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What I Did When My 11-Year-Old Son Came Out as Gay

Kids are increasingly fluid with their sexual identities, and how we react matters more than you think

portrait of boy in backyard treehouse
River in his backyard in Oregon. Annie Tritt

My son was 11 years old when he told me he was bisexual. I honestly would’ve been less surprised if he’d pulled out a switchblade and told me he’d joined the Warriors street gang.

“Thank you for confiding in me,” I told him. I only knew to say that because I was the last parent in my social circle with a kid to come out as either gay, bi or gender nonbinary. A global survey conducted in 27 countries (including the U.S.) and released last June found that nearly 1 in 5 young adults — those born after 1997, otherwise known as Generation Z — identify as something other than straight. 

But you know what doesn’t help when you’re sitting in a car with your 11-year-old as he tells you that he’s sexually attracted to both boys and girls? Statistics. You could tell me 1 in 5 Gen Zers are growing goatees, and my first thought would still be, My son is too young for a goatee!

According to Christy Olezeski, the director and cofounder of the Yale Pediatric Gender program, my first reaction was the right one. “The parent should say, ‘Thank you so much for trusting me to come to me with this information,’” she says. So far, so good!

But what comes next? I got help from a trio of LGBTQ teens — Delaney, 18, from Ohio, Oliver, 17, from Connecticut, and River, 16, from Oregon — who all recently came out to their parents.

Don’t barrage them with questions. 

When Delaney shared the news with her dad that she’s gay, there was “a flood of questions,” she says. “‘Did you like this girl or that girl?’ I don’t really want to talk about that. I’m still figuring stuff out.”

“Too much questioning can totally put your child on the defensive,” says Olezeski. Remember, they often can’t answer these questions for themselves yet.

Don’t make sweeping generalizations.

Oliver was designated female at birth. In the seventh grade, he told his father he was bisexual. “My dad was adamant: ‘You’re too young to be anything!’” Later, Oliver realized he was transgender. Dad said: “This is a trend that’s sweeping everybody!” (That’s how my son’s grandparents responded as well: “He’s not really gay, he’s just doing what’s popular.”)

You’re going to have opinions. But sometimes those opinions need to stay in your brain. “Kids are always scanning the environment to know what’s safe for them,” Olezeski says. “The little remarks that parents make can be harmful or hurtful.”

Remember that their identity will likely keep evolving.

When River was 13, he puzzled over how to tell his parents about his gender identity. River’s pronouns “went from a she/they situation, to a they/them situation, to a he/him. The progression was pretty slow.”

My kid’s journey also wasn’t a straight line (pun intended). Two months after coming out, he announced to his mother and me over dinner — casually, almost like an afterthought — that he’d changed his mind. 

“I’m straight now,” he said and then asked for dessert.

When I was his age, the very idea of being anything other than straight was unimaginable. But my son is growing up in a world where queerness is common, and he gets to try different sexual identities on for size, just to see how they feel. When he decided that being bi didn’t feel authentic anymore, his friends accepted him just as warmly and supportively as they did when he came out.

Maybe he’ll change his mind again down the line. Or maybe he won’t. The only thing I know is that I did right by him as a dad. When he looked at me and said the scariest thing a kid can say to his father — “I’m not like you” — I didn’t recoil. I just listened, and hugged him, and said I would always love and support him. Maybe that’s all he needed to hear.

[Additional reporting by Carol Dannhauser]

[This month, AARP is launching an initiative that focuses on the challenges of teens in 2022, with a special report in AARP Bulletin, stories throughout aarp.org, and a virtual summit with experts and teens on September 20th, hosted by Arrow editor-in-chief Stephen Perrine. For more stories, advice, and insights, and to join us for this important and informative round table, please register today.]