For better or worse, the press is an explosion of rainbow news lately. With last month’s announcement of an investigation into the work of the Safe Schools Coalition, Bill Shorten’s foray into calling a spade a spade, the NSW government’s apology to the Mardi Gras 78ers and debate about the forthcoming plebiscite on marriage equality, you could be forgiven for thinking that LGBTI topics are this decade’s barbecue stoppers.
And as always, while the adults talk, children are listening.
Relationships are not adults-only subjects. From birth our children are exposed to images of families and couples. Fairytales are about finding the prince. Children attend the weddings and anniversaries of their relatives, and hear stories about dates, honeymoons, pregnancies and births. More than this: children are actively prepared by schools to enter into the world of relationships through school productions featuring romance and marriage, cute Valentine’s Day celebrations, or blue-light discos, debutante balls and formals.
Up until very recently, this practice of teaching children about romance was entirely heteronormative (that is, it always presented heterosexual relationships as the only normal, right and proper way to have a relationship).
I don’t agree with much of what the opponents of the Safe Schools Coalition say, but I do think they have one thing right: if Australia finally passes marriage equality into law, then the way that schools, and even parents, teach about relationships will have to change.
So how do we help our kids navigate the marriage equality issue and come through informed, unafraid, and unscathed?
Here are five things every parent should say to their kids:
1. I want to talk about it.
Unless you have very young children, it is likely that they have seen numerous news reports about this political debate. It is even more certain that they have heard homophobic opinions at school or in the media. While the ACL rabidly claim that ‘the gay agenda’ is about taking away the right of parents to teach their children about relationships, the opposite is in fact true. We know that most Australians (about 72 per cent) support marriage equality and many of those people are parents. Most kids and teenagers are pro-marriage equality: when you, as a parent, affirm that view, it not only raises you in their estimation, but also makes sure they know it’s safe to have an opinion at home.
Most kids and teens are pro-marriage equality: when you, as a parent, affirm that view, it not only raises you in their estimation, but also makes sure they know it’s safe to have an opinion at home.
2. LGBTI people have relationships, too.
Tweens and teens are usually across the celebrity gossip far more than their parents are (at least in my house!) but they may be self-censoring their chat if they think you’re likely to object to them mentioning Michelle Rodriguez’s ex-girlfriend or Sam Smith’s latest video. Instead, be proactive and ask them if they know who Ellen Page is dating lately, or mention how cute Penny Wong’s kids are. Talking about all kinds of relationships not only allows for diversity, but it can help your children learn more about the values and ethics that are important for your family. Older teenagers often remark that they wish their parents and other key adults had spent more time teaching them about relationship etiquette, and more serious issues like respect and consent. There is no reason why those conversations shouldn’t be inclusive of LGBTI relationships, too.
3. Justice and fairness matter.
Learning more about the struggle for marriage equality can help your children develop a broader awareness of what it means to fight for your rights. We all want our children to grow up empathetic and with the desire to be good citizens. Encourage them to have a say about what they think is right by attending a marriage equality rally, writing a letter to their local politician, or presenting a project or speech at school. This will not only enable your kids to learn about the history of activism but will show LGBTI people in their community that they have young allies, too. It may even spark their interest in standing up for other minority groups.
4. There are lots of ways to have a family.
If you have young kids, this one’s especially useful. If your kids like to ‘play house’, why not sometimes encourage a game where there are two dads, or two mums, in the household? If you’re telling a fairytale, maybe the princess can kiss the frog and turn it into another princess! There are lots of gorgeous children’s books which feature a range of different family types. For toddlers, Todd Parr’s book It’s Ok To Be Different has colourful illustrations depicting kids from a range of cultural and ability backgrounds with all kinds of families. For slightly older readers, Tango Makes Three is an adorable book about two penguin dads; The Gender Fairy is a gentle look at what it’s like to be young and transgender; and the new release Mummy and Mumma Get Married is exactly what you need if you want to focus particularly on marriage.
If you want to talk about your hopes for their future, you could use neutral terms like ‘partner’.
5. I love you as you are.
A 2010 Latrobe University study found that more than 50 per cent of young people who are same-sex attracted knew about their sexuality in primary school. Unfortunately, because LGBTI people still face prejudice and discrimination, this means that most have a period of being ‘in the closet’. As a parent, you have a vital role to play in making sure that your child is safe to be themselves. Providing them with an upbringing that demonstrates your own commitment to accepting the beautiful diversity of humanity is an incredible gift to them. Try to avoid assuming a heterosexual future for your child. A daughter who is wondering if she is a lesbian will be hurt and scared by constant references to her future husband - and this applies to sons in the reverse, of course. Instead, if you want to talk about your hopes for their future, you could use neutral terms like ‘partner’ or, better yet, say ‘when you have a boyfriend or girlfriend, or a husband or wife’. This will affirm for them that your love does not depend on who they choose to love when they are older.
After all, love is what this is really all about.
Elizabeth Sutherland is a writer, teacher and mother based in Melbourne. Her hobbies include feminist snark and waiting impatiently for marriage equality. Follow her on twitter @mymilkspilt.
Image by Studio Tdes (Flickr).