What Your Child Needs To Know About Sex (And When)

A straight-talking guide for parents

Teaching Your Young Child about Homosexuality and Transgenderism

Teach about sexual orientation and gender diversity very early on

As I have discussed in a number of previous posts, I have spoken to many, many children about a variety of issues pertaining to sex and sexuality. One thing that strikes me as all too common when I address older elementary school and middle school children is their discomfort with homosexuality and their overall lack of awareness of people who are transgender. I have been a sexuality educator for thirty years, much of that time spent in the New York City Public Schools, and I must say that not much has changed with respect to children's awareness of and comfort with persons who are gender variant. Still today I can go into virtually any school in any community in the city and as part of my discussion with kids between the ages of 10 and 13 years segue into a talk about homosexuality and the moans, groans, and eye-rolling are all too apparent. Doesn't matter what community it is either. Irrespective of the demographics I get the same reactions virtually every time. And my conversations about persons who are transgender are initially met with a fair amount of ignorance of the topic followed by a discomfort that is similar to my talks about homosexuality. Sure there are some exceptions but for the most part my experience discussing homosexuality and transgenderism with preadolescents in the schools I have visited result in the same initial negative responses.

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Now to be fair, as my discussions with these children progress and they begin to process and digest what constitutes gender variance and the various issues and concerns that gay, lesbian, and people who are transgender deal with, many of these young people begin to display a better understanding and empathy towards their fellow neighbors. But there is no denying their initial discomfort and/or ignorance.

But I am not surprised nor am I shocked. Why should I be? After all, I know of no elementary school that makes any effort to include as part of its curriculum any teaching about homosexuality much less transgenderism. And the middle schools that I am familiar with aren't really that much better. Oh, I can find some discussion of homosexuality usually buried within the family life/sex education component of the health education curriculum that is offered in eighth grade, and then again some mention of tolerance of gays and lesbians in some of the lessons done on HIV and AIDS. But if the real truth is told by the folks that run the middle schools in New York City, there really isn't a whole lot of education about homosexuality and transgenderism going on at that level either. Is it that much different in the community that you live in? Of course things change somewhat at the high school level as a number of schools now have LGBTQ associations and clubs, and we see some greater emphasis on curriculum content in health education that addresses gender variance. The problem however in waiting so long to deal with the topic is that many of the beliefs, attitudes, and values about homosexuality and transgenderism that young people have take form before the high school years. Consequently, if children do not receive tolerant messages from their parents you can bet that the heterosexist world they live in will do all it can to foster gender variant bigotry and misunderstanding as they grow. Unfortunately, the longer we wait to teach kids understanding and tolerance the greater the chance they will learn the opposite. Such is the world we live in.

So I wonder just how much time the average parent spends with her or his child discussing the topic. And when there is any discussion, the sort of attitudes and values about homosexuality and transgenderism that are shared and promoted. Not only have I spent considerable time talking to kids about sex and sexuality but I have done likewise with parents. And while I have encountered a number of parents that have made a genuine effort towards teaching about gender variance, I have met far more that haven't. Yes I have met a number of parents that have taught tolerance and acceptance to their children but sadly I am sure there are many that haven't.

Just how would you rate yourself, those of you that are parents, with respect to the amount of tolerant teaching you have done with your own children? Have you had a sufficient number of discussions and conversations with your child about homosexuality and transgenderism? Have you shared with your child positive attitudes and values towards gays, lesbians, and people who are transgender? Have you sent messages to your child that one needs to be tolerant and accepting or have your messages been more negative? Or have you just been silent on the whole subject? And at what age did you start your conversations? Did you begin early? Say at age 5 or 6? Or did you wait until much later? Say 14 or 15 and beyond? Or again, have you not even started as yet?

My belief is it is never too late to begin your conversations with your child. But it can certainly be far better to start early. I advise parents that the age of 5 is a wonderful time to lay a foundation for what homosexuality is and to instill in your young child a sense of tolerance and acceptance for being lesbian or gay. "You know, just like a man and a woman can love each other so can a man and a man or a woman and a woman. A man that loves and is attracted to another man is called a gay man. A woman that loves and is attracted to another woman is called a lesbian woman. Gay men and lesbian women are also called homosexuals. It is very important that we respect people who are gay and lesbian". Your 5 year old will happily say, "Oh, okay" and be done with it. While this may not sound like much of a beginning, it is nevertheless a beautiful foundation for additional discussion and teaching as time goes along. Soon thereafter, you can begin to scaffold additional information as needed, always keeping a focus on building acceptance and tolerance. "Just like I think it is important to respect people of different colors and religions, it is very important to respect people who are homosexual. There are people who disapprove of persons that are gay and lesbian and sometimes they will actually try and hurt them. I think that is just so terrible and wrong". "You know, just like a man and woman can have children so can gay men and lesbian women". "While men and women can marry each other, there are many states that do not allow gay men and lesbian women to marry. I think it's only right that homosexuals be allowed to marry". These are just some of the directions that you can take your conversations with your young child.

I think it is important to have a discussion about transgenderism by age 8. "It is important for you to recognize and understand that the world is made up of many different people. Just like there are people of different colors, cultures, religions, ethnic backgrounds, shapes, and sizes, etc. there are many ways to express yourself as a boy or man, or a girl or woman. Sometimes there are boys and men that will seem more like a girl or woman and at times there are girls and women that will seem more like a boy or a man. In fact there are many people that will look, act, and behave at times like the opposite sex, or perhaps like both sexes, or perhaps like something else entirely. There are people that view themselves as not necessarily being the sex they were born with. These are people that are transgender. I can imagine this is a little hard to understand but it is important that you understand just how diverse people can be. We will have many discussions as you grow older about the importance of respecting people that are different than you as well as respecting those that are similar".

By starting our discussions about homosexuality and transgenderism early in our children's lives we increase the likelihood that they will grow into tolerant and respectful adolescents and adults. If we ensure that we have built a solid foundation for our children by age 10 on most matters that pertain to sexuality we stand a better chance that our children will behave and act in healthy ways as they become young women and men. And for those of you concerned that by talking with your little one about gender variance will somehow cause your child to become gender variant? As I suggest in my book, discussing homosexuality and transgenderism with your young child will not cause her or him to become gay or transgender, just as discussing tolerance of persons of a different color will not change your child's skin tone.

Let's remember that people are attacked and killed in this country every year just because they are thought to be gay or lesbian, not to mention the countless numbers that are discriminated against on a regular basis. As parents now is the time to ensure that we work to change this for the next generation. And remember one more important thing: your child just might be gay, lesbian, or transgender. So do it for your child!

Fred Kaeser, Ed.D., is the former director of health for the NYC Department of Education. He is the author of What Your Child Needs To Know About Sex (And When).

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