By Meredith Worthen
My daughter was born just a year after the conservative red state where we live passed marriage equality. My partner and I were elated that she was going to grow up with the opportunity to marry whomever she wants (or of course, not marry anyone if she doesn’t want to). But as she got older, we realized that they ways we were talking with her about issues like relationships, marriage, etc. were in line with the practices of “queer parenting.” Like I’ve stated elsewhere, in my view, queer parenting is an approach to raising young humans that engages with their own unique selves in ways that cultivate their natural skillsets and support their growth. I also see queer parenting as centered around understanding our own social locations with privilege and oppression and in turn, encouraging empathy and calls for activism/social change.
Much of this approach comes from my parents who raised me using a liberal mindset (but because I am nearly 40 years old and the “queer as social activism” trend didn’t really start until the advent of the activist group Queer Nation in 1990, I doubt they would use “queer parenting” to describe their approach). Even so, I think it is pretty clear that there are overlaps. Not only did my parents answer all my questions in depth (all without the aid of the Internet back then), I went through a program called Our Whole Lives, or OWL. From their website, OWL provides “honest, accurate information” and “dismantles stereotypes and assumptions, builds self-acceptance and self-esteem, fosters healthy relationships, improves decision making, and has the potential to save lives.”
One cool thing about OWL is that the program focuses on developmentally appropriate information throughout the life course—from kinder to older adulthood—about a variety of topics, some expected (relationships and sexual health) but also others that often go unmentioned (gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, and cultural influences on sexuality). For example, we learned about the “circles of sexuality” (see image below) as seventh graders which helped us to see the overlaps between these factors. Heck, I even got to play with condoms as a kindergartner. Why not?
Another awesome resource I would recommend is Sex Positive Families which helps you tackle “the talks,” especially for tweens. They have online courses and workshops (sorted by age) and they also offer private coaching. Topics include abortion, bodies, consent, disability, feelings, gender, LGBTQ+, media literacy, menstruation, parent sexual health, pleasure, pornography, puberty, relationships, reproduction, safe/unsafe touch, sex, sex education, sexual orientation, and Spanish resources.
So back to my daughter. She is not quite a teen but that doesn’t mean that we don’t talk about bodies, relationships, gender and sexual identity, and sex. Every child is different so there is no “one size fits all” approach to queer parenting and sex education, but here are a few things that have worked:
- Always use accurate terms for body parts. This encourages competency with sexual health and discourages body shame.
- Encourage and answer questions. My opinion is that the old adage is correct, “if they are old enough to ask, they are old enough to know the answer.”
- If you are nervous about how to answer a question you think your kiddo might ask (or that they may have already asked and you felt stumped or tongue-tied), do some research and prepare. Many of us did not receive sex education as kiddos so it makes sense that we may not feel fully competent to provide sex education. Watch some educational videos, read some books/blogs, take notes! It is ok to rehearse your talking points beforehand too (or save them in a note in your phone, that is what I do!). U.S. culture doesn’t really do a good job of preparing us to talk about sex/bodies, etc. so preparing ahead of time can be particularly helpful. (Remember to use accurate terms for body parts and actions!). The more comfortable we feel as parents, the more comfortable our kiddos will feel too.
- When answering questions and discussing these issues, try to use some examples that your kiddos may not have been exposed to (or they are not regularly exposed to). For example, discuss how some same-sex couples conceive or how some couples never marry. This can also help with questions about adoption, artificial insemination, LGBTQ issues, etc. (Note: this is right in line with my perspectives about queer parenting).
- Be open about both gender and sexual diversity, including how our genders and sexual identities shape our understandings of our bodies, relationships, and sexual experiences.
- Instead of feeling stressed about talking to your kiddos about these topics, try feeling excited and proud that your kiddo has met this stage! It is fun to learn together and this is all part of growing up as a kid and as a parent. Celebrate the big milestones with something fun such as a trip to the movies or even a sweet (or salty!) treat.
- Be kind to yourself. We all make missteps as parents and kids are resilient. Try again, correct yourself, and learn together.
In closing, I want to make a comment about how these types of conversations can impact young people at later stages in life. For a little bit of background, I am a university professor and I teach about sex education in my courses. Surprisingly—or maybe not?—many of my college students comment that they have never received any sex education. They also tend to have inaccurate knowledge about body parts (especially female ones) and STIs, including transmission of HIV. Yikes!
So while I am happy to help educate the current 20-somethings, I am deeply saddened that they have gone two decades of their lives without basic information about their bodies and sexual selves. So what is my advice? Any time is a good time to start talking about bodies, relationships, gender and sexual identity, and sex with your kiddo, no matter what age they are.
Meredith G. F. Worthen (she/her/hers) is a Professor of Sociology and Sexualities/LGBTQ Studies scholar with key interests in stigma, prejudice, and crime. She is a social justice activist for the LGBTQ community, especially through her creation of The Welcoming Project (thewelcomingproject.org), and an advocate for survivors of sexual assault through her work as #MeTooMeredith (instagram.com/