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7 common myths and misconceptions about LGBTQ youth

1. It’s just a phase

Being LGBTQ is an identity, not a choice, lifestyle, or phase someone grows out of. Nor does someone become LGBTQ because they were physically or sexually abused as a child. Much of this misinformation is rooted in the belief that LGBTQ people are abnormal, disordered, or mentally ill. No credible medical or psychological association in the world continues to validate these harmful stereotypes. In fact, sexual orientation and gender identity are considered to be so complex that the exact origins are unknown. However, what is widely known is that any attempts to “fix,” “cure,” or “repair” a person’s sexual orientation and gender identity is not only unethical and unprofessional, it can cause great harm and lifelong damage.

Children report being aware of their gender differences at early ages. Research shows that youth who later identified as transgender or gender diverse reported first recognizing their gender identity as different at an average age of 8.5 years old. Sexual orientation is also identified early for many young people. On average, lesbian, gay, or bisexual youth become aware of their different sexual orientations around age ten, yet often do not “come out” and share this information until about age 15 or 16.

Unfortunately, prejudice, discrimination, stigma, and fear all contribute to youth feeling they have to hide or deny who they are.

2. You can tell who LGBTQ youth are

I once had a school principal say to me, “There are no gay or lesbian youth in my school.” What this principal didn’t realize is that there were no visible LGBTQ youth in the school, most likely because it was not a safe place. Visibility and safety are tightly interwoven together, especially in any school-related context.

The belief that you can tell who LGBTQ youth are by simply looking at or by listening to them is based in old, unfounded stereotypes and beliefs. Just as not all gay men are hairdressers, and not all lesbians are truck drivers, not all transgender kids are gender non-conforming or cross dress. These stereotypes are rooted in powerful beliefs about gender and how young people should express their gender identity in typically masculine or feminine ways. For example, little boys who like to dance or do ballet are often called “sissies” or “faggots.” Girls who like to play sports or climb trees are frequently called “lesbos” or “dykes.” In these examples, homophobic bullying is used as a weapon of sexism, targeting children who are deemed to be different from the norm. These kinds of stereotypical beliefs often keep young people trapped in “gender boxes,” which serve to regulate and limit the full expression of their identities, hopes, and dreams.

3. LGBTQ youth are too flamboyant

“Why can’t you just keep it to yourself? Why do you have to flaunt it? If you didn’t wear those clothes, this bullying wouldn’t happen to you.” These are all-too-common messages that many LGBTQ teens hear on a regular basis. This victim-blaming positions LGBTQ youth as a problem that needs to be fixed, rather than focusing on the environment of homophobia, transphobia, and heteronormativity that creates a climate where it is OK to discriminate against and target those who are perceived to be different.

A person’s sexual orientation or gender identity is often still thought of as an invisible difference that can or should be hidden. But at what cost? The cost to LGBTQ youth when they feel they can’t be out and visible is well documented. Having to hide or deny who you are can lead to depression, self-harm, increased use of drugs and alcohol, and suicide ideation.

No one should be targeted or discriminated against because of who they are, how they act, or whom they love.

4. Parents have the right to know

There is no doubt that parents play an extremely critical role in the health and well-being of their children. Research indicates having a supportive family is one of the most important resiliency factors in the lives of all young people. Without strong parental support, many LGBTQ youth experience poor psychological well-being, lower self-esteem, increased post-traumatic stress disorder, and much higher rates of suicide.

Recently there has been significant debate about parents having the “right to know” if their child comes out as LGBTQ at school. Some parents suggest that they should be immediately notified, for example, if their child attends a gay-straight alliance (GSA). Others maintain that it should always be up to the child to determine who should know about their sexual orientation or gender identity.

LGBTQ youth should always have the right to “come out” on their own terms and only when they are ready to share that important part of their identity. In some provinces, it is a breach of privacy legislation to disclose a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity without their direct permission. The consequences of “outing,” or unwanted disclosure, can be life-altering. For example, research indicates that between 20-40 percent of all homeless youth are LGBTQ2. In Edmonton, recent statistics indicate that more than 70 percent of youth at one emergency youth shelter identify as LGBTQ. Sadly, parental rejection is one of the leading causes of youth homelessness. For some LGBTQ youth, places like GSAs may be the only safe spaces that they have in their lives.

Ultimately, if a parent wants to know about their child’s sexual orientation or gender identity, all they have to do is ask them. If they are ready, children will gladly tell their parents. If they are not ready or don’t feel safe doing so, no child should be forced to come out. Likewise, no professional should ever share a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity without their direct permission. In fact, unwanted disclosure could be considered an act of unprofessional conduct with serious repercussions.

5. Gender-neutral bathrooms create unsafe environments

As the visibility of transgender youth has increased rapidly in mainstream culture, conversely, opposition to the inclusion of transgender students in schools has risen dramatically over the past several years. This opposition has been led by parental rights groups, far-right political parties, some conservative religious organizations, and even a few vocal school board trustees. One of the main arguments against trans-inclusive school policies is the creation of a perceived “loophole” for sexual predators to gain access to female-only spaces such as washrooms, locker rooms, and sports teams. The common refrain heard is that “men don’t belong in women’s bathrooms!” These opponents to trans-inclusion often frame their beliefs in opposition to what they perceive as “radical liberal political correctness,” and call for a return to traditional “family values,” which position and privilege cisgender heterosexual families as the moral bedrock of society.

Historical movements once designed to oppress and counter the advancement of lesbian and gay people have now changed tactics to focus on transgender people, especially in schools. While the focus of these oppressive movements has shifted, the tactics remain the same, with an emphasis on the potential harms of LGBTQ-inclusive policies and curriculum on vulnerable and impressionable children. The goal is to create a “gender panic,” largely fed by emotionally fueled stereotypes and sensationalized claims about transgender people.

These arguments lack empirical validity. What research does clearly tell us is that fears of increased safety and privacy violations associated with trans-inclusive laws or policies are not empirically based. In other words, the claims of predators in girls’ bathrooms are a myth based more in transphobia and hysteria than any presumed reality.

By not having explicit trans-inclusive policies in schools, the real risk is to transgender students. Many who continue to be misgendered and made to feel unsafe in their schools, are scared to go to the bathroom (which can lead to serious health complications), and/or view their schools as spaces that do not support them.

6. School policies already protect everyone

A common argument is that LGBTQ2-specific policies are unnecessary, because anti-bullying policies already include everyone. Singling out LGBTQ students gives them special treatment that is not afforded to other students. This “one size fits all” approach to policy making is popular, but seldom effective in actually reducing risk and improving the safety and educational outcomes of marginalized students. For example, most school districts now have comprehensive standalone policies in place to support Indigenous students. Educators understand that because of colonization, historical trauma, the legacy of residential schools, and ongoing discrimination in society, Indigenous students have unique needs and concerns that ought to be recognized and supported by all members of the school community.

Research demonstrates that generic or “catch all” policies are not effective when it comes to supporting LGBTQ youth in schools. Effective policies must be clear and comprehensive if they are going to have the desired impact. For example, how do school trustees and administrators expect policies to work effectively if they can’t even say or use the words LGBTQ? This form of structural invisibility, or silencing, tells LGBTQ students that their identities do not matter.

7. Sexual health education is inclusive of all students

In many schools, LGBTQ issues are completely omitted from sexual health education classes. This often happens because of personal discomfort, embarrassment, lack of training, and fear of parental backlash. There is a common misconception that by talking about sex, youth will have more of it; or that by including LGBTQ issues, youth will experiment and become gay. In reality, considerable research has shown that abstinence-based education actually serves to increase pregnancy and rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Likewise, no one becomes gay by talking about LGBTQ issues. What we do know is that sexual health education should be comprehensive (which means LGBTQ inclusive), age-appropriate (with key concepts and terminology differentiated by grade level), science-based (with evidence-based facts), and non-judgmental (not steeped in one person’s or culture’s beliefs).

Research demonstrates that hostile school climates and school victimization can have significant negative academic and psychological impacts on LGBTQ students – sometimes with lifelong consequences. Sadly, suicide is still one of the leading causes of death for LGBTQ youth who have been taught to hate themselves or have been bullied to death. No child should have to go to school in fear.

The time has come for all educators and concerned parents to start challenging the myths and misinformation circulating about LGBTQ youth with facts that are based in evidence and research. We must use these truths to break through the fear and silence that still surrounds LGBTQ-inclusive education in our schools. Every child should have the right to be themselves fully and completely. Perhaps the greatest gift we can give our LGBTQ children is to tell them: we see you, we love you, and we support you.

By Dr. Kristopher Wells

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