Category Archives: intersex

99 problems (and my story has them all): Diversity and “issues books”

For a while there, I had a great writing streak going. Ideas popped into my head at the most random times – at meetings, during conversations, while driving, or in the shower. I started carrying a small notebook with me so I could jot these ideas down before I forgot them – because too many times, I’d said to myself, “Oh, I’ll remember.” And, well, you know how that goes, I’m sure. It was like I couldn’t write fast enough. My day job was beginning to feel like this big inconvenience, because I didn’t feel like I had enough time to do justice to all these great ideas. But when an idea grabs hold of you, it’s hard to let it go. So I made the time to write, whether it involved staying up late, getting up early, or grabbing a few minutes here and there. The writing didn’t always come easy, and sometimes what seemed like a good idea in my head sounded clunky on paper.

And then . , . the well ran dry. For months, I’ve had trouble coming up with new, fresh, and compelling stories. Many writers I know have experienced this very thing, and in each case, the writing eventually started up again. But this felt a little different that what I’d heard people describe. It wasn’t like the well ran dry slowly, like a riverbed drying up in a drought. No, this felt more like the coin-operated showers you find at campgrounds – when your five minutes are up, the water stops abruptly, and there you are, freezing and dripping wet. Strange. And I had no idea why.

Until today.

Every spring, I attend a writing conference that’s hosted by my local chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Last year’s conference focused heavily on diversity in children’s books, probably in response to the well-publicized and much-needed #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign. One of the workshops was “How to Write Diversity Into Your Stories,” which, ironically, was led by young White female associate editor from a large New York publishing house. At the end of the session, one of the questions I had was this: When writing for a diverse audience, how do you incorporate issues like racism, homophobia, class oppression, etc., in a way that’s appropriate for children?

“I wouldn’t focus too much on those things,” she said. “If you do, then it’ll be an ‘issues book,’ which are the scourge of the publishing industry.”

An “issues book.” I’d never heard the term before. But since the conference, I’ve seen that term tossed around quite a bit, along with its sibling, the “problem story.” Book reviewers tend not to like issues books, and if they do, it’s despite the presence of these issues. Most children’s picture books with LGBT characters fall into the category of “issues books.” Many books featuring people of color do as well – and when they don’t, the race and ethnicity of the characters aren’t really a central part of the story.

So now what do I do? I thought to myself. I’d written a manuscript about a girl who’s grieving the loss of her transgender sibling – an issues book. I’d started working on another one, at the request of my editor, about a mixed-race girl with two daddies who’s trying to figure out how to navigate Mother’s Day at school – another issues book. I’d been playing with a story about an intersex character, and another about a child whose mother comes out as transgender – which are, of course, issues books. Meanwhile, in the back of my head, round and round like the stock ticker in Times Square, I’m hearing, Issues books are the scourge of the publishing industry. No wonder I couldn’t get anything on paper! So many of my ideas involved addressing a character’s personal struggle triggered by oppression, and the last thing I wanted to do was contribute to a scourge.

That was only part of my epiphany. The other came this morning, when I read this article from the Diversity in YA blog. What they had to say about “issues books” basically boiled down to this:

  • If your characters are part of historically marginalized groups, then oppression is part of their experience.
  • If your characters have multiple minority identities, then the issues they face will involve these complex intersections. (For that reason, most books don’t include characters with more than one minority identity.)
  • Simple narratives that have a clean ending don’t reflect the realities that multiply minoritized people face.
  • As long as minoritized people face oppression, then books that realistically capture their experience will need to include issues – even if it seems like “too many issues.”

BINGO. This article nailed it. This is what I wish I’d thought to say at that conference.

It’s scary to me how easily this editor’s words derailed me, which speaks to the power of internalized oppression. I’ve studied internalized oppression for a long time (my dissertation focused on internalized homophobia), and I’m continually amazed at how, like a toxic mold, it can creep up and invades our psyches so easily. Internalized oppression may keep us from writing the stories we want to write. It keeps publishers from putting those stories out there – they fear they won’t make money, or they’ll be too depressing. But I don’t think it’ll keep readers from reading them – because, for many of us, they are our stories.

Just before I started writing this blog post, a little story idea popped into my head. I jotted it down, and later I’ll play around with it. Yes, that quickly, the idea well seems to be filling again.

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Filed under children, covert homophobia, culture, intersectionality, intersex, LGBTQ youth, media

The gift of writer’s block

Writer’s block, I’ve come to learn, is my friend. It’s not a nice friend. But it is honest – brutally honest. Unfortunately, my writer’s block tends to communicate in code. It’s not always clear what it’s trying to say – but if I take the time to listen to it, to understand it, it always, without fail, helps me to be a better writer.
OK, you think. She’s written a nonfiction book (Backdrop: The Politics and Personalities behind Sexual Orientation Research). She’s working on another nonfiction book (Fringe: On the Edges of the Mainstream Gay Community). And she just released a children’s book (This Day in June). Boom, boom, boom – one book project after another. Where’s the writer’s block? At first glance, it looks like my writing has taken off like wildfire. Scratch beneath the surface, however, and you’ll see a much different picture.
In 2009, I was granted a semester-long sabbatical from my teaching responsibilities in order to write a textbook for college classes on sexual orientation and gender identity. This was a huge gift, given that sabbaticals aren’t easy to come by in the community college system. However, instead of hitting the pavement and getting right to work, I stalled. I could not make myself write. In fact, for eight weeks straight (almost half of my sabbatical time), I did everything BUT write. It was very scary – I felt like a fraud and a cheat, and I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to make good on my sabbatical agreement.
But then, I had a breakthrough. I was having a conversation with a colleague whose work I very much respect. When I asked her a question about the research she’s done over the years, she laughed and said, “There’s a story behind every research study.” At that moment, I realized that the book I had originally planned on writing (and was now avoiding) wasn’t the book that actually needed to be written. That insight was a game-changer – something opened up, and the writing flowed like a rushing river. Instead of writing a textbook, I started telling the stories behind sexual orientation research (which is way more interesting, in my opinion). No wonder I had writer’s block – who really wants to write (or read) a textbook, anyway? It was all but grabbing me at the throat and shaking me, yelling, DON’T WRITE A TEXTBOOK!!! WRITE SOMETHING MORE INTERESTING!!!
Now, over the past two years, I’ve been working on Fringe, which focuses on the experiences of people who claim membership under the LGBTQ umbrella, but because they’re not young, white, middle-class, exclusively gay, cisgendered, thin, educated, and/or able-bodied, they experience marginalization within that communityI interviewed about twenty people, including intersex activist Hida Viloria, BDSM and polyamory/non-monogamy expert Janet Hardy, transgender activist Jamison Green, disability researcher Rhoda Olkin, and former NCAA athlete Kye Allums, to name a few. I’ve collected a wide range of amazing, inspiring, and gut-wrenching stories. And, as Yogi Berra would say, I’m experiencing deja-vu all over again. Because now it’s time to write . . . and I’m having trouble writing. I’m blocked – again. And it’s scary.
However, I do know this: With Backdrop, I learned that, in time, the reasons for the writer’s block will be revealed – and that revelation will move creative mountains. But with Fringe, the mountains just ain’t moving. I try to write, but I’ve gotten stuck – and stayed stuck. For much longer than eight weeks.
And then the insight came. I was having a conversation with a colleague whose work I very much respect (deja-vu all over again, right!).  I asked him to sum up his discipline in one sentence (he’s a history professor), and he responded instantly by saying, “Who gets to tell the story?”
Who gets to tell the story? Do I get to tell the stories of people whose experiences I don’t necessarily share? Or should I sit down, shut up, and let people speak for themselves? This is what writers call First Voice – letting people speak for themselves (especially those whose stories have been stolen, revised, and re-told by those in power). Children’s book author and illustrator Maya Christina Gonzalez describes this concept in her essay titled “Polka Dots, Self-Portraits, and First Voice Multicultural Children’s Books“:
At a conference I looked at a large collection of Multicultural children’s books. With each book I picked up I could sense if something felt original and authentic and when something felt somewhat discordant. Each time I sensed a lack of resonance, I looked more closely at the author and artist and each time I found that they did not originate from the community they were representing. It is not that their books lacked merit, by no means. But it did feel different. And each time, I got this funny feeling in my gut, it reminded me of educators, professors, experts, ethnographers, authors and artists who were telling me about me or my people or my culture. I did not feel felt. I felt studied, categorized, defined and documented by outsiders. I did not feel that I belonged. I felt separate.
In this quote, Maya Gonzalez was specifically referring to the experience of people of color. However, the LGBTQ community also knows what it feels like to be defined by those who hold power, to have our stories told by those who have not experienced them. Psychologists and psychiatrists diagnosed same-gender-loving people with the disorder of “homosexuality” – and treated them using psychoanalysis, shock therapy, medication, and, more recently, religious conversion. When anthropologists studied the people indigenous to the Americas, they used the term “berdache” (which many Native Americans consider to be marginalizing and othering) to describe gender non-conforming Native men – many of whom were ultimately wiped out by European colonizers. When doctors encountered babies with ambiguous genitalia, they called them “hermaphrodites” – and then proceeded to operate on them so they would conform to society’s gender standards. Their stories were appropriated, and told through the voice of the oppressor – often mangled in ways that caused irreparable harm to those communities.
I don’t consider myself to be “the oppressor.” However, I do have to acknowledge my privilege (unlike Tal Fortgang, for those of you who might have read his inflammatory piece dismissing his own privilege). Even though I’m a card-carrying member of the LGBTQ community, I don’t exist on the “fringes” of that community – not in the same way that many of the people I interviewed do. Even if I practice allyship with the trans community, or the intersex community, or with LGBTQ communities of color, or the BDSM community, does this make it okay for me to tell their stories for them?
I don’t know the answer, to be honest. But I think I hear what Writer’s Block is telling me:
They gifted you with their stories. Handle them with care.
Consider – really consider – whether you should be their storyteller.
And if you do assume the role of storyteller, don’t privilege your voice over theirs. 

Writer’s block. It’s my friend. Not a nice friend. But an honest one.

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Filed under BDSM, disability, gender nonconformity, intersex, polyamory, racism, transgender, Uncategorized

Sticky diagnostic labels

Last week, at my mom’s house in New Jersey, I was thumbing through her copy of the Sunday New York Times, when an article titled “Idea of New Attention Disorder Spurs Research, and Debate” caught my eye. “Called sluggish cognitive tempo,” the author writes in the second paragraph, “the condition is said to be characterized by lethargy, daydreaming, and slow mental processing.” Approximately two million children are thought to have the disorder.

Sluggish cognitive tempo??? I thought to myself, rolling my eyes as I read that sentence. I have that on a GOOD day. A search on PsycINFO, the most comprehensive database in the field of psychology, turned up 76 articles about sluggish cognitive tempo (SCT). One of those articles, written by Stephen Becker of Miami University, identifies two subtypes of SCT – daydreamy-spacey and sluggish-lethargic. (I swear to you I’m not making these terms up.) There’s even a Sluggish Cognitive Tempo assessment scale, which is a checklist that includes items such as the following:

Is unmotivated.

Appears to be sluggish. 

Daydreams. 

Seems to be in a world of his or her own. 

Is underactive, slow-moving, or lacks energy.

Not to belittle the experience of people who really struggle with being unmotivated, sluggish, and mentally distracted, but it’s times like these when I feel like I need to apologize on behalf of my professional field. I wouldn’t be surprised if some children exhibit “sluggish cognitive tempo” in school because they’re bored, or because they’re not given enough opportunities for physical activity, or because they don’t get adequate nutrition, or because their sleep is disrupted. Interestingly, all of the professionals quoted in the New York Times article were affiliated in some way with pharmaceutical companies (which made me question the journalistic objectivity of the article).

The mental health field has been under intense scrutiny for decades, especially since the publication of DSM-5. This recent revision of the diagnostic manual has been openly and venomously criticized by Robert Spitzer (who chaired the DSM-III revision), Allen Francis (who chaired the DSM-IV revision), and Thomas Insel (who is the director of the National Institute of Mental Health) for its lack of scientific rigor. Psychology as a discipline has a long and checkered history of overpathologizing and wrongly pathologizing people – particularly when it involves using diagnosis to police non-normative behavior.

As you can probably guess, I’m a little jaded when it comes to the introduction of new psychiatric labels. And I’ll cite some historical examples of the harmful and grossly negligent use of diagnosis to explain why. In the mid-1800s, psychiatrist Samuel Cartwright (who, ironically, was mentored by the mental health reformer Dr. Benjamin Rush) wrote a book titled Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race. In this book, he identifies two “mental disorders” involving Black slaves. If a slave didn’t work hard, or was perceived to be lazy, he or she might be diagnosed with dysaethesia aethiopica.  If, however, a slave tried to run away (or even express a desire to flee), he or she could be diagnosed with drapetomania. Both of these disorders, according to Cartwright, had their roots in the Bible – if a slave were truly following God’s will, his reasoning went, then that slave would work hard, be obedient to his or her master, and have no desire whatsoever to run away. These diagnoses functioned, in essence, as a way to police behavior among marginalized people.

I can give you another example. Take the homosexuality diagnosis, which was listed in the 1952 edition of the DSM as a “sociopathic personality disturbance.” After a series of protests by gay rights activists, the homosexuality diagnosis was ultimately removed from the DSM in 1973. However, what appeared in its place was a diagnosis called ego-dystonic homosexuality, which means that being gay causes you “clinically significant distress.” (As an aside, I think a lot of LGBTQ people, even today in 2014, experience “clinically significant distress” when first realizing their identity.) In 1987, the American Psychological Association passed a resolution opposing the use of the DSM-III diagnosis of ego-dystonic homosexuality and the ICD-9 diagnosis of homosexuality (which still existed at the time). The DSM eventually dropped the ego-dystonic homosexuality diagnosis, and while the ICD-10 no longer includes homosexuality as a diagnosis, a person can still be diagnosed with ego-dystonic homosexuality under that taxonomy.

I wish I could say all of this is ancient history, but unfortunately it’s not. In DSM-III-R, when the diagnosis of ego-dystonic homosexuality was removed, a new diagnosis called gender identity disorder found its way in. The diagnostic criteria for this disorder included, according to the DSM:

A strong and persistent cross-gender identification;

Persistent discomfort about one’s assigned sex or a sense of inappropriateness in the gender role of that sex;

Marked preoccupation with cross-gender activities.

DSM-5, interestingly, no longer contains the gender identity disorder diagnosis – largely because of the efforts of transgender activists and their allies. However, a new diagnosis – gender dysphoria – quietly snuck in. Although there are a few technical differences between gender identity disorder and gender dysphoria (including the fact that intersex people are now included under the gender dysphoria criteria, much to the chagrin of many intersex activists), there’s one major difference, which is summed up in a memo issued by the American Psychiatric Association: “It is important to note that gender nonconformity is not in and of itself a mental disorder. The critical element of gender dysphoria is the presence of clinically significant distress associated with the condition” (emphasis added). Clinically significant distress. Sound familiar? Certainly sounds like history repeating itself to me.

Let’s recap. Homosexuality was a disorder. Then it was replaced with ego-dystonic homosexuality. Then ego-dystonic homosexuality wasn’t a disorder, but it was replaced with gender identity disorder. Then gender identity disorder wasn’t a disorder, but it was replaced with gender dysphoria. The next thing we know, the inattentive form of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder will be eliminated, but it will be replaced with – you guessed it – sluggish cognitive tempo, daydreamy-spacey subtype.

I firmly believe in the positive power of diagnosis. If you are struggling with a strange collection of psychological symptoms, identifying a syndrome that involves those symptoms can be incredibly validating (oh wow! This thing I have actually has a name!), and potentially indicate what treatments might help. However, once a person received a diagnosis – especially one that’s stigmatizing – it has the potential to stick with them throughout their lives (read David Rosenhan’s classic article “On Being Sane in Insane Places” for some perspective on this). Moreover, if a person is being diagnosed solely because they don’t conform, and if society’s reaction to that nonconformity is causing “clinically significant distress,” we need to reconsider whether the diagnostic label empowers the person, or if it oppresses them even further.

 

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Filed under gender nonconformity, intersex, mental health, psychological research, racism, transgender, transphobia

One big happy family

Several years ago, our local LGBT center, which at the time was called the Lambda Community Center, underwent a name change. When the new name was announced, several groups (mainly people in the bi and trans communities) began circulating a petition attempting to block the change. Why? Because the new name, “Sacramento Gay and Lesbian Center,” didn’t appear to be inclusive or all-encompassing – “gay” and “lesbian” were assumed to cover everyone in the LGBTQ community. Over 500 people signed the petition – to no avail. It was only this past year that the name changed to “Sacramento LGBT Center,” and still, many people still refer to the center as “Lambda.” Years later, many still feel incredibly hurt and angry about this – with good reason.

I shared this example with my Psychology of Sexual Orientation students the other day, within a larger discussion about transgender identities. Quite a few of my students – several of whom identify as gay or lesbian – were surprised. Shocked, really. Because aren’t we a community? Don’t we all support each other in unity? Aren’t we one big, happy rainbow family?

I wish I could answer “yes” to that question. Sadly, I can give so many examples of discrimination and oppression within the LGBTQ community. Here’s a sampling of well-publicized historical examples:

  • In 1953, author Jeff Winters published an article about Christine Jorgensen in a gay men’s magazine. According to Winters, Jorgensen, a transgender woman, was committing a “sweeping disservice” to gay men by transitioning. “As far as the public knows,” Winters wrote, “you were merely another unhappy homosexual who decided to get drastic about it.”
  • In 1979, Janice Raymond, a lesbian-feminist scholar, wrote The Transsexual Empire: The Making of a She-Male (yes, she really used the term “she-male”), in which she repeatedly referred to transwomen as “male-to-constructed females.” She went so far as to say, “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves.” Raymond wrote 1980 Congressional brief that led to the defunding of transgender medical insurance coverage.
  • Well-known sex researcher J. Michael Bailey, who is unabashedly straight but conducts research on sexual orientation and gender identity, at one time refused to believe that bisexuality really exists (particularly in men), saying, “You’re either gay, straight, or lying.” He only recently changed his position, but only after results from one of his studies indicated that bisexual men, in fact, are not lying.

Robyn Ochs, a bisexual writer, scholar, and activist, has this to say about the double-edged sword of biphobia: “Gay- and lesbian-identified individuals frequently view us as either confused or interlopers possessing a degree of privilege not available to them, and many heterosexuals see us as amoral, hedonistic spreaders of disease and disrupters of families.” And many other edge communities under the LGBTQ umbrella experience a similar double-edged sword – they’re rejected by mainstream heterosexual culture, and they’re also denigrated within their own community.

I have a slew of examples of community infighting that I’ve observed personally. And we’re not just talking biphobia and transphobia – there’s racism, class oppression, sexism, and ableism thrown in there too. A bisexual woman I interviewed years ago had this to say about her lesbian friends:  “They basically edged me out once I started dating men. They treated me like I’d infiltrated and then bailed with the information.” A graduate school colleague, after she’d finished a presentation about BDSM, was admonished by a senior faculty member, a gay man who said, “Most of us aren’t like that.” At a conference, a gay male graduate student repeatedly used the term “rice queen” during his presentation to refer to non-Asian men who are sexually attracted to Asian men – and used the phrase like it was professional, scholarly terminology (without ever being corrected by his research advisor, also a gay man). A transgender male student of mine recently shared that, after coming out as trans, his lesbian friends completely rejected him, telling him that he was selfish and betraying his community. I could go on and on, but I’m sure you get the picture.

These aren’t right-wing fundamentalist uber-heterosexual haters. These are our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters who are behaving this way. Unfortunately, getting people within the LGBTQ community to take ownership of their oppressive behaviors is really hard. “How can I oppress people?” they cry. “I’m the one who’s oppressed!”

All of us within the larger LGBTQ community have experienced institutional oppression (such as being denied rights that are granted to heterosexual and cisgender people), and most of us can cite examples of interpersonal oppression. But the dirty little secret within the community is that we do it to each other, too. And I’d like to talk about a couple of reasons why.

First of all, when we stereotype, we’re falling into an “us vs. them” mentality. If our “us” identity feels shaky, then creating a “them” can strengthen that sense of identity. Committing a hate crime against a gay man, for example, might shore up the perpetrator’s insecure sense of masculinity. Engaging in biphobia might reinforce one’s exclusively gay or lesbian identity. The statement, “Most of us aren’t like that,” is essentially saying, “I’m safely over here. I’m not crazy like those folks over there.

There’s another element to this, too. One way to feel like we belong to a group is to gain acceptance from others within a group. When we engage in “us vs. them” thinking, we’re essentially creating an in-group and an out-group – and our “us vs. them” beliefs allow us to connect with others in that in-group. It’s no accident that hate crimes tend to be committed by groups of individuals, because it’s a way (albeit a sick way) of forming a connection with others who share similar attitudes. By rejecting a transgender man, a group of lesbian women might band together even more strongly. It’s a way of taking refuge within a group – and the in-group/out-group dynamic is even more likely to happen when the in-group’s status is shaky.

A little over a year ago, I wrote a blog post titled “A House Divided,” in which I focused more specifically on oppression directed towards intersex people, as well as racism within the LGBTQ community. And here we are again. It’s so clear to me that if our collective communities can’t find a way to hang together and stand on common ground, we’ll fall. All of us. Because when we’re fighting each other, the dominant power structure of our society goes completely unchallenged. White privilege, male privilege, heterosexual privilege, class privilege – all of that remains intact, while those of us who experience oppression bring each other down. I don’t think we can afford to do that.

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Filed under BDSM, biphobia, bisexuality, culture, disability, hate crimes, homophobia, intersectionality, intersex, racism, sexism, stereotypes, transgender, transphobia, Uncategorized, violence

Living under a rock

We were at the pool. My daughter was in the shallow end diving for “sinky toys,” while Amy and I watched. At first, we were the only ones at the pool, but at some point, a woman with two young boys entered the pool area. The youngest boy strutted right over to the shallow end, where my daughter was swimming. She stopped and turned to face him, and the two kids stared each other down, sizing each other up. After the staring contest ended, the little boy climbed into the pool, swam to the wall, and focused his attention on me.

“Who’s her mommy?” the little boy asked, pointing at my daughter. It’s not the first time we’ve gotten this question. I did, however, find it curious that this was his first question.

“We both are,” I answered. “I’m her mommy, and she’s her other mommy.” I pointed to Amy as I said this.

The boy made a confused expression. “You can’t have two mommies!” he said.

What rock has he been living under? I thought to myself. I smile and said, “Some kids have a mommy and a daddy. Some have two mommies, and some have two daddies. Some have just a mommy, or just a daddy.” I could have kept going, but a little voice in my mind said, Keep it simple.

Now the boy looked thoroughly confused. “But two girls can’t get married!” he said definitively.

Before I could respond to that statement, his mother, who was sitting at the far end of the pool, yelled, “ALL RIGHT!!! THAT’S ENOUGH!!!” And that effectively put the kibosh on any further questions.

My guess is that this intervention took place because the boy’s mother assumed I was feeling uncomfortable, and she didn’t want me to feel that way. In fact, I wasn’t the least bit uncomfortable. I didn’t mind answering his questions, and I didn’t mind holding the space for him to digest this new reality and make sense of it. But I have to say, I felt VERY uncomfortable after his mother told him to knock it off. Because whether she intended this or not, the message that he got was, It’s not okay to talk about this.

In our house, we frequently talk about different kinds of families – and different kinds of people. We don’t do this in a preachy-teachy way; these subjects come up naturally, probably because of who we are and who we know. She knows people with two mommies, two daddies, three mommies and a daddy (this configuration involving a coming-out, a subsequent divorce, and both parents re-partnering), four mommies (again, through separation and re-partnering). She knows that children can have more than two parents – and not just because of divorce. She knows what it means to be adopted – by any type of family. I don’t think she knows the word “bisexual” yet, but she knows that sometimes people can be attracted to boys and girls – not just one or the other exclusively. She knows what it means to be transgender. She understands what the word “intersex” means. To her, none of this is confusing – it’s just reality.

Later that evening, as I was reflecting on the incident at the pool, it occurred to me that I might be the one who’s been living under a rock. Even though I’m very book-smart, I can be very naive – and I realized that I’ve naively assumed that, in this day and age, parents are increasingly talking to their kids about sexual orientation and gender. But that afternoon at the pool, my proverbial bubble that I’ve been living in was burst, and I witnessed just how thoroughly confusing the idea of two mommies or two daddies is to many children.

Still.

In 2013.

In some ways, I understand. Many parents might not know how to talk about these topics, especially with younger children. Shielded by heterosexual privilege, parents who are heterosexual and who are raising heterosexual, gender-normative kids may see no need to talk about it; the fact that the only research I could find that investigated how parents talk to their kids about sexual orientation involved lesbian moms (or gay kids) attests to this. Probably a lot of parents, somewhere along the line, internalized the message that the woman at the pool conveyed to her son: It’s not okay to talk about it.  

The it’s not okay to talk about it message runs deep in our cultural psyche, I think. When the film It’s Elementary: Talking about Gay Issues in Schools was released back in the late 1990s, the controversy that ensued was polarized and fiery. On the one hand, the film galvanized parents and educators to start conversations with children about lesbian and gay people – and it provided them with the tools to do so effectively. On the other hand, the film was relentlessly criticized by the anti-gay religious right. Their argument didn’t stop at it’s not okay to talk about it – rather, their message was: It is NOT SAFE to talk about it.

Here’s what Karen Jo Gounaud, the then-president of an organization called “Family Friendly Libraries,” wrote in her review of the film, which was subsequently published on NARTH’s website:

There’s a sophisticated new arrow in the gay activists’ quiver: a polished, well-produced video called It’s Elementary. . . .

“Indoctrination” is not too strong a word to describe what was really going on with those classroom activities. . . .

We must protect children from educational materials that contradict the historic truths about family which are rooted in America’s Judeo-Christian foundation. The survival of the family needs all the armor of truth we can supply. That truth is elementary, and it is imperative. There’s no time to waste. Let’s get together and get it done (emphasis mine).

As wacko as these statements are, they’ve effectively scared people into silence. Although a handful of websites exist that give tips on how to talk to kids about sexual orientation, no books have been written on this topic. None. No psychological studies exist (at least that I could find) that document the effects of educating children about sexual orientation – either in schools or at home. And attempts to provide that education for kids (either through films like It’s Elementary, or, more recently, through California’s FAIR Education Act) are often met with powerful resistance. This education just isn’t happening – at least not on a widespread level.

All of us need to be talking to our kids, in age-appropriate ways, about sexual orientation. And gender. And families – of all types. And sexuality. And not just if your family falls under the “sexual and gender minority” umbrella – all families should be having these conversations with their kids. Watching the re-release of It’s Elementary (titled It’s Still Elementary) to get tips on what to say is a good start. Although simplistic, Mental Health America has a page titled, “How to Talk to Kids about Sexual Orientation and Prejudice,” and it gives advice for different age ranges. Be honest. Keep it simple. Answer questions directly. And if you don’t know the answer to a question, say so – and then find out.

As it turns out, the little boy at the pool probably didn’t care much about our daughter’s family situation. He was after her sinky toys.

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Filed under children, coming out, gender nonconformity, intersex, LGBT families, psychological research, relationships, same-sex marriage, transgender