My son might be gay and we live in a conservative town: where can I find resources for him?

July 8 2013 | Guest post by A
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Since he could ask for it, my son has asked to dress up in girl's clothing — pink and frilly, pretty and shiny. It's the only kind of clothing he gets excited about besides snazzy boy's dress shirts. To him, all other clothing serves only to keep him from being totally naked. This is okay with me, aside from fighting my own society-embedded fears that make my first instinct to keep it in the house only (which has been going well).

My son is desperate to make friends, and so anyone who shows any interest in him is automatically his best friend, and he will vehemently defend them against any slight. He takes what these kids say much more seriously than what I say, and thinks they were incapable of lying. However, I found out that when my son told one of his "friends" he wanted to marry a boy one day this "friend" of his broke that down hard.

Now my son feels embarrassed about wanting to wear girl's clothing, and even denies that he has the desire.

I don't think he's transgender, but I think he might be gay, and that makes it worse because he seems to be convincing himself that wanting to kiss or marry boys is bad, or "creepy." He's made it very clear that he doesn't want to physically become a girl.

We live in a medium-sized conservative town that is really down on its luck, and my son isn't going to find a lot of acceptance here. When we approached his school counselors about possible therapy or ideas, they recommended medication (which I'm not interested in).

Does anyone have any recommendations for where I can find positive resources for my son — and myself?

  1. I already commented on FB but just in case you/they don't read it:

    All the rosources I have are for adults & adult issues. I'd highly recommend contacting their local PFLAG chapter – they would probably have the best local resources around as well as other families possibly in a similar situation. My heart goes out to them – nobody should feel the need to hide who they are, especially at such a young age. Kudos for these parents for supporting their son.

    http://community.pflag.org/Page.aspx?pid=194&srcid=-2

  2. Lots and lots and lots of positive reinforcements. At the end of the day, what you say and do is going to make a huge difference. Find positive examples for him to look up to in the gay community.

    As for your town, there isn't much you can do to change people's minds. That's why self confidence is the best thing you can give your kid. He needs to know that other peoples opinions aren't what matters, its in his heart.

    I would also do some research on some LGBT friendly programs near your area.

    Good luck and best wishes!

  3. I agree with the recommendation for PFLAG. It kills me that someone would suggest you medicate your son, for what psychological issue I can't imagine. He sounds like a healthy kid going through understandable issues with his peer group. Kids only understand what we teach and it doesn't sound like many of them have the foundation to be accepting and tolerant (yet).

    I think it may be worth finding a private mental health counselor who works with children and is comfortable with issues of sexual preference. Not to "fix" your son, but to offer him more support and help him develop coping skills in a safe place, should he need to.

  4. Y'know, I don't think it's out of the question that the best thing for your son might be for you to move. Sure, the homophobia in your town isn't your problem, it's theirs, but the way it affects your son will be deep. Sometimes the sacrifices parents have to make for their kids are bigger than others and your sacrifice may very well need to be moving to a place that has resources and community to support your son. I say this as a queer adult whose family moved from a conservative town that had me suicidal to a progressive one where I thrived and was accepted. I was 12 when we moved and honestly don't think I would have made it if we stayed in the same place. I commend you for looking to support your son and find resources for him where you are, but you seem utterly convinced he will not find a lot of acceptance there – acceptance is a vital ingredient for self esteem and getting it from your family is beyond huge, but it doesn't completely counteract not getting it elsewhere. If moving truly isn't an option for you (and I do urge you to keep your mind open to that), seek out PFLAG, look for schools that have gay-straight alliances, etc. At the very least, getting your son around gay adults should help somewhat. Travel so he knows that not everywhere is like where he lives. Realize that staying there with unsupportive peers may push your son into a phase of homophobia as often happens when people are trying desperately to suppress that side of themselves. Have gay friends and family members over a lot, go to pride events (in other towns if you have to), watch shows and movies with positive portrayals of gay people, talk about equal rights, go to gay weddings, get involved in the gay community. Even if your son turns out not to be gay, which seems pretty unlikely, doing these things will help him be a decent person to gay folks. Good luck.

    • I completely agree with this. I grew up in a town that was very Christian and took a lot of heat for being Jewish. Some people love to put down anyone slightly different. I thrived by hanging out with friends from other schools in other towns, but I begged my parents to move all the time.

    • Totally agree with this. No matter what resources you have and how supportive you are, you can only do so much. Being in a very conservative town is at best setting him up for a difficult and traumatic and alienating but also character-building childhood. At worst, it's setting him up for…much worse. I was an atheist kid, well-supported at home, and I remember going to a Christian summer camp one year when I was 11 or so. It was only a couple of weeks, but because of the degree of pressure and alienation about what I considered a core part of my identity, I nearly had a nervous breakdown (spent a day in my bunk crying, convinced the world was literally going to end and I needed to save it). I absolutely cannot imagine being in that same situation every day. The best support at home is wonderful and essential, but your kid may simply need more. At very least, you should do some traveling to more gay-friendly places – visit some big cities, attend some pride parades, that kind of thing, so your kid knows that if he can't live in your home city anymore there are other options – he can tell you that he NEEDS to move away to one of those other places instead of becoming suicidal, if that's the choice he ends up with.

  5. First and foremost, remember that anything that affects your son will also affect the rest of your family, whether it is moving to a new town/city/wherever or staying. I couldn't vouch for either one. You are the one who knows your situation best.

    Someone already mentioned PFLAG, but also look into local community centers or LGBTQ centers. I'm not sure where you are geographically, but you would be surprised where they can pop up. Also look into local non-profit organizations like Boys and Girls Club, Big Brothers Big Sisters, United Way, or those that offer counseling for youth. Though I feel your son does not need counseling, local organizations are often very well connected. They might have more resources available for you in your town/county/state. I work with LGBTQ youth in Delaware, and have collected a ton of resources for the youth and families that I work with. Other organizations often do the same.

    My final piece of advice: follow your heart. It seems from this that you have your son's best interests at heart. Don't put him down, but definitely remember that you will be defending your son until he is old enough to defend himself (and then it will be a joint effort.)

    • I work for a Boys & Girls Club, and I have really had to struggle to try and change some of the organizations policies to be more accepting/welcoming of LGBTQ youth. Some of the programs that they are required to run (although individual children are not necessarily required to attend) include strong anti-sex and anti-LGBTQ sentiments.

      That said, most of the people that I have seen who work at Clubs are wonderful and very open-minded. Just be wary and ask around first to make sure organizations like this won't do more harm than good in your efforts to support your son.

      Good luck with everything! My heart goes out to your son, and I'm so sorry he's being treated this way. Maybe check out some of the It Gets Better Project's videos on youtube – a lot of them are from people who grew up gay in small towns, and it might be helpful for him to just know that he's not alone.

      • You have a very good point. I shouldn't assume that individual chapters/branches would be inclusive (I know the ones in my area are, hence the suggestion).

        Always be aware and safe when looking for resources, OP!

  6. The internet may be a good source of support for you that can, in turn, give you the needed resources to (continue to) be a great advocate for your child. There are quite a few well-established blogs written by parents of young children who identify as gay, trans*, or gender-creative. The first that comes to mind is Amelia at HuffPo (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/Amelia/). Her nine-year-old son has identified as gay since age six, and she, too, lives in a politically conservative region.

    GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network: http://www.glsen.org/) is a national organization that can assist in forging connections with your child's educators and ensuring that they are providing an inclusive and affirming classroom environment. And the old stand-by, PFLAG (http://www.pflag.org), has laid an excellent foundation for many families' community-building efforts over the years. Even if there is not a chapter in your local municipality, a regional affiliate should be able to help you network with like-minded individuals in your area.

    Absent that possibility, even making contact with non-LGBTQ-focused groups of parents whose children are your son's age could prove fruitful in facilitating some safe and affirming friendships with peers. If you get a clear sense, over time, that these parents would be supportive, directly broach the subject with them (when neither your nor their child is present) and ask if they would be willing to help you build a healthy social group for your child via arranged "playdates", shared activities, and so forth. I am the parent of a gender-conforming 6-year-old son whose sexual orientation is still an unknown. And, although we live in a fairly conservative upper-midwestern city of 65,000, my family has been so proactive in "normalizing"/embracing LGBTQ identities for our children, my son wouldn't bat an eye if one of his buddies told him they hoped to marry someone of their same gender someday. I'm confident that you can find like-minded parents — and children — in your area, and hopefully start to feel less isolated in the process!

    Please remember that your willingness to openly embrace your child for who he is is the best thing you can do to shore up his confidence, though; so keep up the good work!

  7. If moving isn't an option, but you have the financial resources for summer camp, that might be another way to give him an alternate community. It sounds like he's struggling hard with feeling different, and doesn't have the emotional resources yet to embrace that. So focusing on affirming "gay-ness" may help a lot, but also helping him affirm himself – in all of what that is – may help too. Having an alternate community won't change homophobia in the communities he's already a part of, but it may give him a safer space to explore who he is and be celebrated for being honest about who he is rather than judged for being different. Once he feels what this is like and can count on it in one place, he'll be better able to avoid internalizing judgment and homophobia in other places. It'll probably also give him the ability to look for real friendships (because he'll know what they feel like) and take away the desperation that's leading him to latch on to people who clearly make him feel bad about himself.

    For me, the community that let me do this was the Quaker community (liberal unprogrammed Friends – there are 4 theological branches that differ greatly) through Quaker school and youth programming. Bonus: the religious yet affirming aspect helped counteract more judgmental Christian-based perspectives which he might be bumping up against. There are Quaker summer camps, as well as a week-long summer gathering for families. There may also be a Meeting (church) in your area. You can find more information at http://www.fgcquaker.org.

    Other options might be looking into the Unitarian Universalist community, and more "hippy" style camps or farm camps like Farm and Wilderness in Vermont or Journey's End in Pennsylvania. (Actually, I think both of these are Quaker-influenced as well). There must be some mid-west options as well. Perhaps some of the more directly GLBTQ-related organizations will have recommendations for affirming kids camps or family camps.

    Best wishes to you and your son.

    • I second this! The story of her little boy is really amazing, and she does list a lot of different resources.

  8. Don't push the girl's clothing thing. It is very possible he is growing out of wanting to dress like a girl even if he is actually gay.

    Focus on being very supportive of what he does want to do, while letting him know that if he does want to dress up anytime, that is fun and okay.

    See if he can become involved in some sort of community that will be accepting of him. Music? The arts tends to be more accepting than sports, sorry to say.

    • I just wanted to reiterate that you can't always tell who a kid will grow up to be by how they dress when they are younger. A family friend loved my all-pink-all-the-time hand-me-down back packs and clothing, and he is straight. And a kid who doesn't like girly things and is really into football could be gay! In any event, it seems like the parent who wrote this post is aware that their son is going to be facing some issues of one type or another, and I think it's great that they are trying to find a supportive network NOW rather than later! I grew up in a small conservative town, so I understand the pressure to conform.

      I have to second the getting your kid involved in the arts, especially if there isn't a dedicated support group for specific things in your town. Art and music are great for brain and social development, and they encourage self-acceptance and give an medium to explore emotions and express them. This makes them important for anyone, not just people interested in art or music careers. Based on my own experiences and those of my teacher friends, the kids involved in art and music may not be the homecoming king or win a popularity contest, but they will have a small tight knit group of friends who can see them through anything and generally celebrate each others' differences. Extracurricular activities can be a safe haven for kids!

      I am aware that my first paragraph down plays stereotypes, and my second paragraph emphasizes them, but I'm okay with it! 🙂

  9. I'm not a parent, but I work with queer teenagers, and my biggest piece of advice is to be there unconditional supporter and cheerleader no matter how your kid ultimately ends up identifying. Most of the kids I work with deep down just want to know that their parents support and love them. I say provide opportunities and exposure. If your son isn't able to have face to face interactions with queer adults because of where you live bring books and media into your home that allow for there to be presence other then the mom, dad, hetero family model which already gets a ton of play in kids media texts. You can save a lot of pain by letting your kids know that their are an array of options for expressing gender and sexual orientation, for friendship and love, and ways of creating families and support networks. Even if your kid ends up following the traditional path at least you've allowed him to experience other options so if they do end of on life paths that are more off the path they have some validation that what they're doing isn't abnormal or wrong, but just another legitimate way of experiencing life. There's a blogger on Huffington Post who writes about raising a son who began self identifying as gay at a young age here's the link http://www.huffingtonpost.com/Amelia/

  10. Already posted on this on FB – but just in case:
    He's lucky to have a parent like you! How old is your son? Do you know what (if anything) his school is teaching on these issues? I would recommend some great books that include gender expression diversity and same sex parents/families (of course, Heather has two mommies is a classic, but there are MANY others out there these days). Both these resources (which are for schools, but some good stuff in there for parents too) have lists of age appropriate books (and have lots of good other stuff): Ready, Set, Respect! GLSEN's Elementary Toolkit http://www.glsen.org/readysetrespect (which you can download for free) and also Welcoming Schools http://www.welcomingschools.org. There might be a GLSEN chapter in your state or area that could certainly be helpful – you can look to see here: http://www.glsen.org/chapters (disclosure, I work in the National office of GLSEN, so that's why I know a lot about their resources). You might also want to see if there's a local LGBT youth grp in your area, I know prob not b/c you said it's very small and conservative, but sometimes there are some in unexpected places and they could serve as good resources/role models. Also, you might want to check out the video "It's Elementary: Teaching about Gay Issues in Schools" – b /c it has some great ideas for talk to talk with elementary school children about these issues, which might be helpful to you. http://groundspark.org/our-films-and-campaigns/elementary I'm happy to talk more if you want to message me, I might know of some local connections in your area (possibly).

  11. If you and your family are religious, you might see whether there's an Episcopal church in your town. That denomination has a history of progressive values, including affirmation of LGBTQ people and relationships.

  12. You might check out the Pink is for Boys blog: http://pinkisforboys.wordpress.com/

    It covers the spectrum from boys-who-just-like-dresses to gay to gender variant and transgendered kids. (Imatyfa.org is a great resource for anyone reading who *is* dealing with a gender-variant/trans kid)

    It also sounds like part of the appeal of girls clothes is the Fanciness aspect, since he's into snazzy boy's shirts too. Maybe looking at pictures of guys embracing the "dandy" aesthetic and finding a way to translate that into his personal style could make him happy with less risk socially in your current location?

    (I'm not trying to say your son isn't gay, or to suppress that if he is, just that there are some additional avenues to support his happiness that are independent of his sexual orientation.)

    And I second the suggestion of checking in with a local Unitarian Universalist church; we are committed to LGBTQ welcoming on a national level.

  13. How old is your son? Because depending on whether he's 6 or 16, the answer will be really different. If he's six, I would just keep reinforcing the idea that you love him no matter what, read him stories about all different kinds of families, show him pictures of two boys getting married, etc (You can be a little subversive about this – say you were looking around the internet and you saw the coolest wedding ever because they had the best cake! And then let him notice that two men were getting married and answer the questions that come). But also know that he might very well not turn out to be gay. My son is almost six and he despairs that he's not allowed to marry his sister. 🙂 I suspect he'll outgrow that in a couple of years.

    If he's 16, (or theresabouts) it's a very different kind of conversation. You can actively ask him about the bigotry that he has experienced. You can teach him how to model open and accepting behavior. When you have "the talk" or the series of talks, you can include the kinds of sex that gay people have. Give him space to open up to you about who he is. But again, just like when he's 6, the most important thing is that he knows that you love him no matter what, and you aren't going to tolerate anyone being mean to him for any reason.

    Good luck.

  14. I know you're specifically looking for a peer group for your son, but it might also help to expose your son to gay adults. Do you have any gay friends? Seeing happy gay men who are "normal" and friends with his parents might make your son feel more comfortable about his future (if he is actually gay).

    Are there gay family groups in your area? If he could meet friends his age with queer parents, those kids are not going to be phased by your son talking about marrying a boy or wearing pink.

  15. I would recommend Unitarian Universalists as a liberal, welcoming religious community; it is a boon to have a religious community that accepts many different lifestyles in a very conservative city. The religious education programming around sexuality is just wonderful. It's called Our Whole Lives, and it is very inclusive of LGBTQ people, giving them equal representation in lessons and classes. There are several different levels. Check it out here: http://www.uua.org/re/owl/

  16. Is anyone else really angry that the school is recommending MEDICATION for a child who is trying to discover his sexual identity?
    Homosexuality is not a disease, people!

  17. I am not clear how old your son is, but it sounds from what you said like he is pretty young. Most of the gay youth support organizations are geared toward teens. They might still be useful and I totally encourage you to talk to them and see what they have to offer. But if your so is little, you might get more use out of seeking out gay or gay friendly parents of children his age and their kids as a source of playmates who might be more accepting.

    If your son is older (or when he gets older) I would add "Don't be afraid of internet friends". The internet can be a godsend for isolated teens in need of connection with other, like minded kids. Teach your son good internet safety skills (Don't give out your real name, address, home town or other personal information without talking to a parent first. When meeting internet friends in person, meet at a safe, neutral location like a coffee-shop, restaurant or library. Things like that.) and let him find friends outside your home town.

  18. I hate that the school recommended medication, seeing as your son is nothing but a beautiful little soul who doesn't need that resolution. I also worry about my two children who are in school, can they, will they, make friends? And are these friends genuine? Unfortunately, if I intervene, the spontaneous process of "friend making" doesn't happen. I am a "mama bear" if you will, so it means I am very defensive of my babies. My children have been friends with many different kids in their classes, and I have found that a successful friendship ultimately depends on the enlightenment of the child's parents. Thankfully, I come from a family that embraces everyone; background, race, income, ect none of that matters in how I was taught to relate to people. Just love your son.
    Love and embrace those who love him.
    Let him be him. What should you do? Nothing! The fact that you worry about that means you love him! Not to be contrite, but can a rose be a tulip? No! He is the person he is, and you are blessed to bring him into this world! You didn't chose to be how you are, and he is who he is! I don't mean to offend when I say that worrying about resources and programs to help him make it seem like he has a problem or a handicap. I love that you want to help him, and I so wish that y'all were in my town! I think the best thing to do is to make your family structure as solid as possible. I would move heaven and earth for my children. They know that, and they also understand what I expect from them. If it is just you that is worried about how he fits in socially, let it go. You can fight all the battles you can for him, but when it comes down to it, he will be who he is because of what you teach him. What I would say that you do is to tell him to always be honest with you. That you love him, will defend him, and support him no matter what. I wish you good luck with this, and I hope it becomes a non-issue in the near future. Do you think you need an outside source to help with your son? You are the expert who should embrace who he is! Warm wishes for happiness to you all!

  19. I'm not sure what age your kid is, but there are actually a lot of children's books that feature gender nonconforming characters in positive ways. Exposing kids to media (including books) that positively portray LGBTQ and gender nonconforming characters is just one tool at your disposal! Try these titles:

    My Princess Boy
    Goblinheart
    William's Doll
    Oliver Button is a Sissy
    10,000 Dresses

    I also second adding to your blogroll Raising My Rainbow and Pink is for Boys. There's also Sarah Hoffman's blog on parenting a boy who is different.

  20. I would echo all the posters here who say if your child is young then to watch and wait and respond to him whilst all the time reinforcing positive gay role models.

    Both my brothers used to enjoy dressing in girls clothes (boys clothes are not normal right?) and even went to nursery like that once or twice. One of them even said he was going to marry his boy cousin but neither are gay. I think the marrying the boy cousin thing was because kids that age have no idea what marriage is, and boys are often other boy orientated at that age. He was essentially hearing the question as who is your best friend. So I'd be wary of inferring too much here.

    But if he is gay one thing that occurs to me is that the reason I didn't come out till later was not because no one identified it in me as a child it was because the world at that time did not contain examples of two women living a life together. Give him examples but don't let on it's about him, let him make the association privately on his own and tell you when he is ready ie read him and other siblings some age appropriate books about gay families etc as part of usual bed time reading.

    Part of all this as well will involve the heart-breaking task of revealing that some of the things that the family says are ok aren't seen like that by everyone else, something he's clearly already struggling with. Can you give him examples of people in history who have overcome prejudice (but maybe racial or other prejudice to keep it abstract and not specific to him) to show that you can win out in the end?

    I read an article recently where a parent said that the hardest thing here was to watch and wait but that he felt it was right, you can't help with the indentification, that's his to do alone but you can help bring to attention allies both at home and in the world.

    Good luck!

  21. I just came across this article and wanted to add it here:

    a camp for gender non-conforming boys and their families

    I've heard of other events like this (camps, conferences, playgroups) for gender creative kids; of course, travel expenses and scheduling (and possible participation fees) may be totally prohibitive for some families to attend these types of events, especially if they are far away from where you live. Still, an important possibility to be aware of!

    • Great photos, but for the love of god everyone whatever you do: DO NOT READ THE COMMENTS ON THAT SLATE ARTICLE.

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