There is no better time than Pride month to confront the sobering truth that queer children are at far higher risk for suicide and mental and physical health disorders–and the beautiful truth that supportive parents can literally save their child’s life.
Two queer moms in Ann Arbor, having experienced challenges themselves when recognizing they were queer and coming out to their family, are making certain to raise their children differently than they themselves were raised – providing a foundation for their children to feel safe becoming who they are meant to be.
“I grew up in a middle-class white household in rural Michigan–a couple young men in my school were mercilessly persecuted for being anything other than straight dude bros,” says Emily, a bisexual business mentor who works with healers and spiritual entrepreneurs to grow their businesses at Emily Otto, Rebelle and has two young children with her husband.
“My parents did a terrible job with my queerness. I studied social and sexual psychology in college and remember arguing with my parents about the science of sex, gender, and sexuality, and how different brain chemicals operate differently in people’s brains, and that’s why people are queer. My parents were very well-intentioned, but when I got a divorce from my ex-husband and started a partnership with an amazing woman, they were not thrilled. It was hard for them and definitely hard for me.”
“I didn’t realize I was attracted to women till I was in college, partially because of how my parents raised me,” says Emma, a pansexual full-time mom and part-time singer/performer who has one child with her husband.
“In middle school my adopted sister started dating another girl. At first my parents didn’t take it seriously and figured they were just friends. But when my sister made it clear she was serious about her relationship, my parents told her she needed to stop “hanging out” with this other girl because she had a mental illness and was a bad influence. The impression I took from this was that homosexuality–remember when we used that word?!–was a mental illness. Sometimes my parents would talk about how badly gay people were treated in my ultra-Christian conservative town, and how unfair that was, so there were different messages–I concluded that ‘gay folks are okay; it’s just not something I want to be myself.’”
Emily and Emma knew they wanted to raise their own children to be fully supported in their identities and not experience the same discrimination or trepidation over becoming who they are: “It’s been important for me from day one to both encourage my own children and all children to express themselves and be fully supported in that expression for any gender identity, any gender non binary, any polyamory—anything,” says Emily. “If you’re a human you are worthy and valid of love, period–the end!”
Children’s clothing still being so gendered was a source of frustration for Emily from the beginning. She recommends Primary Clothing, a company that uses beautiful stripes, patterns, and colors and doesn’t gender their clothing–there are pictures of young boys modeling their skirts on the websites, showing that each child really can wear anything.
Emily encourages exploration. Her four year old has played around with different expressions, and Emily notes, “It’s hard to say, what’s play, what’s joking, and what’s how he feels. We just let all of it be okay and see what happens. I am 150 % behind my kids’ and every other person’s expression of themselves and what’s authentic and ‘coming true’ for them. And I’m so grateful I get to be and do that as their parent!”
To Emma, creating access for her child to a diverse community is critical. “I’m raising Ali as part of a big queer community, so I hope she’ll have lots of LGBTQ+ adults as role models, books that address queer relationships and identities directly, and conversations about what it means to be LGBTQ+.”
With so much awareness that has recently been raised around avoiding strict girl/boy binaries for children, Emily still runs into stereotypes all the time: “People say what they think are well-intentioned cute things about my children, like, ‘Oh he’s gonna be a heartbreaker! Such a ladies’ man!’ When people say, ‘He’s gonna charm all the girls,’ I speak up and say, ‘Or boys! Or both!’”
Does this make people uncomfortable? Yes–and Emily is here for it. “I want people to be uncomfortable in their assumptions. I want them to pause and consider their words and the assumption of straightness, and the assumption of a gender binary. I’m privileged to be able to speak up and question people’s beliefs because I do have safety and privilege from being able to pass as straight, and from my financial and educational opportunities. I get to say and do what I want, And I try to stand in that power for people who can’t, or who don’t feel safe doing so.”
It can be hard if your child comes out as queer if you have previous assumptions or prejudices to work through. It can also be hard, even if you’re stoked to support your child, to know that your child will likely experience discrimination or hardships from being queer in a still-homophobic society.
Emily knows several friends’ children who identify as gender nonbinary or trans, and she recognizes that the parents need support as well: “It’s not always an easy road to have a child go from one gender expression to another, from one sexual identity expression to another. I love being able to support these children and their parents.”
“There’s amazing visibility of marginalized genders and identities nowadays,” says Emma. “This will help Ali know that these are acceptable and healthy ways of being, I think, and I’m grateful for that. My parents didn’t really have that media exposure back when I was a kid–not until GLEE came on the TV!”
Whether queer or straight, all children deserve to be accepted for who they were, when they are, where they are. “Being human is hard!” says Emily. “And it’s beautiful, and amazing, and it’s our differences and the unique qualities and expressions that exist in the world that make us beautiful. My first girlfriend taught me to love people not because they’re perfect but for all of the little bits of beauty and difference that exist. It’s a pretty fun thing, to get to love humans in that way.”