Teaching Tolerance: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

On June 1, the beginning of LGBT Pride month, Vanity Fair released its cover featuring the former Olympic decathlete Bruce Jenner as a glamorous and confident woman named Caitlyn Jenner. The photo was her first public appearance as a transgender woman.

The topic of Bruce’s transition to Caitlyn had been nearly impossible to avoid, as it has been a popular topic in the news and on social media for weeks. As expected, there was and is much controversy – some are shocked and disapprove, yet many seem to be accepting and proud of her courage to share her story in such a public way. Caitlyn Jenner is just one of the many members of the LGBT community who spent June, and hopefully all the months going forward, celebrating their freedom to be open and honest about who they feel they really are.

Following the Vanity Fair article and all of the media hoopla, many of my clients brought up Jenner during our sessions. I was struck by the confusion that some expressed. Many did not have a clear understanding of the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity. And although they expressed a desire to be understanding and teach tolerance to their children, they felt ill-equipped to do so. As a result, we spent some of our therapy time clarifying the differences.

The Difference Between Sexual Orientation and Transgenderism

Gay, lesbian and bisexual refer to sexual orientation (who you are attracted to). A person who is sexually attracted to others of the same sex could identify as gay or homosexual. A person identifying as bisexual is attracted to both males and females.

Transgender is a term for people whose gender identity or expression is different from the gender assigned to them at birth. Gender identity refers to a person’s internal sense of being male or female. Gender expression refers to the way a person communicates gender identity to others through behavior, clothing, hairstyles, voice or body characteristics. Simply put, the difference is that one has to do with who you are attracted to sexually/romantically, and the other has to do with the gender you feel yourself to be.

Transgender people may be straight, lesbian, gay, or bisexual. For example, a person who transitions from male to female and is attracted solely to men could identify as a straight woman. A person who transitions from female to male and is attracted solely to men could identify as a gay man.

But it is not enough to know the definitions. Anyone who goes against what is traditionally accepted as “normal” in society is likely to experience bullying, harassment, violence and abuse from those who disapprove of their lifestyle. LGBT children and teens are at an increased risk, as other youth may find their differences difficult to understand.

Now, there are some parents who have expressed to me that they do not think an LGBT lifestyle is acceptable. Can you still teach tolerance even if you don’t agree?

Yes. There are many people and things in life that we do not like or agree with, but if we approach them with understanding and respect, we teach our children to be open-minded, and to think issues through, rather than just react with judgement.

Teaching Tolerance to Prevent Bullying

The biggest challenge is how to teach tolerance, kindness and acceptance to prevent bullying. As we have found out over the years, the most effective tool against bullying is prevention.

Consider these strategies to encourage tolerance:

Demonstrate tolerance in your life. Children develop their values, in great part, by mirroring the values and attitudes of those they care about. Realize that your values and attitude send a powerful message to your child. When you talk about your values, and model the behavior you would like to see by treating others with respect, your child will follow in your footsteps.

Explain why bullying is wrong. Your child should know that all people deserve to live with dignity and respect, free from fear and violence and protected against discrimination, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation. Hatred is taught.

Encourage children to speak up against biased speech from peers. Because bullying often happens when adults aren’t present, it’s especially important that children be empowered to stand up against bullying and biased language.

Point out and talk about unfair stereotypes that may be portrayed in media. Keep in mind the powerful effect the media and pop culture have on shaping attitudes. If your child is exposed to something that demonstrates discrimination, point out that it’s not right and explain why.

The Struggle for Children and Teens

Knowing one’s sexual orientation is often something that a person recognizes from a very young age. Some homosexual or bisexual teens say they experienced same-sex crushes in childhood, just as their heterosexual peers experienced opposite-sex crushes. Becoming aware of — and coming to terms with — one’s sexual orientation can take some time.

Actress/ singer Miley Cyrus has stated she realized at just 14 years old that she was bisexual. In her recent interview with Paper magazine, she revealed that when she explained to her mother what she was feeling at the time, it took her mom completely by surprise. Despite feeling shocked, her mother has voiced her full support.

There are some individuals who take much longer time to come to terms with their sexual orientation, such as actor Neil Patrick Harris. He previously revealed to Howard Stern that he had been with several women before coming to terms with his sexual orientation as a gay man.

Celebrities who have the confidence to speak publicly about this aspect of their private lives may make it look easy, but for the average person, especially a child or teen, it can be very difficult. It can take time for children and teens to process how they feel and to accept this aspect of their identity before they reveal their sexual orientation to others. For most people, coming out to friends and family takes courage.

Transgender children and teens may have an even harder time than their gay and lesbian peers because gender identity is a more complex issue to understand. Imagine being a seven-year-old girl who feels like a boy inside. How does she even have the cognitive framework to understand what those feelings mean? And who can she talk to about them? Often children struggling with gender identity or sexual orientation are forced to the internet because they feel isolated and alone in their families and communities. And while the internet can be a source of a lot of good information (see our list below) there is also a lot of misinformation out there.

If your child is struggling, there are several ways you can help:

1. Open lines of communication – be the first to bring the issue up, even if it is to talk about what is currently in the media. Show your child he or she can trust you to understand and not be judgmental.

2. Be prepared to listen to their feelings and thoughts, but also understand if they don’t want to talk.

3. Focus your energy on loving your child, being there, and being sincere. Remember there are also issues of friendship, academics, sports, etc. that deserve your concern.

4. If you feel it will help get professional advice prior to engaging your child about these issues.

Recently the Supreme Court upheld the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry and have all of the rights and privileges that married couples enjoy. The Supreme Court may deal with law, but it is clear from the enormous amount of commentary on social media that we as a country are becoming a culture of acceptance. Creating a dialog with your children in your home is a way you can empower them to understand what they’re exposed on social media and in life.

If you or someone you know needs help dealing with these issues, please feel free to contact me to schedule an appointment.