There aren’t a lot of benefits to having a mental disorder, but neurodiverse parents may actually have a leg up on helping their children cope with coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer.
People who identify as LGBTQ face many of the same challenges we with neurodiversities do, all of them created by the stigmatization of issues at the heart of who we are and how we identify ourselves in the world. LGBTQ youth, surrounded by heterosexual peers still insecure about their own sexual feelings, are frequently subjected to hostility; middle and high school students are notorious for bullying those outside the norm. LGBTQ students routinely deal with being verbally and physically abused. It’s no wonder rates of suicide attempt among them are 20-40 percent higher than among heterosexual teens.
Crazy good parents know what stigma feels like and we’ve learned how to cope with it. We know what it is to live with a secret and the conviction that revealing it will alienate those we hold dear. We also have experience with therapy—some of us have years of experience with it. We know the language of acceptance and the value of talk within our families. Many of us also know terrible darkness, overwhelming anxiety and the horrible feeling that suicide is the only choice to end our pain.
Living outside the norm in a society that considers us disordered also gives us the knowledge that our society itself is disordered. How else can we explain the idea that it’s ok to think any one of us is a mass murder waiting to happen when the reality is we’re more likely to hurt ourselves?
In today’s post, Michael Sadowski, author of In A Queer Voice: Journeys of Resilience from Adolescence to Adulthood, proposes society’s view of gender identity is equally disordered as its view of neurodiversities. The stories he tells of LGBTQ youths’ experiences in coming out to their families are powerful. I like to think that we, as crazy good parents, have the tools to accept our children as they are, not as we wish them to be.
Few things test a parent’s mettle like a child’s coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ). If a mom or dad doesn’t see it coming, it can be an experience in which years of expectations suddenly need to be rethought based on a new set of realities. For the parents of lesbian, gay, and bisexual kids, hopes about their finding the “right girl” or the “man of their dreams” no longer make sense in the same way. For those with transgender children, the mere thought that one’s child is a son or a daughter can be brought into question. And when young people identify as queer, the first thing most parents need to do is wrap their heads around what that even means.[i]
None of this is to say that LGBTQ kids are a problem. On the contrary, the reason why the parenting of LGBTQ kids can be challenging is that many parents suffer from a “disorder” of sorts that presents with some of its most potent symptoms when their children are L, G, B, T, or Q—or when they simply don’t behave in ways that adhere to traditional gender or sexuality norms.
Last year, the American Psychiatric Association officially stopped using the term “gender identity disorder” (GID) to pathologize transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals, a change that was long overdue. Yet I can’t help thinking we need something like this term (though not the term itself, given its damaging history) to describe our society’s disordered obsession with raising children so that they fit into neat, expected patterns of gendered behavior and expressions of sexuality. I am proposing here a modified term, “gender and sexuality socialization disorder” (GSSD) to describe a condition to which all parents in our culture are vulnerable. (While straight parents may be more likely than LGBTQ parents to suffer from GSSD, no one in our gender-based society is immune.) Of course, I am not expecting the APA to adopt this non-clinical term for their next Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, but I think it helps us laypersons to name a very real condition many parents have–one that can place their children, especially if they are LGBTQ, at very real risk.
First, a caveat: I am not a parent, yet my knowledge about these issues comes from an even greater source of authority: LGBTQ kids themselves. In interviews for my recent book, In a Queer Voice: Journeys of Resilience from Adolescence to Adulthood, young people told me about parents who verbally abused them, urged them to hide their LGBTQ identities from other relatives, cried or yelled when they talked about being queer, or simply refused to talk about it. These were parents whose GSSD put their children in jeopardy, and some of the kids I talked to became severely depressed, cut themselves, lashed out at others, or even attempted suicide when they had no one to turn to.
The stories I heard ranged from the extreme to the ostensibly normal. At one end of the spectrum, there was outright abuse. Lindsey[ii] told me that her stepfather called her names like “dyke” and “carpet muncher” daily while she was in middle school, even before she came out as bisexual and later as lesbian. Lindsey became a chronic cutter because she didn’t feel safe telling anyone about what was happening (she was also being harassed at school). It wasn’t until Lindsey attempted suicide at age 15 and her mom gave her stepfather an ultimatum to “appreciate my daughter and love her, or you can leave” that Lindsey’s now close relationship with her stepdad started to turn around.
Clark, an 18-year-old college freshman, had come out to his parents as gay about four years earlier and at first described them as “supportive of basically everything I did.” Digging a little more deeply into Clark’s story, however, I discovered that when he first came out his parents sent him to an “ex-gay” Christian counselor with a conversion agenda. A deeply religious young man, Clark struggled throughout high school trying to reconcile his Christianity with his homosexuality—something he clearly couldn’t talk to his parents about. Fortunately, he found solace with online friends who also were struggling with similar issues, and he learned to self-identify with pride as a gay person of faith.
Then there were the parents who just didn’t want to talk about it. Matt, a transgender young man who has recently transitioned from being female, said his once-close relationship with his mother deteriorated when he mentioned his need to live as a man. Matt said his mom viewed his being transgender as “losing her only daughter,” and to keep peace in the family Matt eventually just stopped talking about it: “It’s better not to mention it to her.”
GSSD can take many forms, some less extreme than the ones I describe here. If you could never see yourself behaving like one of these parents, think smaller. Have you ever discouraged a child from pursuing interests that were not in keeping with gender expectations or sent subtle messages that heterosexual couplings are the only “normal” ones? Have you ever urged a son to “toughen up” or a daughter to act more “ladylike?” As the young people I talked to told me, being “pushed” in these various ways started early. And while it doesn’t necessarily mean a child will be rejected if they turn out to be L, G, B, T, or Q later on, kids mentally file away these messages that affect how safe they perceive the environment to be if they need to come out.
Thankfully, in addition to many manifestations of GSSD, I heard some inspiring stories from kids whose families seemed to celebrate their LGBTQ identities even before they were ready to do so. Kate faced both verbal and sexual harassment from abusive peers at school, but at home her father sent subtle messages that it was okay to come out to him as gay whenever she was ready. As Kate recalled with a laugh, he would deliberately talk about gay celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres or drop things into conversation like “Melissa Etheridge has a new album coming out!” or “Did you know that when I lived in San Francisco, I marched in the Gay Pride Parade?”
Realizing Kate was probably struggling with the emotional turmoil of coming out, her dad found language to let her know she would be safe no matter who she was, what she wanted to disclose, and when. His overtures may have been a little awkward or perhaps even comical, but they were all about encouraging open and loving communication—the most promising treatment we know about for GSSD. Now, if that doesn’t qualify as crazy good parenting, I don’t know what does.
How about you? Are you parenting a LGBTQ child? Do you think your neurodiversity gives you an advantage?
Michael Sadowski is the author of In A Queer Voice: Journeys of Resilience from Adolescence to Adulthood (Temple University Press, 2013) and teaches youth development in the Bard College Master of Arts in Teaching Program in New York City.
[i] The term “queer” has many connotations for different individuals. It often implies one or more of the following: the rejection of more traditional gender and sexuality labels such as gay or lesbian; an identification with the political struggle against sexuality- and gender-based oppression; and an inclusive sense of solidarity with people across the LGBTQ spectrum.
[ii] All interviewee names are pseudonyms.