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What Does Gay Mean? How to Talk with Kids about Sexual Orientation and Prejudice

How to Talk with Preschool-Age Children  (3 to 5 years)

What Does Gay Mean?Children aged three to five ask a ton of questions. You should give them simple and concrete answers. They are looking for basic information - not complete or graphic explanations.

For example, after seeing two women neighbors holding their new baby, your three-year-old might ask, "Who is the mommy and who is the daddy?" You may simply explain that "Both are mommies," perhaps adding that two moms are a family and can make a home for a baby.

Preschoolers not only use words to express themselves, but they are also beginning to play and pretend. Itís a wonderful time to use picture books to communicate ideas and feelings.

The early years are a time when children like to pretend to be the opposite sex, or do things that are mostly associated with being a boy or a girl. You might be surprised when your five-year-old son wants to wear a dress to school or that your daughter prefers roughhousing and playing with trucks.

Dress-up is a normal part of childhood, even when a child is pretending to be the opposite sex. And playing at things that normally are done by kids of the opposite sex is perfectly normal and healthy.


What Does Gay Mean? How to Talk with Kids about Sexual Orientation and Prejudice

How to Talk with School-Age Children (6 to 12 years)

What Does Gay Mean?Children aged six to 12 see most things in terms of how they relate to their own lives. If your seven-year-old asks, "Mommy, my friend Timmy says our teacher is gay. What does gay mean?" you might say, "Gay means that Ms. Chambers loves a woman like I love Daddy."

Itís also important to understand why your child wants to know. Maybe someone said the teacher was gay in a scary or prejudiced way, and your child is looking for reassurance. Maybe your child has come up with his or her own ideas about being gay, and wants to check them out with you. Again, listening first gives you a good idea of what your child wants to know and needs to know.

Children aged 11 to 12 can identify with others. They understand that they can have several feelings about something at the same time. Their bodies are changing, and many preteens are thinking about sex, even if they arenít talking about it. Sexual curiosity and attraction to other kids of the same sex is a normal part of development. Just because your child has these feelings doesnít mean he or she is gay.

Consider these situations:

  • You might discover your eleven-year-old daughter crying after school where she and her best friend were called "lesbos" because they were holding hands. Listen to what upsets her most. Does she know the meaning of the names she was called? Does she feel she should stop holding her friendís hand? Is she scared of the other kids? After talking to your daughter, you may want to follow up with the school counselor or principal to express your concerns.


  • You might be called by your childís school because your son or daughter is bullying and calling another child "fag," "queer," "sissy," "tomboy," or saying "gay" in a hostile manner. This is an important time to talk with your child and stress the value of treating everyone with tolerance and respect.

In general, the questions and the ideas become more complicated as kids grow older. "How do people who are gay have children?" "Why do some kids call others fags?" "Why do some girls act tough and dress like boys?" And, one that is often scary for parents, "Am I gay?" If your child is wondering if he or she is gay, itís important to assure them that you love them, whatever their sexual orientation. Itís also important to let them know that they will eventually answer that question for themselves as they get older and learn more about their feelings.

Talk openly with your child and be as honest as possible. You can admit when youíre feeling embarrassed or donít know the answers to your childís questions. If you work together to find out the answer, you show your child that curiosity is nothing to be ashamed of.


What Does Gay Mean? How to Talk with Kids about Sexual Orientation and Prejudice

How to Talk with Teenagers (13 to 18 years)

What Does Gay Mean?Sexuality and expressing oneself as a boy or girl are major parts of adolescent lives. In adolescence, your childís friendships may become more intimate and involved. The opinions and actions of your childís peers are also highly valued by your teen. Most teens want the freedom to express themselves and want privacy around their changing bodies and sexual activity. But they also want their parents to ask them about sex.

As teens begin dating, their sexual orientation often becomes apparent, as well as the orientation of their classmates and friends. This makes adolescence an important time in your childís life for you to discuss anti-gay prejudice and to model healthy behavior. Whatever your own values and beliefs, itís important to always discourage harassment or violence.

Your child or one of his friends may tell you, "I think Iím gay." Listening carefully helps teenagers feel safe to talk with you about their feelings. It took courage for him to begin this conversation, and it will take courage on your part to follow up. This can be a confusing and difficult time, and your child needs to hear again and again that you love him or her no matter what.

The teenage years can be a lonely time for gays and lesbians as they begin to deal with their emotions and sexual feelings. In social settings, like high school, they might feel like they are the "only ones." If there is a teen in your life who is gay, lesbian or questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity, let them know about three groups, the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN), Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), and Human Rights Campaign,

The Internet has become an important way for gay teens to learn and to talk to other young people dealing with the same hopes and fears. In many cities, there are meetings for gay and lesbian teenagers. Supervised by an adult - often a counselor - these meetings provide opportunities for gay teens to meet each other and talk openly about their feelings in a safe environment. This can be a big help in reducing their isolation, which can be harmful to the mental health of gay youth.