Families are different and grow in lots of different ways. Children understand this intuitively.
Highlights magazine had no idea the ire they would draw when they responded to a reader’s post on Facebook asking why their publications don’t depict any same-sex parents or visibly LGBTQ families. The magazine answered that although they value inclusivity, “the topic of same-sex families is still new,” and “parents know best when to open the conversation.” The implication that LGBTQ parents are too scandalous for young children to wrap their minds around was quickly and rightfully called out, and Highlights issued a really weak apology with no actual commitment to better representation in the future.
I’m not here to fight with Highlights. I’m not going to subscribe to them until they get their act together, but honestly, it wasn’t on my to-do list to begin with. What I want to talk about is the idea that same-sex couples, just by existing, are inappropriate for children. You can see this train of thought in all the backlash Highlights’ tepid pro-queer stance has received from people who think that having two moms in the background of a picture is an unconscionable “liberal agenda” that isn’t fit for children to lay eyes on. You can see it in the complete absence of children’s movies, and the very small number of children’s books, that even acknowledge the existence of LGBTQ people, much less feature an LGBTQ protagonist.
As a culture, we’ve moved on from the idea that same-sex partnership is a scary, destructive perversion—or at least our laws have—but it’s still very ingrained in the way we think and talk about couples and families, and nowhere is this more clear than in our cultural conversation around how, and even whether, children should be told that queer couples exist.
Well, let it never be said that I don’t do anything for straight people. Here, for anyone who needs it, is my complete step-by-step guide to explaining my family to your children:
You don’t need to.
Your kids have already seen us. They know we exist. It’s not a big deal to them unless you make it a big deal. If you have friends who are queer and have been part of your kids’ lives, they already understand how our families work. They know that some kids have a mom and a dad, and some kids have just one or the other, and some kids have two moms or two dads, or two moms and a stepdad, or a dad and a grandma, or a birth mom and a foster dad, or whatever. Families are different and grow in lots of different ways. Children understand this intuitively. Unless you’re going out of your way to teach them that there is only one correct family structure, variations from the norm are unlikely to bother them.
If your kids don’t know any same-sex couples in real life, the explanation is as simple as “Lots of women marry men, but some men marry men and some women marry women.” Nine times out of 10 they’ll have no further questions; they’re still figuring out what the world is and why they can’t eat bugs, so this will be filed away with all the other new information flooding their brains every day. It’s challenging for you to talk about because you grew up in a world where queerness was widely considered gross and taboo, but it doesn’t have to be that way for your children.
And if you’re thinking “But wouldn’t I have to explain about gay sex?” No, you won’t, that’s absurd. If your child can walk past a cisgender heterosexual couple on the street without you having to explain what they do in bed, you can apply the same logic to queer couples. We’re not inherently more sexual than any other kind of family. Is it OK for your little ones to see Ariel and Eric kiss at the end of The Little Mermaid? Then it’s fine for them to see me kiss my partner.
Explaining same-sex couples to your children doesn’t have to be a Big Thing, as long as you do your best to talk about relationships and families in ways that don’t specifically exclude us. Say “parents,” not “moms and dads.” Say “married people,” not “husbands and wives.” When you talk about how babies are made, mention that some people can’t make a baby with the person they’re married to, so they adopt or get help from doctors. None of this should be arduous—it’s just giving your children a realistic view of the world in all its complexity, at the age when their minds are most flexible and most equipped to handle it. I’ve nannied and taught children of all ages, and I’ve never met a kid who was incapable of grasping the concept of my family.
Remember, too, that these conversations aren’t just about explaining an “alternative lifestyle” to your children. As our society gets less backward and more inclusive, people are becoming more and more likely to openly identify as LGBTQ. There’s a decent chance that when you talk about same-sex couples, you’re explaining gay people to your gay kid. The things you say today may shape how comfortable and safe they feel in their identities, and their relationships with you, years or even decades from now.
Understand that LGBTQ people and our families aren’t going anywhere. We’re your neighbors, your coworkers, your PTA cohort, and we’d be in your Mommy & Me yoga class if it weren’t so freaking expensive. Your children and ours are growing up together. You can’t hide our existence from them, and frankly, there’s no good reason you should want to.
Lindsay King-Miller is a queer femme who does not have an indoor voice. Her writing has appeared in Bitch Magazine, Cosmopolitan.com, Buzzfeed, The Hairpin, and numerous other publications. She lives in Denver with her partner, a really cute baby, and two very spoiled cats. She is the author of Ask A Queer Chick (Plume, 2016).