobic world is not wise either. However, you should not be the first encounter with heteronormative violence your child has. Parental love is often vaunted as the pinnacle of love, which no other human could achieve. From someone who was once a queer child, I can guarantee you, we don’t experience it. If we did, we would be healthier, better adjusted, more confident and adept at nurturing healthy human relationships that don’t force into constant bargaining for humanity.
Parenting does not come with a manual, but it does have very clearly defined objectives: love your children beyond your own personal prejudices. If anything, queer children give parents an opportunity to practice the unconditional love we often value. Raising confident, self-loving queer children equips them with the tools to navigate the world without the uncertainty that makes so many of us vulnerable to interpersonal abuse.
A parent does not need to understand everything about queerness to affirm their child’s queerness. In fact, let them teach you what to do for them, because given the safety and space, they will tell you what they need. Don’t punish them for being different but encourage their self-discovery. Parent for the well-being of your child and pay less attention to what people will say.