Nurturing Queerness and Gender Independence in Children and Youth


Nurturing Queerness and

Gender Independence

in Children and Youth

by Marilyn McLean

“I would be happy to have a gay child.”

This is one of a series of statements that the George Brown College Positive Space team presents to staff, faculty and students who take part in Positive Space workshops. When we ask participants to respond to the statement with agreement, neutrality, or disagreement typical reactions include:

“Of course I would still love my child, but I would worry so much.”

“Life will be so hard for them and they will face terrible adversity.”

“It wouldn’t make any difference to me.”

“I’d love them no matter what.”

We then work with participants to locate their reactions on a spectrum of possible responses to socially constructed difference. The spectrum (the Riddle Scale*)begins with repulsion and pity, moves towards tolerance and acceptance at its centre, and ends with nurturance and celebration. After conducting dozens of workshops, those of us on the Positive Space team have concluded that it is extremely difficult for participants, including LGBTQ people, to envision themselves responding positively to a child, real or imagined, defining as queer. Not once did we hear anyone say, “I would be overjoyed/proud/excited/curious/delighted to have a gay child.” Not once. Not ever.

It is now clear to me that the participants’ reactions described above reflect commonly held attitudes that suggest to queer and trans youth—whether or not their parents actually intend to send these messages—that they are:

-Destined to face a future of misery and hardship

-A source of pain and concern to their parents

-Not able to go to their parents and other adults for problem-solving and support when they’re facing challenges because their parents either don’t want to see the differences that they are being socially targeted for, or don’t know how to help them deal with the responses others have to these differences

-Expected to be grateful that they are loved in spite of the aspects of their identity that cause their parents so much angst and disturbance

Hearing so many expressions of pity and tolerance in Positive Space workshops has strengthened my conviction that such attitudes, while they may be considered progressive and socially acceptable, are woefully inadequate when it comes to supporting a young person whose emerging sexuality is not categorized as “normal” in relation to prevailing social expectations or whose gender identity is not easily ticked off on a box on a driver’s license application. Instead of telling young people that their sexual and gender identities don’t matter, and rather than assuring them they are loved even if they aren’t exactly what the parenting manuals promised, why aren’t we delighting in their fabulousness and boasting about their bravery and capacity to challenge convention?

Would it not be more rewarding to ask ourselves what we can do to transform our homes, schools and communities into locations that lovingly affirm sexual and gender diversity rather than relegating it to the corners of the closet? What personal changes can those of us in parenting and mentoring roles make, and what actions can we take to support our youth in creating a world that they want to live in?

Here are some thoughts:

Revisit and explore history and science. (Spoiler alert: we’ve all been lied to.) As a child, I was denied knowledge about the rich and complex histories of those who transgressed gender and sexual norms. The existence of multiple-gender societies and broad spectrums of sexual diversity in both humans and other species was lied about, erased from, or never recorded in the history, geography, and science books in my schools. The result is that many now believe, as I once believed, that people like me have been hated and exiled to the margins of society since the beginning of time. How would the world be different if we challenged and explored the biases and assumptions that stain Western versions of history and science?

Queer our families and bring the skeletons out of the closet. Growing up within the limitations of the white, North American, middle class of the 20th century, I was shown only one way to structure parent-child and sexual relationships: the nuclear family. I didn’t know why, but I couldn’t imagine myself as an adult in such a family, which then meant that I was unable to imagine myself having a family at all. My own experience has taught me that it is crucial to encourage children to explore real and imagined doorways leading to their future lives and communities. Part of assisting them with this involves taking a second look at our own families. It’s time to bring the closeted skeletons into the warmth of the family circle, to welcome the stories of grandmas who bucked convention and bachelor uncles who took in the kids when things got tough. I encourage everyone to look carefully for the cousins who left town to find a bigger world and the hippies who are raising their children in a commune. The quality of all of our lives improves when we expand our families to include the adults in whose presence a young girlyboy or baby butch blossoms.

Look inside and treasure deviations from the straight and narrow. It is not a coincidence that adults of all genders and sexual identities have distressing memories attached to their own early experiences of negotiating sex and gender. Many of us grew up with the assumptions that everyone else was a) heterosexual and b) comfortable with the gender that matched the sex assigned to them by medical professionals and parents. We likely knew that those who were not were punished, shunned, humiliated, violated and labeled, and so regulated our behaviour accordingly. Our simply acknowledging that these were damaging assumptions does not necessarily heal the wounds inflicted by a society obsessed with its narrow categories.

My youth might have been easier—it certainly would have been more interesting—if my parents and mentors had talked about how the restrictive gender norms of the 40’s and 50’s had influenced them, but this was not a topic for conversation. Nonetheless, I benefitted from the flexibility with which they approached gender, and I am delighted that this flexibility is being passed on to future generations. When my hockey playing, tool belt-wearing brother proudly sent me a photo of himself after his young daughters had transformed him with make-up and jewelry, I reached a new level of trust in him as an ally not only to my queer community and me, but also to femininity in all of its variations. This is not to make light of the huge risks that trans people take daily, or to minimize the legacies of violence that surround decisions regarding which shoes to wear or which bathroom to use. Rather, it is to encourage people who have not thought much about their own gender to recognize that we all have a stake—multiple stakes, really—in radically revising the ways that our society understands gender and sexuality.

Relinquish pity; admire strength and courage. What kind of strength and intelligence does it take for someone who is in the process of realizing their sexual and gender identities to understand that there is nothing wrong with them, and that it is the larger society that is, to quote the Vatican’s stance on homosexuality, “intrinsically disordered”? How much pride can we show in a young person who survives in the face of transphobic or homophobic bullying, whether those doing the bullying are peers, teachers, cultural icons, government leaders, or family members?

Instead of worrying about or pitying trans and queer youth for the challenges that may or may not lie in their futures, can we not extend to them the same admiration and pride that we show to those who are struggling against injustice in other contexts? It is long past time for our society’s coming of age narratives to expand to include the tales of bravery, resistance and heroism of queer and trans youth.

Value and learn from the sexual and gender diversity that exists all over the planet, in all societies. North American stories and experiences, often presented as global truths, frequently steamroll over other ways of being. We are not doing youth or ourselves any favours when we show them—either deliberately or by omission—that there is only one way to live as trans, one queer community for them to connect with. The reality is that there are a myriad of expressions of desire and gender, and these expressions vary across and within cultures, communities and socioeconomic classes. Many of these expressions have survived and flourished underground and above ground despite hundreds of years of attempts on the part of colonizing and other nations to outlaw or eradicate them. Racism, classism, ableism, sexism—all of these and more exist in queer and trans communities, and are magnified when we expect young people to twist themselves into pretzels in order to fit into narratives, organizations, and communities that don’t reflect their histories, realities, and dreams. It would be far better to support and learn about the existence of multiple communities, histories, and traditions, as well as encouraging parents and youth to explore that which may have been suppressed or marginalized over time in their own communities.

Be an ally when and where you can. This will look different for different people; everyone has their own super power, and that’s a good thing. Maybe your skill is in speaking up and speaking out publicly. Or perhaps you are an organizer who is good at generating online petitions or assembling groups to examine policy or practice at a community or government level. You might be a person who youth look to as a mentor. If so, are you demonstrating to them that you value and support sexual and gender diversity? If you are, your support and affection for their budding queerness, or for their explorations in gender expression, hold value beyond measure. If not, your silence carries an enormous weight.

Live as if gender and sexual diversity are as essential to life as breath. When people ask me in Positive Space workshops why someone would celebrate a young person’s emerging gayness or flourishing gender independence, I think about how difficult it is for adolescents in general to work out their relationships to their bodies and to find ways of expressing themselves that feel authentic. Lesbian, gay, bi, pansexual, asexual, queer, genderqueer, trans, and two-spirit youth living in Western societies grow up in a world that has demonstrated to them that anything outside of the norm is dispensable, and that the qualities that shape their identities render them deviant, disordered, or at best “other.” In contrast, the final, celebratory stage on the Riddle Scale suggests taking actions that “assume that LGB persons are indispensable in our society.”

Perhaps the critical question is not, “Why would I be delighted that my child is gay?”, but rather “What would happen in a world where youth could be confident that the very qualities that render them different from the so-called norm also make them beautiful, desirable, and whole?”. I like to imagine how all of our lives will be different in a society that takes it for granted that sexual and gender diversity are essential to life, and that understands that contributions of queer and trans people lie at the centre rather than at the margins of human existence. I try to function as if this world exists already, here on the planet where I live. I am grateful beyond measure that I was a queer, gender rebellious child, because I am inspired over and over to revel in every sparkle of queerness, and every bloom of gender divergence in the children, youth and adults in my life. Without the beauty and the magic of these qualities I would be lost. With them I am at home.


*Riddle, Dorothy.  The Riddle scale. Alone no more: Developing a school support system for gay, lesbian and bisexual youth. State Department: St Paul, Minnesota, 1994. 

A PDF version of the scale can be found here or here!

Marilyn McLean teaches courses on gender studies, critical resistance, and the impacts of interpersonal and systemic violence on children and youth. Her research has explored the relationship between learning and violence, the desires and concerns of queer youth in academic settings, and the use of collaborative and collective approaches in the creation of liberationist movements. Her path through this work has been rooted in an ongoing process to deconstruct her own white privilege and settler identity. She is a recipient of the Province of Ontario Leadership in Faculty Teaching Award and a founding member of George Brown College’s Positive Space Campaign. Her most important learning over the past three decades has taken place in the activist movements in Toronto that have provided a home for her queer and gender-rebellious self.