Inside:Is my teen daughter a lesbian? Maybe or maybe not, but here’s how to handle this sensitive teenage sexuality topic
This post was contributed by Jill Whitney, LMFT
So much about teen sexuality is different from what it was a couple decades ago.
Where once it was awkward, if not dangerous, to be anything other than straight, we now talk openly about a spectrum of orientations and genders. Sexual diversity has broken out of the closet—to the point where being LGBTQ is kind of cool.
So don’t be surprised if your teen or even tween daughter announces at some point that she’s a lesbian. It’s more common than you might think these days.
But you may wonder whether your teen daughter is a lesbian for real, or whether it’s just a phase. Maybe she’s just experimenting; maybe she’ll grow out of it. Or maybe not.
How do you know?
Acceptance Needs to Be Unconditional
Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell. Some girls who experiment with same-sex partners end up happily straight. Other young women find they’re attracted only or primarily to women and define as lesbian for their whole lives. Others come to identify as bisexual. There’s no way for you to predict which scenario will describe your daughter. She may not even know herself.
We’re Not All Straight or All Gay
One thing is sure: People don’t fit into the neat little boxes we tend to put them in. We may have grown up thinking everyone was either male or female, but in truth there have always been people whose anatomy and/or felt gender didn’t fit tidily in either category. (In some cultures this is called “the third sex” and treated with honor.) Queer was a thing for millennia before Americans started talking about it.
Sexual orientation is even less black-and-white than gender identity. Many people feel same-sex attractions or have same-sex experiences even if they’re predominantly straight. In fact, that’s more common than being completely straight (or completely gay).
Back in the 1940s, biologist Alfred Kinsey conducted groundbreaking research on human sexual behavior. His team interviewed thousands of people about their sexual experiences and attractions. Even back then, when homosexuality was despised and often illegal, large numbers of participants reported having had same-sex feelings or experiences.
Based on this research, Kinsey and his team developed the Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating Scale, now commonly referred to as The Kinsey Scale. It describes seven gradations of orientation, from 0, “exclusively heterosexual” to 6, “exclusively homosexual.” People on these ends of the continuum reported no attraction to or behavior with the same sex or the opposite* sex, respectively. Many other people reported “incidental” or “more than incidental” feelings or behaviors outside of the purely hetero- or homosexual categories.
All this to say: We’ve known for decades that people aren’t all-gay or all-straight.
In addition, Kinsey’s research found that it’s common for sexual feelings and expression to change over time. Any of us can be more, or less, interested in people of a certain gender at different times in our lives. Our sexual orientation is usually not a fixed, rigid thing.
More recent research finds that 1-2% of females identify as homosexuals—but 17.4% report having had same-sex contact. A lot of women have same-sex interactions but don’t define as lesbian.
- *Note that the Kinsey Scale was developed at a time when only two genders were recognized. More recent research describes both gender identity and sexual orientation along continuums.
Is Your Teen Daughter a Lesbian – Handling It Now
Which brings us to your teenager who says she’s a lesbian. Since you can’t know for sure whether it’s a phase or her lifelong identity, what should you do?
Don’t say “It’s a phase.” For one thing, you don’t know whether it is. More important, dismissing what she’s feeling right now is profoundly invalidating. If she thinks you don’t accept or understand her, she’ll shut you out of conversations about her sexual life—the exact opposite of what you want. She may have had these feelings since early childhood and just worked up the nerve to discuss it with you.
Ask about her experience. Don’t interrogate her, of course, but be curious. Has she been attracted to other girls for a long time, or is this fairly new? Was her interest in girls inspired by one specific girl? Is she in love?
Find out whether she needs your support. In some schools, identifying as lesbian creates hardly a ripple of interest; in other places, she might get some grief for it, or experience mild harassment or homophobia. Does she have supportive friends? Are other classmates cool about her orientation, or do they tease or reject her? Do teachers and staff treat her well? If her school environment isn’t an acceptable one, what would she like you to do to help? Is there a PFLAG group she (and you) might join?
Keep an eye out for signs of anxiety or depression. See if she can talk to other lgbtq youth. Keep in mind that gay teens are at a higher risk for bullying, discrimination, and substance abuse, so consider seeking out mental health professionals if you feel like they are not talking to you.
Follow her lead on whether and how to tell other people. She’s come out to you; is she ready yet for the world to know? Is she ready for Grandma, say, to be told? If so, would she like to tell her, or would she like you to? Or maybe she doesn’t want any official announcement. The only right way to handle this is what works for her, you, and the rest of the family.
Keep discussing the big stuff. Issues such as consent, safe sex, healthy dating, etc. are universal and irrespective of a teen’s sexual orientation. Educating your daughter is critical during this time and there is no substitute for a parent when it comes to keeping your kids safe.
Wait. Things will unfold as they’re going to unfold, on their own good time. Don’t worry about putting her into one box or another; try to accept that there’s often a lot of ambiguity about sexual orientation. Use the label your daughter prefers now, knowing it may or may not be the same ten years from now. Whether your daughter ends up being lesbian, straight, or bi, she’s still your same daughter, with all the wonderful features, quirks, and annoying habits she’s always had. Just love her, encourage her, and watch her evolve into the young woman she’s meant to be.
Make sure she feels loved. Don’t change your behavior towards her. Don’t go over the top, but don’t isolate her either. Just keep being there.
Jill Whitney, LMFT, is the mom of two twenty-somethings and a licensed marriage and family therapist in Connecticut. In addition to her clinical work, she conducts workshops on talking about sexuality, writes at KeepTheTalkGoing.com, and has been quoted in dozens of articles on relationships and sexuality. She’s passionate about improving communication about sexuality, especially between parents and kids.