Learn and listen
“The leap between being someone who’s kind of interested in the issue and being someone who is an active ally is an enthusiasm to learn,” PFLAG National’s Straight for Equality project says in a free online guide to being a straight ally. “Go online. Ask questions. Do some research. Reach out to other allies who might have grappled with the same challenge.”
The guide suggests studying a glossary of “gay-b-c’s” to get comfortable using the terms associated with the LGBTQ community. Parents sometimes ask how young is too young to teach children about gender diversity, sexual orientation and the many shapes families can take. Well before preschool, kids can grasp these basic concepts — and they’re usually quick to embrace messages that feel accepting, kind and fair. Starting an age-appropriate chat can be as simple as asking, “Did you know some families have two mommies? Or two daddies? Or one parent instead of two?”
“This is the month when your children of all ages will ask you questions about ‘what is LGBTQ?’ and ‘why the rainbows?,’ ” said Eliza Byard, the executive director of GLSEN, a national organization supporting K-12 LGBTQ students. “Be ready with a succinct and supportive answer for whatever level of development your child is at.”
Focus the message on other children’s experiences. Here are some examples: “What if you heard someone at a birthday party tell a boy he can’t have a pink balloon?” “Can you think of ways to make sure kids with two moms or two dads feel included in camp stories?” “Have you ever heard a classmate say ‘that’s so gay’ in a negative way? What could you do if you hear that again?” “Did you ever wonder what it might be like for a non-binary kid to have to choose every day between bathrooms marked ‘girls’ and ‘boys’? How could our community work together to make that easier?”
Greet Pride with a smile
Pride is solemn for some observers, but Andrea Hartsough, a San Francisco criminal defense attorney and lesbian mom of two, encourages families to go for the gusto and do whatever makes Pride Month fun.
“If you like to dance, June is a great time to go and lock arms with a queer person,” Hartsough said. “Find a way that’s fun, because gosh, right now everything is so difficult and so painful and everyone is so exhausted. … So maybe this month, just find a way for it to be joyful.”
For some, that may mean rolling in glitter and painting parade posters with kids, but for others, celebration might be as casual as hanging out at home with gay and lesbian family members.
“The harder a community is on its queer people, the more Pride can provide a relief,” Hartsough said. “One day when you don’t have to be looking over your shoulder … or one place where you can relax.”
She pointed out that Pride shows up in many ways that can be educational for kids, including in art exhibits, film screenings, theater productions, and even letter-signings and petitions for legislative action.
Set to the task, kids make excellent rainbow-spotters. People fly them as banners, wear them on tees and tanks and hats, carry them as totes and umbrellas, paint them on cheeks (or bald heads or bellies), and eat them as sprinkles on cookies or bright fruit skewers. And that flag? There’s even an emoji for it.
While there is legitimate concern about big brands appropriating the Pride rainbow for commercial gain, the visual pageantry of store displays can help jump-start conversations with kids. National chains such as Target have Pride merchandise, as do many party-supply and craft stores. It’s easy to order rainbow gear online, of course, but real-life engagement works best with kids.
Each June, many libraries and bookshops put Pride-related children’s titles on display. Some host rainbow read-alouds or drag-queen story times. If local resources are thin, it’s possible to find lists of LGBTQ-friendly titles by visiting out-of-town public library websites.
“The Family Book” by Todd Parr can familiarize very young children with diversity. Other LGBTQ-inclusive titles are “And Tango Makes Three” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, and “Heather Has Two Mommies” by Lesléa Newman. For older kids, “Gay & Lesbian History for Kids” by Jerome Pohlen shares true stories of struggles for equality over time, and “The Pride Guide” by Jo Langford offers information and support for LGBTQ youth, their parents and anyone who wants to be a better ally.
As a parent of three (plus two former foster children) J.D. Schramm, a faculty member at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, says he cherishes the book “Daddy, Papa, and Me,” also by Lesléa Newman, because the characters are so much like him and his husband. He also admires “10,000 Dresses” by Marcus Ewart, “about a little boy who wanted to wear dresses and didn’t see himself as a little boy,” because of the way he recalls his foster son’s eyes lighting up at the story.
When a friend’s son wanted to wear dresses but did not question his gender identity, Schramm discovered a children’s book to match that experience, too: “Jacob’s New Dress” by Sarah and Ian Hoffman.
Real-life stories can be especially powerful. If they’re comfortable, LGBTQ family members or friends may be willing to share their coming-out stories with kids. Parents and caregivers who are straight may have stories to share, too, about learning to become an ally.
Take action — and keep it going
Byard suggested using graduations and end-of-year festivities — or back-to-school opportunities — as chances to thank teachers, school administrators and staff members who work toward inclusivity. “All too often,” she said, “administrators only hear from the squeaky wheels. Especially in today’s political climate, it is a big deal that the vast majority of American educators continue to support and affirm LGBTQ youth.”
Allies can also model for kids how to push back against intolerance. Byard said if parents overhear customers grumbling about a Pride display at the mall, “turn to your children and either explain that you have a different point of view” or simply show it by oohing and aahing over the same merchandise. Similar opportunities might arise at a Pride parade with detractors, Byard said, “if you are in a position to block a counterprotester’s sign.”
Kids can also donate to LGBTQ-serving groups, whether by putting cash in a tin at a Pride festival, helping select an organization and amount for an online donation, or raising money on their own to give. (Rainbow lemonade, anyone?)
Parents may wish to ask older children if their school has a gay-straight alliance (GSA) and can report back to their kids if their own workplaces have LGBTQ-inclusive policies or resource groups. Families running a business — even piano lessons from the living room or eggs sold from the barn — can put a rainbow “safe space” sticker in the window — and let kids do the sticking.
Of course, straight parents modeling allyship aren’t only teaching kids to be advocates. They are also letting kids, however they go on to identify as they get older, know that they’re okay, too. Surrounded by adults who model solidarity with the LGBTQ community, kids learn that their individuality is worthy of support, too. This potentially lifesaving message can open vital lines of communication between parents and questioning kids.
Bonnie J. Rough is the author of “Beyond Birds and Bees: Bringing Home a New Message to Our Kids about Sex, Love, and Equality.” Her website is bonniejrough.com.