It’s not about you

How should a parent respond to an LGBTQ+ child? Karen Pollock explores the issues of parenting, coming out and when non-acceptance is abusive.


The ability to be anonymous online is neither the absolute evil, nor the total freedom described by many. It carries huge benefits, some of which I discuss here, particularly for LGBTQ+ people who face stigma, abuse, and gatekeeping around the exploration of their identities. As anyone who has ever encountered a troll will know, it also means people can express beliefs and opinions which are harmful, even abusive. One of the factors that encourages this abuse is the fact that people feel it is consequence free; they can threaten things such as rape online because no one will ever know who is behind the keyboard. Those who work with the victims of childhood sexual exploitation report that often those they investigate are unable to see the children whose abuse they share via pictures and video as real children. The insulation of the computer screen allows them to witness acts that in other spaces they would decry, or even actively work to prevent.

Child abuse takes many forms, but at its root lies the idea that the child being abused is an object, not a person, and an object who exists in order to gratify some need in you. It comes as a shock therefore when a national newspaper prints an anonymous letter from an abusive parent, protecting their identity and ignoring the harm being done to their child. This is exactly what the Guardian did yesterday with their “Letter to my little girl, who identifies as a boy“. In it a mother imposes their political belief that gender is innate and immutable upon a child who has a strong, consistent feeling that they are not the gender they were assigned at birth,

In some ways it’s an excellent rebuttal to the idea that it is liberal, or hippy (or whatever the pejorative term of choice is these days), parents who are somehow turning their children queer. Here is a parent who has exceptionally rigid views on gender roles, who accepts the division of male and female as some unbreachable divide. Their language is carefully chosen and demonstrates their attempt to paint themselves as a responsible parent. They want to appear as someone behind campaigns such as ‘Let toys be toys’, however in their own words “But, trying to bring you up to reject the idea that clothes and objects were connected to your genitalia, I always said, ‘No, these are for everyone.’ You looked at me with your huge eyes. It’s hard for a small child to disagree with all-powerful adults. But I felt uneasy. You were right and I was lying. You understood the message of the marketing and my pretending couldn’t make it go away.” As parents we are challenged by, and issue challenge to, marketing all the time; when we tell a child they cannot have a happy meal, because they had junk food already that day, we are challenging marketing. Good parenting rests on being willing to say, yes, the ad, or your peer group, or the magazine might claim that, but we don’t agree. Good parenting means putting up with the tantrum, or door slam that boundary might provoke.

Child abuse takes many forms, but at its root lies the idea that the child being abused is an object, not a person, and an object who exists in order to gratify some need in you

As the letter makes clear the faux performativity of gender neutral parenting, of letting little boys play with dolls, and girls get muddy, which is a staple of middle class parenting, is simply a cover for the writer’s true belief, that gender (not gender roles) are set from birth, that men really are from Mars and women from Venus.

This is not an academic debate. LGBTQ+ children and young people who are not allowed to express their sexual/gender identity by parents have worse health outcomes on all measures. They are more likely to be homeless as they flee homes which are not the places of safety we hope all homes would be. They are more likely to become survival sex workers, facing the risk of sexual exploitation. They are more likely to self harm, abuse drugs and alcohol, and attempt suicide.

For gender variant youth specifically it has been shown that simply being accepted by parents is the major indicator of better mental health.

I specifically use the term gender variant because many children who explore different identities do not grow up to be trans. This is not a good, or a bad, thing, it’s simply that children explore; it’s how they learn, discover who they are, and in that exploration the way to ensure they grow into happy, healthy adults is to offer our love unconditionally.

Imagine if your child came up to you and said “I want to be an astronaut when I grow up.” Do you tell them “You aren’t that clever; it’s unlikely you will ever be chosen. I never got to go to university, and I don’t see why you should have chances and opportunities I didn’t.” This might sound extreme, but it’s how many parents, including the letter writer, treat their children – as adjuncts of themselves, who are not allowed to have feelings and identities of their own. We do not own our children, they are not possessions. It’s that idea again that is at the heart all child abuse – seeing children as objects. If a child wants to be treated as a different gender to the one they have been assigned, our own political beliefs should not come before that child’s journey of discovering who they are. Just as it is wrong for parents of LGB people to insist that their sexuality is “just a phase” so it is wrong for parents of gender variant children to insist they must be their assigned birth gender. This is not about feminism, or beliefs about gender versus gender roles, it is about being a good, loving parent.

This is not an academic debate, LGBTQ+ children and young people who are not allowed to express their sexual/gender identity by parents have worse health outcomes on all measures.

Reading that letter I was struck by a comment I saw on Twitter – that the writer would be posting on estranged parent forums in 20 years. Regardless of whatever conclusions the child reaches about who they are, they have a parent who cannot accept that we do not own our children. The child is not their perfect girl, because they are not theirs; children belong to themselves, and as parents our role is to say we will walk alongside you, protecting, guiding, and stepping back, as you discover who that self is.

Follow Karen on Twitter (@counsellingkaz)

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