Get out your pens and paper — we’re going back to school!
Students spend more than 30 hours per week in school—and yet, so many schools across the United States have a long way to go to create safe, affirming environments for all students, staff, and families. In fact, research done with Family Equality, COLAGE, and GLSEN shows that 1 in 4 youth with LGBTQ+ parents reported feeling unsafe in school. And, with states passing book bans and “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” bills, the 3.7 million youth in the U.S. growing up with LGBTQ+ parents are now at even more risk of discrimination and mistreatment.
Everyone deserves the chance to learn and grow in an affirming environment. So, how can LGBTQ+ parents and caregivers work to ensure that the young people in their life feel as supported as possible in school? We talked with our friends at the Youth Action Board at COLAGE to glean insight straight from the source.
Get out your pens and paper, because you’re going back to school with Family Equality!
Be an open door, not an open book.
As LGBTQ+ parents, many of us have worked hard to be unashamed of who we are. We’ve learned, through trials and tribulations, to advocate for ourselves in all sorts of settings: in meetings with teachers, in doctors’ offices, at neighbors’ potlucks, in PTO meetings, and more.
This “open book” approach is essential to creating change and developing spaces where parents can feel safe being out about who they are and what their family looks like. But, just as many of us have (or, in some cases, wish we had) the choice of where and when to come out, our children need that agency, too.
Let them come out about their family on their own time
Especially for older youth, the decision to come out about their family needs to be theirs. There are a number of reasons—seen or unseen by parents—that might make it so that your child feels unsafe being out and proud about their family at school. Some might want to wait until they have known allies and advocates at school before taking the leap.
Whatever the situation, it’s important that we don’t force youth to come out about their families if they aren’t ready.
Have direct conversations
If you’re unsure, have a direct conversation with your children about what they’re comfortable sharing with their world. This might look like:
- Asking them before a school concert if they’re comfortable with you and your partner being openly affectionate,
- Inviting your child to join you in your one-on-one meeting with the teacher at the beginning of the school year or giving them the option to draft or review the introduction email, or
- Asking them if anyone in school knows about them having LGBTQ+ parents.
Remember that this isn’t a one-time conversation. The life of a school-aged youth changes quickly, so we encourage you to check in regularly.
Sometimes, empowering your children to come out on their own terms might mean they’re ready before you are. Says Emily McGranachan, our Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations (who grew up with LGBTQ+ parents): “By middle school, my parents empowered me to come out to teachers as I felt comfortable. They would attend events, sport games, and parent-teacher nights together, but they did not [always] meet with every teacher. So I was able to control my own story and decide how to come out. Often, that meant being out and proud before my parents would have usually felt comfortable on their own.”
Don’t be involved for the sake of being involved.
Often because of untrue negative narratives around LGBTQ+ people and families, we feel the need to “prove” ourselves as good parents. This might drive us to get super involved in our child’s school life.
Of course, we encourage LGBTQ+ parents to get involved in the school community. It provides support to educators, brings visibility to our families, and helps to gain allies in this work. But it’s important to remember that you should only get involved if you authentically want to be.
Wanting to prove that your family is “like any other family” is a motivation that might not be healthy for your children, your family, or even yourself!
We also encourage you to check in with your children before you get involved. Are they okay with you volunteering at the school dance or hosting the teacher appreciation lunch? It’s not that you need permission, but their comfort with your involvement is important to ensure that they’re empowered to build their own family narrative at school and among friends.
Take the pressure off!
Our children are intuitive, and they care about how we feel. Often, they know how worried we are about them—especially when it comes to their experiences at school. This can lead youth to feel pressured to stand up for their family or protect their parents’ feelings when they don’t feel safe or confident doing so.
What You Can Do
Fortunately, there are many steps you can take to mitigate this:
- Be transparent! Let them know that you understand the pressure they might feel and that you don’t expect them to ever take on that responsibility when it doesn’t feel right for them.
- Give them resources. Maybe, your child does feel empowered to stand up for your family, but doesn’t know how. A great place for them to find connection, advice, and support is COLAGE, the only organization by and for children with LGBTQ+ parents and caregivers.
- Create the space. Make sure your child knows that if harmful moments arise, they can always talk to you—regardless of what they did or didn’t do in the moment. These incidents are, unfortunately, inevitable in many cases. So it’s better to acknowledge that as a family instead of avoiding the topic or hoping it doesn’t come up.
This step is challenging because it takes more than just one conversation. It takes work to create an environment where our children feel safe being honest with us! This means letting go of how we think they “should” respond or react, working through some of our own insecurities and triggers, and being an active listener.
Striking a balance
Of course, being worried about your child in school is completely normal. Wanting your child to know that you care about their experience at school is also normal! What we’re suggesting is: Strike a balance between letting them know you’re worried and putting the worry on them. The last thing that we want our children to do is feel like they have to be our caretakers or reassure us that they’re okay.
So, keep the topic on the table, but not in the spotlight. This can be as simple as saying, “I was thinking about you today and wondering how that situation with so-and-so is going” or “I’m always here to talk if anything is ever going on.”
Find other families.
As always: Don’t underestimate the power of community! It’s the cornerstone of the LGBTQ+ experience for a reason. Do the legwork of finding other LGBTQ+ families, or families with similar identities, backgrounds, and interests, so that your child can find friends that they feel comfortable being themselves around.
(It goes without saying, we hope, that you shouldn’t force your children to be friends with other LGBTQ+ families. Who is in their circle is their decision! But if your child wants help finding a community of people with families like theirs, show up and step up!)
When in doubt: Follow their lead.
At Family Equality, we are always reminding folks that every family is different. To that end, every child is different! No one piece of advice will apply to every young person universally. So, it’s important that you frequently check in with your child and follow their lead.
This doesn’t mean sitting back in silence or pretending not to care. Actually, it means the opposite! Start these conversations early, and then actively listen.
Always be sure to get your child’s opinion on the situation. And then, respect it. This might be challenging at times, especially when your child’s wants and needs don’t match yours. When this happens, as the parent, your job is to activate your own support network. Find a way to support your child no matter how difficult it feels for you.
From coming out as a family at school to intervening when harmful situations arise, work together to create a plan that feels comfortable for both of you. But, don’t stop there. Different situations and circumstances can elicit different feelings—or your child’s opinions may change over time. Check in every once in a while, and keep the conversation ongoing.
Looking for more resources? COLAGE’s Youth Action Board created a Back to School Toolkit for youth across the country with LGBTQ+ parents. The toolkit features several resources to help peers navigate tough social and academic situations, links to an email template for students to send to their teachers, and a video featuring their Youth Action Board members explaining common situations COLAGErs find themselves in with several options of how to handle such situations. Check it out by clicking here!