Nadia sent us a question about teen sexuality — how do you help a young person discover how he or she feels about sexual attraction?
My teen sister recently shared this with me: she thinks (but isn’t quite sure yet) that she is sexually attracted to other females. I felt at a loss for anything of substance to say except, “I love you and you’re so awesome that whoever you love will be equally fantastic!”
She feels alone because of a multitude of factors, including our parents who claim to be open-minded but really aren’t, the communal mindset of our conservative small town, etc.
As the liberal older sister, I’ve been entrusted with this younger person’s innermost feelings… and I don’t know how to handle it. I never questioned my sexuality. Are there helpful ways to support a young person’s sexual soul-searching?
Comments on My teenage sister thinks she might be gay. How can I best support her?
From experience just letting her know that you still love her and that there’s nothing wrong with her will help tremendously. Be there for her when she needs to talk about relationship issues. As a teen the hardest thing for me was keeping everything a secret. I couldn’t tell anyone when I feel in love or when I had my heart broken, it’s very lonely. Ask about her romantic life, let her know that door is open when she needs it. Let her know that even if she doesn’t feel like she belongs right now she will find her way and her place in the world one day.
I don’t know if this was the right answer, but when my little cousin confided in me I just tried to convey to her that everything she was telling me was totally normal. That I didn’t think she was weird — and that she WASN’T weird! Let it all be normal to you — be her ally when other people lay down judgement.
Hi Nadia! My older sis is gay, and my family, while liberal in many ways, still has a hard time adjusting (even though she’s been out for 7 years).
Luckily, your sis is at an age when there are other kids who are starting to explore their sexuality too. It always helps to have friends who know what you’re going through. The hardest part will be your parents, and it will ultimately be up to your sister how she wants to handle dealing with them, about how she feels.
Just support her, support her with all your might. You’re older, so you can help her on this journey. She’ll need to be able to talk to you about her crushes and dating situations, and to get advice for dealing with being different than her classmates. You could try to find queer-friendly hangouts and events in your town. The internet could also be a really great resource for her, in terms of forums and online communities. The way I see it, being gay isn’t all that different from being straight, except for the way the people around you deal with it.
There are also some amazing tv shows out there that could help. Or at least, as a straight sister, watching The L Word really gave me insight. I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s true. (Plus it was a great show). Queer as Folk is also good… and for your sis, if she’s on the young side, Glee is not bad.
This might all be very obvious advice… but really, she just needs to feel not alone. And it seems like by being on this site, you’re already doing a really good job of trying to be there for her.
Your original response rocks. Letting her know she’s awesome and will continue to be awesome (and date awesome people, whoever she chooses) is great. Total win for big sister, IMO.
As someone who was given the gift of another friend’s questioning in high school, I’ll also say this: keeping her conversations confidential is another key point. For you, that means not telling your parents/ other relatives or friends. For me, that meant not gossiping or blabbing in school. I did great until I was asked point blank by someone who seemed to already know. Ugh. My natural foot in mouth honesty reared its head. How I wish I had just said “don’t ask me, ask her.” I did learn my lesson, though. That phrase is now ready on my tongue. (And also, my friend came out and everything turned out ok.) But yeah. Be a confidant.
As a sister, she may not want you to be a resource but if she does, give her awesome links / books (again, only if she asks). No pushing. She’ll figure it out 🙂
I think that supporting her is less about having something cool to say and more about just listening to her talk through things.
I had this same problem. While I consider myself very “straight but not narrow”, I was shaken by my brother-in-law’s coming out to my partner and I. And really, that sinking feeling you get when you hear it isn’t disappointment or anything, it’s just sadness at the realisation of what they must have been struggling with — loneliness, fear, maybe even self-loathing. We don’t want to think of our families having to go through that.
IMO, being gay or straight is the exact same as having brown hair or blonde, blue eyes or green, tall or short. And we should treat it as such! The more we start normalizing a state of being, the closer we get to nobody having to keep their sexuality a secret anymore.
i think your response is awesome. and probably the main thing she needs – simple support.
there’s a lot of good (and plenty bad, too, of course) community and information online that you often can’t get in person, especially if you are not out.
and, with regard to being out, reassure her that is is totally okay to be out, and totally okay to not be out. there is a lot of pressure from “the gay community” (like that’s one big thing) to come out. and it can be really good to do, say, to keep from going crazy. just, don’t think you “have to” because sometimes it’s safer or saner to just hold off on that for a minute. what i’m saying is it’s really personal.
also, aside from personal support, being supportive as an ally can be really helpful. people are often much more inclined to listed to allies.
I second Lady Brett completely. While it’s incredibly important to be honest with yourself, it is not necessary to (nor should young lgbtq kids/anyone ever feel obligated to) broadcast all their inner truths to people who may not be receptive, or worse. That’s an individual choice that should always be respected. The most supportive thing you can do is just express that you love her no matter who she does or doesn’t love, and that she’s still be herself, however she ends up identifying.
Also, about the ally part – yes, yes, double yes. Be proactive in calling out homophobia when you encounter it, especially in “casual” instances. People won’t write you off as having a personal agenda, and are more likely to have a rational conversation (and later thought process) about what you say than they would be with an lgbt individual. And the more you can do to minimize the hostility of your sister’s environment (school, family, friends), the easier it will be for her. Even incremental progress is progress!
I’d recommend the “It Gets Better Project” if she’s facing any difficulties at school. It was started by Dan Savage (of Savagelove fame) and his husband. They have a website with thousands of videos of grown-up queers talking to teenage queers and telling them that life gets better after high school. They recently released a book by the same name. Dan Savage was interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air about a month ago. It’s a really good interview and makes some nice points about the innate nature of sexuality. It’s free on iTunes.
p.s. there was also a really good response to this called the “make it better” project – basically, some students started it as a way to say we don’t want to wait that long for our lives to get better, what can we do *now*
I was in the exact same situation as you and I know it’s tough. But my sister is now 20, out to my parents (it’s a work in progress), and a star in the gay community in her city. In addition to agreeing with all of the good advice previously shared, I’d recommend looking online to find her some resources and places to hang out with other gay kids – does a school or community center in your area have a gay-straight alliance?
One other thing that might sound strange. My sister worried that by confiding in me, she was committing to being gay. Let your sister know that you’ll love her if she is gay or if her explorations lead her to identify as straight! Good luck!
“My sister worried that by confiding in me, she was committing to being gay.”
I had the same fear, and for some reason it was devastating. So I second that advice!
I actually held off on coming out because of that. I remember telling myself, “If I still feel this way in a month, then I’ll start telling people.” Even though I knew in my heart of hearts that I had been feeling that way all along!
You said the right thing.
Okay, so when I was in junior high I came out to my family and let them know that I was dating a girl. I didn’t like labeling myself as a lesbian because I believe that I was free to love whoever I was attracted to…which happened to be a lady at that time. It was difficult because most of my family basically just told me that I was going through a phase and that I’ll grow out of it shortly (I may be married to a man now but I can assure you I still have feelings towards women).
Something really helpful that my brothers did to support me was to get me a season of the L Word. I know that sounds ridiculous but watching a show like that really helped me feel like I had a place in the world…and that I wasn’t some stupid hormonal teenager. I also read really supportive books like Keeping You a Secret (oh I hope that is what it was called).
Hope some of that helped.
The fact that you care enough to ask already solidifies the fact that you’re an amazing support person for her. you want to do a good job, and instead of just assuming you could, you reached out. That says a lot about you! It’s like the whole notion of parents who are worried about being bad parents, so they buy parenting books. if you’re the type to buy the books, you’re most likely gonna be a good parent.
The best thing you can do is be yourself! She looks up to you and trusts you as you are. And your original response was awesome.
As a person who questioned my sexuality at a very young age (11, to be specific), there was really nothing that could help me. No one can tell you if you do or don’t like the same sex. I, however, calmed my own self with a certain train of though; “What happens will happen”. I decided I didn’t need to decide at the very moment what I was or wasn’t. If a girl ever asked me out or I ended up liking a girl, I’d go with it, and if that never happened, that’d be fine, too. No pressure.
I had my first girlfriend only a short time later. We broke up (of course). And then I had a boyfriend. Then, another girlfriend. I dated fairly comfortably and confidently through my teenage years, which worked out to my benefit as I ended up meeting my future husband in high school.
I found a no pressure approach made me the happiest. Maybe your sister will, too?
From personal experience…encourage exploration. Provide safe sex information, or at least a high quality resource. Offer to help her get a hold of safe sex supplies, if necessary.
Also let her know that just because she likes certain people doesn’t mean she has to be part of “the community”.
Don’t push. Let her explore and sort it out. Let her know that no matter what, it’s okay.
Love this comment. She doesn’t need to label what she feels at this point in life, but being encouraged to have the strength to fearlessly persue her desires with an open heart and the good sense to choose her partners wisely will be of tremendous help, I’m sure.
Also, pointing out that there’s more than one way to be lesbian or bisexual or whatever (just like there are many ways to be straight) is very beneficial.
Ok. So, as a gay person who struggled with sexuality for years, I have this to say: be incredibly open about supporting the gay community. Whether or not it turns out your sister is gay, this can be incredibly helpful for not only her but so many people. I remember going to a pride march when I was 15 and seeing some people on the sidelines holding up a sign that said “WE SUPPORT AND LOVE ALL OF YOU!”. It meant a lot knowing that complete strangers went out there and made it known that they were supportive. It means even more when I see family members or friends post something on Facebook about a “It Gets Better” video or how they support gay marriage or whatever. And unfortunately, that doesn’t happen enough. Chances are, if it turns out she is gay, there are going to be family members who will not accept her, and friends who will not accept her. She’ll part ways with those friends and make new ones, but she’ll still have those family members who don’t approve or – worst case scenario – hate her because of something she can’t control. That’s why it’s absolutely vital that you make up for those family members by being an ally and putting 1,000% into it and being vocal about it. Even if your sister realizes that she is straight and not gay, you will be helping so many other people in your community, maybe even other relatives who are afraid to come out. My blog should be linked to my name; I wrote a blog entry about this a little bit ago. It should be the most recent entry. Because, really, when you’re coming out, what hurts the most are people who appear apathetic. If someone is being ridiculous and all “hurr gay people will burn in hell and God is punishing them and blah blah blah”, it eventually becomes easier to block them out because they’re being so extreme. And it’s really easy to love people who are out as allies and who are vocal about their support. But the people in the middle – who range from “I love you, BUT I don’t love the gay part of you” to “I support gay people but nobody needs to know I support them” – are the hardest to deal with. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to put so much focus on sexuality and being gay would be considered “normal” and people would be accepting and we wouldn’t have to think twice. But that’s not the case, and it’s important to make up for the people who say horrible things and aren’t supportive and try to make a gay person’s life more difficult.
When I was 16 I told a friend I was gay and was then told that I was absolutely not. That response sent me painfully into the closet for the next couple of years.
Now as a teenager I was so young that I wish someone had encouraged me to explore my feelings which ever way they took me. I was such a bundle of repressed expression in terms of gender and sexuality, and it was really painful. I was hiding the things I most passionately wanted to explore. Keeping that part of myself hidden only made it harder for my family when I did come out.
If I could be 16 again and be told exactly what I needed to hear it would probably sound a little like this:
“You are going to be who you are meant to be. What is important is not the gender of the person you love but the human quality of that person. Don’t put yourself in a box where you have to fulfill someone else’s expectations. Live into the person you want to be because at the end of the day, the only person you need to satisfy is yourself.”
I think that if someone had said something like that, I may have found the path to who I am still becoming sooner. But who’s to say what’s the right way to find yourself, its all worked out for me so far.
This website http://www.scarleteen.com is an amazing resource. I wouldn’t have gotten through my teen years with out it. It includes sexuality resources, advice on relationships, and inclusive sex ed, as well as a message board where teens can find answers and support. It can also be a useful for parents and other teen allies.
I completely agree. This website was what kept me afloat when I was questioning my sexuality and coming out to the people closest to me.
I agree with a lot of what people have said. I think it’s important to treat her, and any future girlfriends, like they’re completely normal. I think it’s important to stand up to homophobia- ESPECIALLY in front of her. (From personal experience, seeing someone say “It’s not ok to use the word ‘gay’ as an insult” when they knew I was sitting right next to them was SO meaningful).
I would also add, though, that you should ask her any questions YOU have for her, even if they’re “weird” or “stupid,” even if you feel really dumb or awkward asking them. Teenagers in general like being more knowledgable about things than their peers, and clearing the air of any odd tensions or issues from the start will both make the relationship better and make her respect you more, in the end.
Totally second everything mentioned above. It might also be worth looking into whether or not her school has a Gay Straight Alliance, or if there’s a local GLSEN chapter she might be able to join. Having a support circle of other teens going through the same sort of situation can be extremely helpful.
As far as parents go, I wanted tell you about how my Dad changed his views. When we were kids, I have memories of him being not hateful, but certaily telling homophobic jokes. Once he was actually around openly gay people (clients) he realized they’re just people, they’re not walking stereotypes and they deserve dignity.
He went from being a casual homophobe to trying to set my openly gay best friend, Tom up with a nice man he met because “It must be hard for Tom to meet people.”
There’s no rush for her to figure out her sexuality, so just support her 🙂 Remind her that sexuality isn’t straight or gay, it’s a spectrum of possibilities that is fluid and a person is ever-changing. I think one reason it’s scary is that teens feel that they have to commit 100% to being GAY or being STRAIGHT. I remember friends in high school who we bi-sexual, but hated to be called so. It was all extremes. Most importantly, let her know that she is loved by you no matter what, but it seems you already know that 😀
Just wanted to mention that, unless she’s specifically said otherwise, don’t assume that she’s attracted to women and NOT men (i.e. gay). I’m bisexual, and as a teenager, the most difficult thing for me to deal with was most people’s conviction that I would eventually “settle down” and suddenly become either gay or straight. Give her room to grow!
“the most difficult thing for me to deal with was most people’s conviction that I would eventually “settle down” and suddenly become either gay or straight”
Hell, I’m not a teenager any more and it’s still difficult for me to deal with that conviction. Presenting sexuality as an either / or didn’t help tiny confused experimenting me and it’s still hard to explain exactly how irksome it is being told “But you can’t be bisexual, you’ve been with your boy for, what, 5 years now?”.
Great advice, everyone 🙂
I still meet people who are certain that there are no bisexuals, and that it’s actually just a state of being in flux between straight or gay- the ultimate “it’s just a phase, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” From the original post, you sound like you would know this already, but definitely give her the chance to suss out her own feelings on the matter. Sometimes I think the hardest part of coming out is watching family trying to reconcile their expectations of your future with the new, projected reality. Expectations can be a very accidental form of pressure, and I’d say it’s damn near impossible not to have them; just be aware of the power that your well-meaning assumptions can have.
One of my siblings was very appreciative that when coming out to the rest of us, we were supportive of said person, regardless of that person’s life/lifestyle. Eventually that person’s ideas of their sexuality evolved into something else, and then was equally as nervous about coming out again as not gay! But we were again just accepting at face value of this person’s life as a journey.
I guess just loving someone for who they are regardless of who they’re sleeping with goes a long way. If you ask her or him how you can support them further and listen to what they say from there, things should be fine in your relationship. As for my sibling, our town had a LGB community of younger people already, which was very beneficial; so it wouldn’t hurt to research online for something similar in your area. A lot of schools have this kind of thing now, which I think is pretty awesome.
The Internet is very, very helpful! There are some really crap resources out there, of course, but there are many incredibly awesome ones.
My favorite is Autostraddle.com, which goes a lot into the political and pop-cultural side of things. AfterEllen.com has a bit of a similar focus, but I think Autostraddle is a bit friendlier to younger readers. (Says the 28-year-old who reads it obsessively and has even written for them a couple of times, lol.) They’ve just started up a social media site, too, so that could be a good way for her to connect with other queer youth! (Although, of course, all the regular caveats about online interaction apply.)
PFLAG.org, of course, is a great informational resource. So is Soulforce.org, especially if your sister is Christian or you live in a strongly Christian area.
There may also be gay/lesbian/queer themed websites for your local area (like SameSame.com.au for us Aussies), but how much these focus on parties and dating will vary.
Thank you, everyone, for your responses. I am excited to check out the resources mentioned, and thank you for the shared stories. All of it will be really helpful–I’m glad my question was posted. I’ve been slow to respond because I had my first baby early last week and thus haven’t had much time to browse the internet 🙂
I think that it is wonderful that you are seeking out advice on how to be supportive. You are an amazing sister and I wish all glbt teens had siblings like you. As a lesbian, I feel that all of the above suggestions are wonderful. I would also add that while it is important to let your sister know that being gay is no different than any other biological difference, it is also helpful to discuss openly the struggles that she or others in the glbt community will face. Even though there are so many loving people that see glbt individuals as equals, there are just as many that do not. So, it is important to acknowledge the injustices and to become involved in glbt rights. It warms my heart each time one of my straight friends writes their congress person about equal rights. I also appreciate it when they ask me about glbt issues. In addition, straight allies are so important in our fight for equality! Good luck to you and your sister.
Comments are closed.