Common questions about sexuality and gender

The best thing you can do is ask your child or loved one what it’s like for them. We’re all different, and talking openly gives you an opportunity to understand what they’re feeling without labelling or assuming how they will choose to express themselves.

Leaving the door open to future conversations can also deepen your relationship and reinforce that you are someone they can turn to with any issues.

However, it’s not up to your child or loved one to look after you or listen to anything that might increase their sense of isolation or guilt. If you need to process what's going on, make sure you seek your own independent support.

We’ve put together answers to some common questions below. Have a read and remember, you’re not alone – many other families are on the same journey. 

General questions

My child or loved one seems more happy and confident in themselves. How do I reinforce this even if I am still feeling shocked and struggling with my own feelings?

For some sexuality and gender diverse young people, coming out about their sexuality or gender identity allows them to express openly who they are and what they feel, often for the first time. Coming out is often described as ‘a weight off their shoulders’, as they no longer have to hide a ‘secret’ from their parents and others or struggle alone with questions about their sexuality or gender identity. Coming out can often have a positive effect on a young person’s self-esteem, especially if it’s met with positive family reactions. Some young people will be going through a process of working out what their sexual attractions or gender mean for them.

Sometimes, telling someone about what they’re thinking, even if they’re confused and are still coming to understand their identity, helps a young person feel more comfortable. If you notice this in your child or loved one, you might say you’ve noticed they seem happier and that this makes you happy.

I feel like the only one. I don’t know any other families with LGBTI people in them.

You’re not the only one! Tens of thousands of families in Australia have members who are LGBTI. If you do not know anyone else with a LGBTI family member, then seek people out. There are many other families who initially have felt isolated, but who have made new connections and friends as they support their LGBTI child or loved one. If you are in a rural or isolated area and cannot meet face-to-face with others in a similar situation, there are plenty of online resources, forums and chat groups that you can join.

There are a number of groups that can provide support and advice to parents of LGBTI young people.

I don’t know anything about LGBTI life. How can I support my child or loved one?

It’s OK that you may not know much about LGBTI life; you can still celebrate your child or loved one’s achievements with them and be involved in important milestones in their life. You can learn about LGBTI life from your child or loved one, their friends and their partners just by being interested, involved in their lives and using opportunities to learn more together. You can also support them through periods of difficulty or heartache as you would any other child. Most relationship experiences are similar for same-sex attracted and heterosexual people – draw on your own experience to give advice and support.

There’s a good chance that you know someone in your community who is LGBTI, you’ve just never noticed or been aware.

Will my child or loved one still have a good life with loving relationships?

Being LGBTI is not a barrier to a happy life. Many families worry that their child is in for a lonely or difficult life, but the opposite may be true. While most LGBTI people encounter discrimination or social exclusion at some point, this is not likely to be a dominant part of their life. In fact, a lot of LGBTI people find it easy to make friends and find partners because LGBTI communities offer so many opportunities to connect with others. More likely, your child or loved one will be surrounded by friends and in time, develop romantic relationships that are meaningful and fulfilling. Of course, they might also have the typical trials and tribulations that all people experience when negotiating romantic relationships. You can help your child or loved one by being supportive and including them, their friends and partner(s) in your family.

Did I do something wrong?

We don’t know what determines sexuality or gender identity. Many people feel that they were born sexuality or gender diverse, even if they don’t realise this until they are older. What we do know is that same-sex attracted and gender diverse people are raised in all types of families, societies and cultures. There is no evidence that anything parents do influences their child’s sexuality or gender identity.

Try to remember that there is nothing wrong or abnormal about being same-sex attracted or gender diverse. There is no one to blame and it’s no one’s fault when it comes to human sexuality and gender. Diversity is a natural part of life.

If asked, how do I tell my partner and/or other family members?

Understandably, some young people might be very wary of coming out. They might tell only one parent, and ask or expect that parent to tell the other parent, or others in the family. This is often because they are fearful about possible negative reactions.

It’s understandable that this might cause anxiety or concern for you. Make sure that you have support, someone to talk to or seek advice from and some strategies in place if your partner or family members have a negative reaction. Sometimes, a young person might need to stay with a friend or other family member for a few days if they feel unsafe or unwelcome at home.

Explain to your partner and other family members how important a positive, supportive response is for your child or loved one’s wellbeing.

Some LGBTI people will leave it to their parents to tell extended family members because parents are more likely to have a better understanding of the potential reactions of their own parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts or uncles.

It’s important to remember that how you react and inform others will influence how they form their own opinions and react to the news that your child or loved one is LGBTI. Positive responses from you will demonstrate to others that you support your child or loved one, even if you are still struggling with the news yourself. Advocating for your child or loved one in this way demonstrates that you are on their side and want the best for them.

At the time of coming out or soon after, take some time to talk and ‘negotiate’ the next steps with your child or loved one – develop a plan and assess the risks of adverse reactions from others.

My child just came out to me, but does not want me to tell other family members. What do I do?

Sometimes, young people feel comfortable to come out to one or two people in their family, but not others. This may be because they fear how other people will react or because they want to come out slowly. Some young people may be struggling with their own feelings about their sexuality or gender identity and may need time to process these feelings before telling others.

It’s important to respect your loved one’s wishes about who they do or do not tell, but you may need to let them know if this puts you in a difficult or uncomfortable position. For example, you may worry that your partner will become angry if and when they discover that you didn’t tell them, or it becomes too difficult for you to keep the secret. Use your judgment about whether it would be a help or hindrance to your child or loved one for others in the family to know, including their other parent/s. If you think it may be beneficial, talk to your child or loved one about ways you could speak to other family members together, or other support you could offer. Talk to friends or a counsellor about how to best manage this.

I’m worried this will bring shame on my culture or community. How should I approach this?

Some cultures are more inclusive and familiar with sexuality and gender diversity than others, but it’s worth remembering that diverse sexualities and expressions of gender are found in all races, cultures and religions. While some people within your community may be against same-sex attraction or gender diversity, others will be more inclusive. Nevertheless, if you fear that your culture or community will find it difficult to accept or understand the sexual or gender identity of your child or loved one, you may feel isolated and unsure where to turn for support.

Sometimes, people find it useful to look outside their close community to find information and support. Many cultures and communities include support groups and networks formed by community members, many of which can be found online. 

Remember, sexuality and gender diversity are nothing to be ashamed about. You, your child or loved one have done nothing wrong. If your feelings of shame are overwhelming, talking about them to a professional counsellor, perhaps outside of your local community, may be useful.

Questions about sexuality

I think that my child or loved one might be attracted to people of the same gender, but they haven’t said anything to me. Should I ask them?

It’s important to let young people take the lead about what they choose to tell you. Your child or loved one will talk to you about their sexuality when the time is right for them. The most helpful thing parents or loved ones can do is to create an environment where children and young people know they will be supported no matter who they are. Challenge any negative statements you hear about LGBTI people and proactively make it clear you are OK with LGBTI people. 

I’m struggling to come to terms with my child’s sexuality... does this make me a bad parent?

Initially, it’s not uncommon for parents and family members to experience a range of confusing emotions (some of which may be negative) when their child or loved one comes out. You may experience feelings of guilt, shock, shame, disappointment, denial or grief. As a parent, you may feel some or all of these emotions, but it’s important to remember that this does not make you a bad parent. It’s OK for you to take some time to process your feelings. While having a range of emotions might make this a difficult time for you, remember that coming out is a really hard journey for your child or loved one too.

Remember that your child or loved one is the same person they were before they told you, and they need to know you can see that. While it might take some time for your emotions to settle, it’s important that you remain close and supportive, so your child or loved one is reassured that your love for them has not changed. Keep reinforcing that you love and support them – it’s important for them to hear.

I’m worried about discrimination my child or loved one may face because of their sexuality.

Unfortunately, there are people who feel uncomfortable with LGBTI people and LGBTI communities. Some people may even make deliberately hurtful or aggressive remarks or actively exclude people who are not, or who appear not to be, heterosexual. Others will be unaware that their heterosexism (assumptions that all people are or should be heterosexual) is an issue. However, there will be plenty of people in the community who will be supportive and admire your child or loved one because they want the best for them.

The more open and inclusive your family environment can be, the greater the chance that your child or loved one will feel able to talk about any negative experiences they’ve had and ask for help. Your child or loved one may have already developed some strategies for coping with bullying or discrimination about their sexuality. You can ask how things are going for them. Ask if they’ve had any negative reactions and if there is anything you can do to help. You can find out about your child or loved one’s legal rights and ways to report discrimination if they choose to do so. Your child or loved one might also want time and privacy to process any hurtful or humiliating experiences.

Remember that your worries and concerns about discrimination should not be a reason to hold your child or loved one back from living the life that makes them happy. Often, parents’ fears and concerns are worse in their minds than the reality. Make sure you have plenty of support so you can talk openly about your worries and fears with trusted friends or a health professional. 

I wish my child could have told me about their sexuality earlier. Why didn’t they? How did I miss the signs?

Young same-sex attracted people may take a while to understand their sexual identity. They may have deliberately hidden their feelings from you until they were ready or comfortable to share this information. This does not mean they don’t love or trust you, or that you did anything wrong by not knowing. Your child or loved one may have been concerned or scared about how family members would respond. Coming out to a parent or parents can be difficult, and young people may choose to tell others first.

Some young people will tell certain people first, maybe one parent or one sibling, or a trusted aunt or uncle, or even one of their friends outside the family. Initially, this may help them to feel safer. They might then ask that person to tell others or to keep the information to themselves until they feel more self-assured and ready for others to know. A trusted adult could tell other family members so the young person is shielded from potential prejudice and/or misunderstanding from other family members. The trusted adult could also talk to family members about the young person’s fears and concerns.

When your child or loved one comes to you about their sexuality, make the most of the opportunity to reassure them and provide support.

Is my child or loved one at risk of HIV or AIDS or other diseases? Should I talk with them about sex and sexual health?

All people, regardless of their sexuality, need accurate information about sex and sexual health. Being LGBTI does not automatically mean your child or loved one won't have safe sex. It’s the activities in which a person engages, not their sexual identity, that puts them at risk of HIV or other sexually transmitted infections. HIV is transmitted through blood, semen, vaginal fluid and breast milk. It can be transmitted through sharing needles, unsterile tattooing or unsterile body piercing, unprotected sex and from mother-to-child during childbirth or breastfeeding.

Using condoms and sterilising needles is the best protection against HIV and other sexually-transmitted infections and blood-borne viruses like Hepatitis C. Regular testing and being aware of other prevention strategies are also important. Although it may be new for you, it’s important to talk to your child or loved one about staying safe in all types of intimate, sexual relationships. This includes practising safe sex, as well as building healthy, respectful relationships.

Can I still be a grandparent?

Changes in social attitudes towards same-sex parenting, changes to laws relating to the availability of assisted-reproductive technologies to lesbian and single women, and increased surrogacy options for gay men, have all contributed to the so called ‘gayby’ boom phenomena. This phenomenon describes the ever-increasing number of LGBTI people who are embracing parenthood. A recent survey of 3,835 LGBTI and transgender people found that 33 per cent of women and 11 per cent of men had children or stepchildren living with them. Close to 40 per cent reported wanting to have children or more children.1  As with the heterosexual population, however, some LGBTI people will chose to become parents and some will not.


1 Australian Bureau of Statistics (2012). Reflecting a Nation: Stories from the 2011 Census, 2012-2013, ABS, Canberra from http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/2071.0

Our family’s religion forbids homosexuality. How can I accept my child or loved one and still maintain my faith?

Many religions have strict views about homosexuality and it can be seen as sinful or going against religious teachings. Strong religious beliefs can present an extra complexity for LGBTI people and their families. There are no simple answers as to how people can resolve conflicting beliefs about religion and sexuality. Some LGBTI people feel confident that they are who they’re meant to be spiritually, and they’re able to maintain their religious practices and beliefs. Other people may find spiritual fulfillment within new organisations or networks with fellow LGBTI people of faith. For some LGBTI people, religion and sexuality are hard to reconcile and they may become disconnected from religious communities.

Some families worry that by accepting that their child or loved one is LGBTI, they are encouraging a life without faith. Or they may worry they will have to give up their own faith, but this is not the case. You can search for other people with similar experiences to you online or through community organisations. Within LGBTI communities, there are many support, social and prayer groups from a range of religions that may be helpful.

Questions about gender

I’m struggling to come to terms with my gender-diverse or transgender child’s identity…does this make me a bad parent?

You and other family members may experience feelings of guilt, shock, shame, anger, disappointment and/or grief. You may feel afraid you are ‘losing’ your son or daughter or you may not understand why your child or loved one can’t be content in their sex that was assigned to them at birth. It may be a struggle to see your child or loved one as a person with a different gender, or a person who may come to look different from how you have always known them.

For some family members there can be very strong feelings of grief and loss as they grieve for the ‘daughter’ or ‘son’ they are losing/have lost, before they can welcome the new ‘daughter’ or ‘son’. This process is understandable and can be very painful. You are not a bad parent because you are struggling with the transition of your child or loved one, and it’s OK for you to take some time to process your feelings. It is also worth remembering that we don’t know why some people will question or transition their gender. There is no point in feeling that as a parent you did something to contribute to your child questioning their gender. This is not the case. You have nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about. If negative feelings are getting on top of you or adversely affecting your family, it may be helpful to seek professional help from a counsellor who is familiar with the journey taken by friends and family of gender-diverse or transgender people.

While it’s normal for parents and loved ones to have a range of emotions during this time, remember that it’s a very hard journey for your child or loved one to take to express their real gender. It might be useful to remember that as your child or loved one is changing their gender identity, they are on a journey to becoming their true self. It is also worth remembering that every person explores and changes their identity over time and this is completely natural. Once your child or loved one has talked to you about their gender, they have invited you on that journey with them. You can look forward to getting to know them even better. As you are working through your emotions, it is important that you remain loving and supportive so your child or loved one is reassured that your love for them has not changed.

Does my child being gender diverse mean that they’re gay?

Sexuality and gender are two different things. Gender diverse and transgender people may be lesbian, gay, bisexual or heterosexual or may choose to identify as queer or describe their sexual identity in other terms. As with all young people, your child or loved one might need time to explore their own sexual feelings and decide what is right for them in the future. The most helpful things parents or loved ones can do is create an inclusive environment where children know they will be supported no matter who they are. Challenge any negative statements or stereotypes you hear about LGBTI people and make it clear you are OK with LGBTI people.

I wish my child could have told me about their gender identity earlier. Why didn’t they? How did I miss the signs?

There are many reasons why gender-diverse or transgender people might choose not to disclose their identity to others, including those they love deeply. The messages that all people get about gender conformity and gender nonconformity are very strong. It can be very hard for a gender- diverse or transgender person to accept what lies ahead of them and it may have taken your child or loved one a long time to come to know or understand their own gender identity. Some young people will be very worried about negative reactions and choose not to tell others because of this. Even when families appear to be accepting and inclusive, it can still be very scary for a young person to risk their sense of security and belonging. 

Because being gender diverse or transgender is not that common, families generally don’t expect to have a child who is gender diverse or transgender. You may have missed some signs because you didn’t know what to look for and because your child or loved one felt pressured by society to hide the signs from you. In addition to this, most people don’t think about their gender identity because their biological sex and their gender have always been consistent. Because most people never have to consider what it’s like not to fit into the expected sex and gender ‘boxes’, it makes it more difficult for a gender-diverse person to be ‘out’ and to discuss their own thoughts and feelings. You are not to blame for not knowing earlier.

Some young people will tell certain people in a family first, maybe one parent or one sibling, or a trusted aunt or uncle or even one of their friends outside of the family. Initially, this may help them to feel safer. They might then ask that person to tell others or to keep the information to themselves until they feel more self-assured and ready for others to know. A trusted adult could tell other family members so initially, the young person is shielded from potential prejudice and/or misunderstanding from other family members. The trusted adult could also talk to family members about the young person’s fears and concerns.

When your child or loved one comes to you about their gender identity, make the most of the opportunity to reassure them and provide support.

Why is my child challenging their assigned gender?

Most people would describe their sense of gender as central to who they are – how they see themselves and how they interact with the world. People who are gender diverse or transgender feel their assigned sex does not match their sense of gender identity.

Transgender people generally feel deeply uncomfortable and distressed about their body and their sex when they are unable to access procedures to transition to a different gender.1 It is not simply an issue of what they wear or how they present to the world in terms of gender, but a much more fundamental need to feel that their body is consistent with who they are as a person.

People don’t question their gender lightly. For many people, gender transitioning or living their gender differently to their biological sex is essential to their wellbeing. Research has shown that being on hormone therapy and having surgery, when that is what the person wants, is connected to positive mental health.​1 For these people, this is not a choice; this process of change is very hard and not something they would undertake if it weren’t essential to their sense of self and often their survival.

1 Hyde Z, Doherty M, Tilley PJM, McCaul KA, Rooney R, Jancey J (2014) The First Australian National Trans Mental Health Study: Summary of Results. School of Public Health, Curtin University, Perth, Australia.

I’m worried about discrimination my child may face if they question or change their gender.

It’s true that some people are very uncomfortable when gender norms are challenged and they may make deliberately hurtful or aggressive remarks. Others will be unaware that someone’s gender not matching the biological sex assigned at birth is even an issue for people. Mis-gendering (for example, using ‘he’ when someone identifies as ‘she’) can also be an issue and can make someone feel unsupported. Unsupportive schools can be particularly difficult for gender diverse young people, and can impact on their mental health and academic success.1 This is something parents or loved ones should try to remind others about as they help support their child. Remember that there will be plenty of people in the community who will admire your child or loved one and want the best for them.

The more open and inclusive your family environment can be, the greater the chance that your child or loved one can talk about any negative experiences they’ve had and ask for help. Your child or loved one may have already developed some strategies for coping with bullying or discrimination related to their gender identity. You can ask your child or loved one how it is going for them and how they have handled any negative or challenging reactions if they have occurred – and if there is anything you can do to help. Your child or loved one might also want time and privacy to process any experiences of hurt or humiliation.

The Australian Sex Discrimination Amendment Act (2013) recognises and promotes everyone’s right to a fair go and to be included in public life by making it unlawful to discriminate against a person on the grounds of their gender identity. Therefore, your child or loved one does have rights protected in law. Remember that your worries and concerns about discrimination should not be a reason to hold your child or loved one back from challenging a gender that is not right for them. Make sure you have plenty of support for yourself so you can talk openly about your worries and fears. A support group can be helpful for you and your family. 

​1 ​From Blues to Rainbows

I’m worried about the changes my child will face in puberty. What do I need to know?

As we know, bodies change in puberty. For young people, who do not feel their biological sex fits with their gender identity, puberty can be a distressing time. Attributes of their biological sex will become more prominent – breasts grow larger, facial hair thickens and voices break. For young people who live their gender differently or opposite to their assigned sex, puberty may be a time where they find it harder to live their life in their affirmed gender identity. Even simple acts like using a public bathroom which is gender specific may become more challenging. If your child or loved one is yet to go through puberty, it is important to be honest about the physical changes that they will experience. Ask them how they feel about this and if there is anything you can do to support them. You may not have all the answers to their questions or concerns. In some cases, you may need to seek medical advice with your child or loved one about how to manage puberty. Seeking supportive and experienced medical practitioners will be really important. Also, be aware that advocating for a child may involve arguing against medical norms.

Puberty blockers at adolescence are designed to prevent the onset of puberty and are fully reversible. This might enable longer-term and often irreversible decisions to be made, once your child or loved one has understood fully and confirmed the changes they wish to undertake.

How can I support my child to make decisions about the use of medications and other medical interventions?

Not all gender-diverse people will want or need to undertake medical intervention to change how they align their body with their gender identity, but some will. There’s a range of medical interventions that gender-diverse people can use to change their bodies. Physical transitioning is a process that occurs over time and different people will make different decisions about what interventions are best for them.1 One way to support your child or loved one is to help them get as much accurate information about their options as possible.2 This might mean helping them find resources online or doing some of your own research to find a transgender-friendly GP with whom you and your child or loved one can consult as a first step.

When young people are making important decisions with future ramifications, the conventional wisdom is often to get them to wait until they are older and to see if they still feel the same. However, if a person is going to transition to their preferred gender, the earlier in life this happens in terms of managing changes associated with puberty, the more successful the transition will be. If a young person is clear that they are in the wrong body, this is unlikely to change as they get older.3

For young transgender people, it is best to start medical interventions for transition as early as possible. Both hormone therapy and sex or body reassignment surgery require parental consent if a person is under the age of 18, and it's important to understand the role of the Family Court who currently play a role in approving access to medical treatment for children who want to change their gender.

 

From blues to rainbows: The mental health needs of young people with diverse gender (pg. 41) - Thirty per cent (n=17) of the young people who identified with identities under the ‘gender diverse’ umbrella did not want to medically transition, while 34% (n=19) of these young people were unsure about medical transitioning at this time.

2 As above.

From blues to rainbows (pg. 34) - Nearly one third of the young people told us that they had questioned their gender identity for as long as they could remember (32%, n=61), and 60% (n=114) nominated a specific age. The youngest was aged 3 and the oldest was 24. Within this range, the average age that the young people began questioning their gender identity was 14. Only 7.4% (n=14) said that they had never questioned their sex assigned at birth.

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