Young people who are gay, lesbian or bisexual

During the teenage years young people are working out who they are, and dealing with relationships and sexuality.

For some, working out their feelings towards others and whether they are gay, lesbian or bisexual might be an extra pressure to deal with.

All children and young people want to feel accepted and that they belong regardless of their sexuality.

It is important that parents help them work things out in a safe and supportive environment where they feel valued and loved for who they are.

This page focuses on young people who are lesbian, gay or bisexual. The term ‘same-sex attracted’ is used to refer to all of these. 

Transgender or intersex matters are not discussed, as the issues can be quite different.

Young people and sexuality

Moving from childhood into adolescence is a time of great change for young people and their families.

Changes in the brain and hormones bring about many physical, sexual and emotional changes.

Exploring sexuality and how they feel about others is one of the things young people work out during this time.

It is important to know that:

  • if your child tells you they’re same-sex attracted it is likely they've thought about it for a long time - some say they have known all their lives
  • in the teenage years, your child might work out what they are going to do about it - or they might struggle with fear and confusion before they are even able to admit it to themselves
  • if they are not yet sure, your child may not tell you they are same-sex attracted because they might think you will reject them.

When your child ‘comes out’ to you

Each parent has their own way of reacting when their child discusses their sexuality or ‘comes out’ as same-sex attracted.

For some it is ‘no big deal’. It is just a part of who their child is.

Some parents may:

  • have wondered about it and be pleased they can now talk openly
  • need time to adjust, but are happy their child trusts them enough to share this part of themselves
  • feel shocked, confused, disappointed, guilty or angry - it may challenge their values and beliefs, especially some religious or cultural beliefs
  • feel embarrassed and anxious about the reactions of family members or friends
  • feel the hopes and dreams they held for their child are now lost
  • choose not to accept their child’s sexual or gender identity - which can lead to a break in family relationships that is hurtful for everyone.

Many parents realise their child can live a full life no different from their other children, including having a successful career, a committed relationship and children if that is what they want.

You may feel hurt, angry or guilty because your child didn’t tell you earlier.

It is important to realise:

  • your child probably couldn’t have told you any sooner - they may have picked up on negative attitudes, been harassed or bullied, rejected by their friends or seen this happen to others
  • your rejection might be too much to risk - it says something about your relationship that they’ve shared this with you now
  • it shows they want to be honest with you and include you in all parts of their life
  • sometimes children tell their parents in an angry or accusing way because they’re stressed and anxious about the reaction
  • to tell a parent you’re lesbian, gay or bisexual takes great courage - once said, it can’t be taken back and may worry they will lose your love.

While having a same-sex attracted child can seem daunting at first, many parents find great acceptance and support in the community. 

Life may be different but it can be just as full of the many joys of parenting. 

Terminology

The following terms can help you understand your teenager's sexuality.

Bisexual 

A person attracted to more than one gender, though not always equally.

Coming out 

Telling others you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or intersex (LGBTQI). This is a life-long process, not a single event.

Gay 

Often used to describe a male attracted to other males, but can be anyone attracted to the same sex.

Gender identity

The gender a person identifies with - usually male or female but can be both, or neither.

Heterosexual, straight 

Someone attracted to the opposite sex.

Homosexual, same-sex attracted 

A person attracted to people of the same sex.

In the closet

Hiding sexual or gender identity for fear of negative reaction, rejection or harassment.

Intersex 

A person born with reproductive organs and sometimes sex chromosomes that are not exclusively male or female.

Lesbian 

A female who is attracted to other women.

LGBTQI 

An acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or intersex.

Queer 

A broad term for people who don’t identify as heterosexual or with their birth gender, but don’t want to adopt the label of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

Sexual identity 

An integral part of who we are, what we believe, how we feel and how we respond to others.

Sexual orientation 

A person’s emotional, physical and sexual attraction to others.

How parents can respond

When your child tells you they are same-sex attracted, the most important thing is to make sure they know you love them.

Tell them you’re proud they trust you enough to be honest with you. It also helps to take the following actions.

Keep an open heart and mind 

Be willing to listen, even if you feel uncomfortable. It may be hard to hear what they say but it is also hard for them to tell you.

Not react if you have strong negative feelings 

Let your child know you need time to think. Agree to talk again later.

When you are ready, share your thoughts and concerns with them.

The more open you are, the easier it will be for both of you.

Have many conversations over time 

This is a journey for both of you. Be patient with yourself and others.

It can take time to deal with the many fears and myths that society has about same-sex attracted people.

Find out more 

This will help you understand what is happening for your child and give you things to discuss with them.

Get support from people who understand what you are going through

Take care of your physical and emotional needs by letting others be there for you. Some parents focus on their child’s needs and neglect their own.

Why is my child same-sex attracted?

You may wonder the following about your child:

  • are they rebelling?
  • are they trying to hurt you?
  • are they influenced by others?
  • can it be changed or ‘cured’ by a doctor or psychiatrist?

It is important to know that:

  • there have been many studies to find out what causes people to be same-sex attracted but there is no clear answer
  • throughout history there have always been homosexual people whether or not it was accepted by society at the time
  • it is now widely accepted by the medical and psychological professions as a variation of human sexuality and not something that needs to be treated or changed
  • efforts by the health professions to change people in the past have never been successful and usually leave the person feeling depressed and sometimes suicidal
  • our sexual orientation is what feels right and ‘normal’ for us even if it is different from how others express these things
  • just as a heterosexual person doesn’t choose to be ‘straight’, neither does a person who identifies as lesbian, gay or bisexual
  • with the prejudice and discrimination that can come with being same-sex attracted, most people wouldn’t be on this path if it didn’t feel right for them.

You may wonder if you did something ‘wrong’ and are ‘to blame’ for your child’s sexuality. It is important to remember:

  • there is no evidence that parenting styles or family situations determine sexuality
  • if it was about parenting style then other children in the family would be same-sex attracted as well.

Being supportive

Studies show that when a parent is supportive it can make their child’s ‘coming out’ a lot easier and help them to be confident and resilient.

They are likely to have better physical and mental health, now and in the future.

It can strengthen your relationship if you find out what is happening for your child and how you can support them, just as you would with any other issue.

You could ask them:

  • how they are feeling
  • what it’s like for them to talk about it
  • who else they have told and what sort of reaction they got
  • what support they need - they might be confident about their sexuality, or anxious and worried.

Children who are rejected by their parents have higher rates of mental and physical health problems including risk-taking behaviour, drug use, self-harm, depression and suicide attempts.

They are also at higher risk of homelessness if parents tell them to leave, or the stress and conflict becomes too great and they move out without support.

Telling others

Everyone handles telling others in their own way - your child might not want to tell anyone else, or they may be happy for everyone to know.

If they decide to tell others, it can take time as they will have many different relationships in their life.

They may want you to tell other family members, or they might want to do it themselves.

It is important to respect their wishes. They need to feel safe about their choice to tell or not, and that others won’t take away their right to privacy.

Many people assume everyone is heterosexual - every day your child might have to decide how to answer questions about their personal life.

Community attitudes and laws

Community attitudes have changed over time to become more accepting and respectful of same-sex attracted people.

There are laws to protect same-sex attracted people from harassment and discrimination.

In Australia, same-sex couples in a domestic relationship now have mostly the same rights and obligations as heterosexual couples - with the exception of being able to marry.

Laws about adopting children and access to assisted reproduction methods such as in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) vary across states and territories.

Homophobia and bullying

Negative community attitudes, stereotypes, prejudice, rejection, discrimination and bullying make life hard for same-sex attracted people.

Young people who are same-sex attracted, or are thought to be by others, are significantly more likely to be bullied or abused at school, work and in social situations.

Homophobic bullying in schools has increased over time, with bullying through social media (like Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram) and text messaging making it easier to involve many people.

If your child tells you about bullying, act early. Let them know it is your job to make sure they are safe.

The Safe Schools Coalition Australia website offers support on how to approach your child’s school.

Creating a safe home

You can help by creating a safe home - where everyone feels respected and that they belong, regardless of sexuality, by:

  • speaking respectfully about sexual diversity from when children are young
  • balancing negative comments with positive messages - even flippant sayings like ‘it’s so gay’ can send a negative message about being same-sex attracted, we don’t say things like ‘it’s so straight’
  • fostering acceptance by showing your family and friends you respect your child - don’t allow homophobic talk or behaviour
  • teaching that prejudice is about stereotypes and myths and nothing to do with who people really are
  • helping children think about what they can do if they experience bullying or discrimination - help them build resilience and confidence
  • making sure children have information that keeps them safe in both the online and offline worlds.

Getting support

It is important to be around people who support you and your child. You could:

  • contact a service or support group - many parents have been through the same thing and can offer words of wisdom and support
  • consider whether you want to spend time with any friends, social groups, clubs or other organisations that are not respectful or supportive.

More information

You can find out more or get support on the following pages:

If your child is lesbian, gay, bisexual or gender diverse, or is questioning their sexual or gender identity, you can read the Families like mine guide for parents and families at the beyondblue website.

Copyright

This information was adapted from the Parent Easy Guide series © Parenting SA, Government of South Australia.

Last updated: 18 September 2017