How to Explain LGBTQIA+ to a Child: A Parent's Guide

Published May 19, 2022
Cheerful boy with mothers at home

Talking about sexuality and gender with your child is a good way to help them understand more about the world and themselves. Lots of parents wonder how to explain LGBTQ+ to their child, and it can be difficult since there are many aspects involved. This guide will give you the information you need to teach your child about different communities and ways to support them.

Step 1: Educate Yourself About LGBTQIA+

The vocabulary surrounding the LGBT community is often changing and adapting, which can make it difficult to stay up to date on terminology. For example, the term LGBTQ has changed to LGBTQIA+. You may be a parent who feels well-versed in these topics, or you may feel like you want to know more before explaining what LGBTQ means to a child. Allow yourself to take this discussion as a learning experience you can embark on with your child. Learning more about the topics and terms may also help you answer more of their questions.

LGBTQIA+ Vocab Words for Parents

Gay couple online shopping with their daughter

Before diving into the LGBTQIA+ acronym, it's important to start by discussing sex, gender, and the way that these topics are connected and intertwined. There are many words under the LGBTQ umbrella, which you, as a parent, may also need to learn in order to have an effective conversation with your child. After learning more about the terms, you can use the "Who Are You?" printable below to visually explain them to your child.

Sex

This is often referred to as "sex assigned at birth," and is typically given by a medical provider on the day that a child is born. By definition, it is assigned "based on a person's reproductive system and other physical characteristics."

Gender

Gender is defined as "the socially constructed roles and behaviors that a society typically associates with males and females." This references the way society views "masculine" and "feminine" in our culture, such as beliefs that women wear dresses and are maternal, and men wear suits and are strong.

Gender Identity

Gender identity refers to how an individual views themselves. It's defined as being "their internal sense" of being male, female, or anywhere in between.

Gender Expression

Gender expression has to do with the way a person presents themselves in the world. It is defined as "the physical and behavioral manifestations of their gender identity."

Sexual Orientation

The Human Rights Campaign defines sexual orientation as "an inherent or immutable, enduring emotional, romantic or sexual attraction to other people." This refers to who you are emotionally, physically, and sexually attracted to.

Step 2: Explain Gender, Identity, and Sex to Your Child

After you have become more familiar with some of the terminology, you may be ready to start a conversation with your child. Tell them that you want to have a conversation with them about the LGBTQIA+ community, and assure them that it may sound confusing now, but that it's important for you to discuss it with them. Here, you can use the "Who Are You?" printable to explain topics to your child by walking them through the terms and having a visual aid.

Explaining Sex to a Child

Understanding a person's sex is a term that your child will need in order to understand what LGBTQIA+ is. Being honest with your child is the best way of helping them understand these new concepts, so using clear wording is important. If you are using the "Who Are You?" printable, you can have them fill in the blank space with their reproductive organ. Some ways of explaining sex to a child are:

  • Doctors decide whether a baby is a male or a female based on their genitals.
  • When babies are born, they are labeled either 'male' or 'female' based on whether they have a penis or a vagina.
  • A baby is labeled 'male' or 'female' at birth based on how they physically look.

Explaining Gender to a Child

Gender can be a complex word because it's what society associates with boys and girls, is often stereotypical, and can vary from culture to culture. It's based on what others think to be true, so make sure your child understands that these gender associations are not necessarily true at all, and are just common thoughts. Some helpful phrases to use in your discussion may be:

  • Gender is what many people think is true for boys and girls. For example, girls always like the color pink and boys prefer the color blue.
  • Gender is an idea that many people believe in that labels things as 'for boys' and 'for girls,' like saying ballet is for girls and football is for boys.
  • Gender is created by people in the world, and it's their idea of what is normal for boys to do/like and what is normal for girls to do/like.

Explaining Gender Identity to a Child

It has been found that children often know their own gender identity between the ages of three and five. This concept may also be easier to explain, since you can use your child and yourself as an example and talk about each of your gender identities. If you are using the "Who Are You?" printable, you can have them fill in the blank space with their own gender identity. Some helpful ways to discuss are:

  • Gender identity is however you see yourself (boy, girl, neither, both), and nobody can label it for you.
  • It's whatever label you want/relate to that expresses how you feel on the inside.
  • I identify as a woman because that's how I feel on the inside. How do you identify/feel?

Explaining Gender Expression to a Child

Gender expression can incorporate a wide range of elements, from a person's haircut to their clothing, behavior, or voice. It's good to point out that this expression may not coincide with what society stereotypically thinks about "masculine" and "feminine." You may want to use your own clothing/style choices as examples to help explain this term to your child, or have them design their own expression on the "Who Are You?" printable. Ways to discuss this are:

  • I put on these cool pants today because I like the way they look, and they make me feel like myself.
  • How do you like to express yourself? Does it feel good to do that however you want?
  • Gender expression is dressing, styling your hair, and doing your makeup however you want in a way that feels most like 'you.'

Explaining Sexual Orientation to a Child

According to UC Davis, most children have their first crush between the ages of 10 and 13, and maybe even your child has had one. You can explain sexual orientation by using crushes as an example with your child. You can also use the "Who Are You?" printable to have them select their answer and fill in the blank. It may look like:

  • Have you ever had a crush on someone? Sexual orientation refers to the people that you have crushes on or find attractive.
  • Sometimes you meet someone, realize that you like them, and want to be in a relationship with them, and this is part of sexual orientation.
  • Someone's sexual orientation means who they find attractive, have a crush on, or want to be in a relationship with.

Step 3: Explore What LGBTQIA+ Means

girl holding the LGBTQ flag

Once you and your child have discussed the basis of sexuality and gender, you will have a good foundation going forward to discuss the meanings of the LGBTQIA+ acronym. You may decide to think of examples of people you know, or note characters from your child's favorite TV show, which will come in handy when discussing these topics.

Lesbian

A lesbian is a person who identifies as a woman who is sexually or romantically attracted to another person who identifies as a woman. It can be easy for children to misunderstand this and believe that 'lesbian' is just another term for two friends that are girls, so make sure to be clear that same-sex lesbian relationships are about romantic attraction, and surpass friendship. Some ways to explain this are:

  • Lesbian is a term for a woman that is only romantically interested in other women.
  • Some women only have crushes on other women, and they may identify as lesbian.
  • Women can 'like' other women in a way that is not just friendship, but that is romantic.

Gay

The term gay is used to refer to a person who identifies as a man who is sexually or romantically attracted to another person who identifies as a man. You can also explain to them that gay is often used as a blanket term to describe anyone who is attracted to a person of the same sex. Some ways to discuss what gay means are:

  • Men can 'like' other men in a way that is more than just friendship, and that is actually romantic.
  • Some men are attracted to other men and want a relationship, romance, and love with them.
  • Gay is a term for a man that is only attracted and romantically interested in other men.

Bisexual

Bisexual refers to individuals that are attracted to members of either sex, male or female. This may be easier to explain to your child after first discussing the meanings of gay and lesbian, since they will already be introduced to the idea that people of the same sex can be attracted to one another. Ways to discuss this term are:

  • Someone who is bisexual is attracted to both men and women.
  • Some people find that they are attracted to men and women at the same time, and they would want to have a relationship with either gender.
  • Being bisexual means that you have crushes on both men and women in romantic ways.

Transgender

The term transgender refers to people "whose gender identity differs from the gender they were assigned at birth," and includes their gender expression. Helpful ways to discuss may be:

  • Sometimes people are labeled a 'boy' at birth, but grow up and discover that they don't feel like that on the inside.
  • When I was born, my doctor labeled me a girl/boy, and I feel like that label is truly me on the inside. Some people discover that the label they were given does not feel true to who they are on the inside.
  • Some people are given a label of boy or girl at birth and realize that the label does not fit with who they are, which can be really difficult for them.

Queer

The term queer refers to people "whose sexual orientation is not exclusively heterosexual." This term was once used as a slur against the LGBTQIA+ community, but it has been reclaimed as a label that's thought of as less limiting to their sexuality. This branch of the LGBTQIA+ acronym also includes people who are 'Questioning' their sexuality and may not fully know their sexual orientation yet. Some ways to talk about queer are:

  • Queer is a label that some people choose to best represent them, and they may be attracted to both boys and girls, but they don't identify as being bisexual.
  • A person may choose to identify as queer if they feel that the other labels in the LGBTQIA+ community are too limiting, or don't feel right to them.
  • A person who is queer isn't only attracted to people of the opposite gender. For example, a girl may have crushes on boys, but she may also have crushes on other girls.

Intersex

The term intersex means that a person was born with "one or more innate sex characteristics, including genitals, internal reproductive organs, and chromosomes." According to Planned Parenthood, about one to two in every 100 people are born intersex. Intersex babies are still given a label of male/female at birth, despite having sex characteristics of both sexes, which can lead to their gender identity not aligning with the sex that was chosen for them at birth. Some ways to explain this are:

  • Sometimes babies are born with both male and female genitals, and the doctor/parents decide which gender the child will grow up as.
  • Babies don't have to be born with only either a penis or a vagina. They can actually be born with both.
  • When you were born, the doctor told me that you were a boy/girl because you had a penis/vagina. Some babies are born with both. Doctors/parents choose which one they think is right for the baby, which can be really difficult.

Asexual

An asexual person is "a person who does not experience sexual attraction," and they make up about 1% of the population. You may have not yet discussed sex with your child, and that's okay. Although asexuality is an important part of the LGBTQIA+ community, you may choose to discuss it with your child at a different time. Some ways to discuss the topic are:

  • Some people become emotionally and physically interested in their crushes, but don't feel the need to have sex with them.
  • Asexual is a term for people who don't feel like they want to physically make a baby with their crushes.
  • Asexual describes people who may want to cuddle and kiss their crushes, but don't want more physical things to happen.

Step 4: Talk About Acceptance

Toddler sat on windowsill reading book

After you have explored gender and sexuality with your child, you may want to take things one step further and talk to them about acceptance. This can be an opportunity for you to share why you wanted to discuss LGBTQIA+ with them, why learning about this community is important, and why accepting people for who they are makes the world a better place.

Step 5: Discuss Bullying

Once you have explained LGBTQIA+ to your child, it's important that you also discuss bullying with them surrounding this topic. Explain to your child how people in the LGBTQIA+ community have faced hardships and bullying for a long time, and how your child may still see people getting bullied for it today. Inform your child of some ways that people in the LGBTQIA+ community are bullied, and encourage them to stand up for others.

Using Terms as Insults

As mentioned above, many people in the LGBTQIA+ community are taking back the word 'queer' as a way of reclaiming it with purpose and pride. Talking to your child about how terms in the LGBTQIA+ umbrella have been used as insults throughout history is an important conversation to have. Discuss how people may refer to something/someone as 'gay' or 'queer' in order to make fun of them, and how this behavior is harmful to many.

Pronouns

You may also find it important to talk to your child about pronouns after explaining LGBTQIA+ and other terms to them. You can explain what your preferred pronouns are, such as she/her/hers, and then ask your child what pronouns they want to use. Discuss how someone's pronouns align with their own gender identity and can look like she/they or they/them, depending on what feels right to that person. You may also want to note that a person constantly ignoring someone's preferred pronouns is a form of bullying, and that they should take action if they witness it.

Deadnaming

Deadnaming is a term that refers to the use of a name that a transgender person had before they transitioned. Using a person's dead name can be triggering for a person that has transitioned, and is a form of bullying that does not validate the person's gender identity. If you or your child knows that someone has transitioned in their school or class, make sure they know to only refer to that student as their preferred name, and to encourage other students to as well.

Tips on Talking to Your Child About LGBTQIA+

Having a conversation with your child about an important issue, especially one that may involve lots of new vocab words, can seem intimidating, but there are a number of steps you may find helpful when explaining what LGBTQIA+ means.

Keep Explanations Clear and Simple

Keeping things clear and age-appropriate is one way of helping your child understand what LGBTQIA+ means. This can look like using the simplest of terms if your child is at a particularly young age, and giving more complex responses for older age children. If your child is rather young, such as in kindergarten, they may only have questions about certain aspects of what LGBTQIA+ means, and you may not want to discuss everything under the umbrella at this time. As your child grows up, you may want to return to the topic and explain things more fully.

Use Definitions as a Starting Point

If you aren't sure how to discuss all the terms under the LGBTQ umbrella, don't worry. You can use the definitions as a starting point in your discussion. Read the definition to your child, ask them what they think it means, and then use their own understanding to continue the conversation. If they seem confused at first, that's okay. Try explaining terms to them in different ways.

Offer Examples Kids Will Understand

Using examples is a good way of helping your child better understand the terms you are discussing. For instance, maybe your child has a classmate or friend that has two parents of the same gender. You can note this couple in your explanations to give your child a visual example. If you don't have real-life examples at your fingertips, you can make some of your own. You can do this by drawing figures on paper while you explain terms to your child, or using prints outs from your child's favorite TV show to keep them engaged. After you explain a term to your child, see if they can pair couples together correctly to check their learning.

Just Do Your Best

You may not feel like you have the words to explain things perfectly, and that's okay. There is no perfect conversation to have with your child, and you taking the step to talk to them about important topics shows that you care about what your child understands. Be gentle with yourself and forgive yourself for any mistakes you may make along the way when explaining what LGBTQ means to your child.

Helpful Resources for Kids and Parents

There are a lot of resources for parents to better educate themselves, and to help their children understand more about what LGBTQ and gender identity means. Some helpful online resources are:

Children's Books Discussing Sexuality

You can also help explain what LGBTQ means to your child through books, as there are many children's literature books that focus on the subject. Some of them are:

Children's Books Discussing Gender

How to Explain LGBTQIA+ to a Child

Having a discussion with your child and explaining what LGBT means to them is important for many reasons. In a national survey conducted by the Trevor Project, 75 percent of LGBT youth stated that they were discriminated against for their sexual orientation or gender identity at least once in their lifetime. The more your child knows about different communities, the more they can respect and help protect them, and the more they may even learn about themselves.

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How to Explain LGBTQIA+ to a Child: A Parent's Guide