Growing up, Joyce Guo rarely talked about sex or intimate relationships with her parents, conversations that might have been more difficult because she identifies as queer and gender nonbinary.
“I think I probably would have wanted a more open dialogue about gender and sexuality,” said Guo, 20, a sophomore at Columbia College Chicago. “I think the general noncommunication came from both sides.”
New research from Northwestern University explores how parents of LGBTQ teens often struggle when discussing sex with their children, sometimes because of discomfort or lack of information. However, a separate university study of gay and bisexual male teens found that many longed to be closer to their parents and better able to converse with them about sexuality and dating.
Historically, there’s been very little academic study of how parenting can affect the sexual behavior of LGBTQ youths, said researcher Michael Newcomb, associate director for scientific development for the Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
“We know a lot about how parents can influence the heterosexual teen’s sexual health, but we know very little about how parents can affect the sexual health of LGBTQ teens,” he said. “And in some ways, the same parenting practices would be relevant to LGBTQ teens, like talking to your kids about sex, monitoring who they’re hanging out with, who they’re dating, all those types of things.”
Yet even among parents who were open to talking to their children, many acknowledged a level of ignorance when it comes to LGBTQ sex.
“Those parents are unintentionally leaving out information that’s very specific to LGBTQ sexuality that might leave those young people unprepared for the situations they would have to encounter and can put them at risk,” Newcomb said.
The study, published last month in the journal Sexuality Research and Social Policy, surveyed 44 parents of LGBTQ teens from across the country in online focus groups.
More than three-quarters of parents reported talking with their teen about using protection and about half described educating their kids about potential health risks. Roughly a quarter were concerned about predators or violence, particularly the parents of gay boys and transgender teens.
“I wanted my daughter to know that if you do not tell your partner you are transgender from the beginning, they might kill you,” the mother of a 17-year-old heterosexual transgender teen told researchers.
One mom who was feeling ill-equipped to answer questions sent her bisexual daughter to a lesbian friend. “I felt challenged that I’m straight, my daughter is dating a gal, and I didn’t know anything about that,” she said. “All my sex talks were about how not to get pregnant and how babies are conceived.”
Some parents reported feeling isolated because they didn’t have other parents of LGBTQ teens to talk with or compare parenting strategies with.
“One thing that has me wondering is how other parents of (LGBTQ) teens deal with same-sex overnights,” said the parent of a 14-year-old. “At (my child’s) age, we would never allow (her) to spend the night with the opposite sex if she were straight.”
The majority, though, reported that the sexual orientation or gender identity of the child didn’t impair communication or change the content of those discussions. One mother said she gave the same advice to her gay son and straight son. “Use condoms, no means no, and be careful who you share your body with,” she said.
However, Newcomb said this kind of equal and fair parenting can have unintended consequences if parents are leaving out additional information on sexual health and safety that might be necessary for LGBTQ teens, depending on the kind of sex they’re having.
In another recent study, researchers from the institute surveyed 52 gay or bisexual teen boys on communication with their parents about sex.
Fifty-six percent said their sexual orientation had a negative effect on their relationship with their parents, some reporting hostile exchanges or derogatory labels.
One 15-year-old boy said he and his father argue a lot, sometimes about his sexuality. “He and I were arguing once and he called me and my ex ‘faggots,’ and that’s the worst I’ve been mad at him,” he said.
But 26 percent reported no change after coming out, and another 10 percent said relationships with family members actually improved.
While many parents surveyed reported that their children were not having sex or in relationships, some of the teens who were interviewed indicated that they are sexually active or dating but hiding it from their parents.
Newcomb added that there can be more incentive for LGBTQ teens to hide relationships or sexual aspects of their lives if they’re more afraid of being judged or misunderstood by adults than straight teens.
“(Me) being gay has made my parents act more cautious about my relationships instead of being happy for them,” said one 16-year-old. “For this reason, I don’t tell my parents about relationships because I don’t want them to be overly worried for no reason.”
Newcomb encouraged parents of LGBTQ kids to broach the topics of sex and dating, even if they think their children haven’t entered that stage of life yet.
“The more information we can give to people, the more we can demystify what sex is actually like, it allows young people to be more prepared to have sex safely,” he said.
Guo, who was not part of the research, said that without communication from their families, many LGBTQ youths search for other outlets like the media or popular culture for guidance on sex and relationships.
“It caused me to fall into not-so-great situations,” Guo said. “When it comes to seeing queer representations … through the eyes of media, oftentimes there’s no humanity to it or they’re two-dimensional. There’s very low standards.”
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