Changing social and political attitudes toward LGBT individuals is evidenced by the increasing number of youth coming out at younger and younger ages. Yet, high rates of homelessness and suicide among and violence against LGBT youth suggests that there is much more that we as parents, educators and a community can do to create a more supportive environment in which youth can come out into.
In Coming Out, Coming In: Nurturing the Well-Being and Inclusion of Gay Youth in Mainstream Society, author Linda Goldman draws on her personal and professional experience as a school guidance counselor, child and adolescent therapist, parent and member of PFLAG to present a new paradigm for understanding sexual orientation and gender identity as a part of mainstream culture.
Goldman spoke with Gay Life about the book, the importance of fostering a broader awareness of sexual stereotyping and key steps that individuals can take to
I loved the format of the book. What did you hope to accomplish in writing it?
I really felt like I wanted to make it accessible, but cover the main points of what is happening in today’s world. When you’re working with gay youth, it’s really a team effort in terms of helping them come out and making them feel safe in being out, while also being aware of how you can work with them therapeutically and an educational model and as a parent.
Writing it was an act of love. I’m actually working on a little book now. It’s a series. One is Right Answers to Difficult Questions About Death, which children need to know, and the second is Right Answers to Difficult Questions about Sex, which children also need to know. I said I would do the book if they let me do a few chapters on what is gender and gender stereotypes. And it’s for elementary school students. I’m really excited about it. I’ve been trying to push not only how to work with gay youth, but how to create a broader awareness of sexual stereotyping that starts when kids are born….
You are certainly right that we are still not educating youth young enough.
The thing is that kids are coming out younger and younger. I’ve given a talk for all of the private schools in Washington, the elementary schools. The school where it was at, Green Acres, goes up to 8th grade and you don’t really find gay-straight alliances or a preparation for kids coming out at earlier and earlier ages…but also creating the awareness as young as we can that it is a gay and straight world. This is, for educators and parents as well. It’s really a preparation thinking about it in terms of: “I may have a gay child or a straight child sitting in my kindergarten class.” “What percentage of these kids are gay?” Looking at it in that way broadens how adults speak of these issues.
I remember a gay young man said to me: “It’s really important to start early because that’s when all of the teasing starts.”
Gender stereotyping is very entrenched at the elementary levels.
When you go into the educational part of the book, one of the core concepts is that there are no girl toys or boy toys, girl clothes or boy clothes. Just to eliminate what kids think they have to do to fit in a box. I talk about the sexual identity continuum, which nobody really fits on.
The whole issue of kids with gender identity issues and and the controversy over what kind of therapeutic model to use has been very interesting to me.
In the therapeutic community, do you still find that gender identity is primarily treated as a disorder?
On the therapeutic end, in 1973, APA said that sexual identity is not a disorder. But, still today, there is a gender identity disorder, so there is a real dichotomy. NPR did a great show on two young kids. They were both boys who felt in their heart that they were girls and it started very, very young. They started identifying with certain atypical gender responses for boys. One was treated by a woman in California who supported him in who he wanted to be and he changed his name and began dressing like a girl. He was actually happy and comfortable and accepted. The other boy felt the same way and went to a therapist who said this is gender identity disorder and it gradually diminished what the child could do. He couldn’t play with dolls anymore. He would get anxiety about even seeing the color pink. When all of these things were taken away from him, he was very unhappy and still, whenever he could, he would go back to those things that made him happy.
How do you see things changing with trans youth?
It’s such a big question. When I teach these courses, the one piece that is more controversial than any other is the piece about trans youth. I think that things are slowly changing and the more that the public becomes educated, the less the stereotyping.
Your experience with LGBT youth spans roles from educator to parent to therapist. What was your entrée into working with LGBT youth?
For over 25 years, I’ve been a therapist working in Washington, D.C. with children, adolescents and adults around issues involving grief. I wrote a trilogy of the basics on working with children and grief. I began realizing that gay youth are a huge population of at-risk kids and I began writing about it. Also, kids that I’ve worked with were gay. Then, my son in high school came out as gay and it so deepened my own understanding and shed light on my own ignorance and I am so forever grateful. He is so beautiful human being and he shared his journey with me and gave me more insight into what his journey was like.
So, personally and professionally I’ve been exposed to it. I was a teacher and guidance counselor in Baltimore County and I usually worked with kids that had a lot of problems. Way, way back then it was really apparent to me the damage that was done just by sexual stereotyping and bullying. Before I was aware of my son being gay, I did a lot of work and writing on sexual harassment and bullying because I found that it so traumatized children…. So, as an educator I could see this all the way through. As a therapist working with at-risk kids, I could see it all the way through. Then, as a parent, it touched my heart in a different way. So, I think they’ve all come together to really push me forward. I never thought I’d feel so strongly about being an advocate for gay rights, but I’ve testified in front of the Maryland House Senate and I marched for Prop 8. I can’t believe that there is a group of Americans who don’t have the same civil rights as other people. I feel like that’s the direction I want the rest of my life to go.
When I work with gay adolescents, I know that being an adolescent is hard enough and it’s even harder to be a gay adolescent. A piece of the very developmental tasks that comes in growing from adolescence to adulthood is be able to see a future, to have a long-term loving relationship with a family and children in your future as well as legal and economic success. And it’s something that’s not there for gay young people and something that should be there in order to ensure mental health… the ability to see your future as equal to everyone else’s.
Do you have any key steps that you would recommend to educators or parents that are important in creating a more supportive environment?
For educators, a lot can be done. In the school system, with organizations like GLSEN, gay-straight alliances…it is so helpful for students to have a support group and a safe way of coming out. It’s important for educators to be trained to be prepared if someone in their school is coming out and they come to them. They need to know how they will respond. Lots of times, kids tell me that they get an answer like, “Oh, I don’t’ believe you’re gay. Why don’t you think about it more?” That’s just that adults haven’t been prepared to know that kids have thought about it a lot before they’ve gone to confide in someone. So I think it’s important whether they’re an educator or not…. One is confidentiality. Number two is acceptance. Number three is to realize that this isn’t a choice…and that is a very big deal. So, I think that if a counselor or educator is saying, I want you to change. I don’t want you to be who you are, it immediately really impacts the relationship and the self-esteem of the child.
I’ve found that when I work in a setting with educators or professionals, they are very unaware that the highest rate of suicides with gay kids is before they come out and it lowers when they come out and after they come out. One young man said, “parents can be life saving and life threatening.” Parental acceptance or rejection is so important. I can’t stress that enough. I think that parents have to be easy on themselves…. They go through a coming out too. I think that gay youth need to understand that when they are brave enough to come out, there is a process that some parents might go through and it might take time and readjustment. Some parents are fine. Some never speak to their kids again. And some have a process where they have to readjust to the loss of the idealized child and idealized future that they thought they were going to have. And then gradually, they not only accept, but embrace their child for who they are.
In terms of educators, an important piece is to realize that in their classroom they have gay and straight youth from K-12. There are gay kids in every classroom. What can we do facilitate their coming out? How can we help them not feel alone? There is such a great degree of substance abuse, numbing…. There is an interesting hierarchy because even when parents and some friends accept a child, grandparents who are in a different generation, have a different level of acceptance. Even if parents are accepting, it takes more education to come out to the rest of family. The more that we can use language and words that show a nonjudgmental viewpoint, the more that we talk about gay and straight as equal, it helps spread the word of “people are different and they are unique and bullying should not be allowed.” All of those core concepts continue throughout growing up.
So anything that we can do, and I mean “we” in terms of a community team, because it’s not just the parents, therapists, teachers, not just the young person and their friends. It’s everyone working together in the same paradigm, working together to create the vision of seeing everyone as equal. I have friends that consider themselves as very liberal and I’ve been doing this work for quite sometime, but invariably, they’ll say a sexual stereotype or slur that just takes me aback…. It’s so deep in them that they don’t even realize they’re saying it. That assumption of a shared thought form about these issues is a piece of it.
I see myself outside of the gay world as a straight advocate…speaking from my context looking into the window of what it would be like. The other piece of it that I see is assumed heterosexuality. People assume that you’re talking to someone and assume that they are straight and their family and friends are straight. That’s where language can be modified. Instead of asking me or my son if he has a girlfriend, why not ask, is he dating anyone?
It can be very damaging and that’s why I can’t stress enough that we have to educate children from a very young age. When I mentioned to you that I’ve become an advocate, it’s not only with congress, but with every conversation. I really don’t let it go by. I feel like I can’t. My level of participation has been upped. That’s another piece I talk about. What level of participation are you comfortable with? Even if it doesn’t change someone’s prejudice, if it’s just branded at a time that’s not really confrontational, but brings it to the surface, that person may think about it the next time. So we just have to do whatever we can do in the moment as well as for long-term goals to move the whole understanding forward and upward.
Linda Goldman will hold a book signing and discussion at the GLCCB on Saturday, June 6. Resources, articles and books about working with LGBT youth are available on her website at www.childrensgrief.net.