This is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids
Prairie Lights — Nov. 9 at 4 p.m.
Kristen Russo and Dannielle Owens-Reid come to Prairie Lights this Sunday at 4 p.m. to discuss This is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids, a book focused around an aim that is simple yet essential for good parenting: Get the conversation started.
Their book offers a range of advice responding to question parents frequently have when their children come out about their sexual identify, questions ranging from issues of communication, gender, sexuality and religion. The book is an outgrowth of the advice and discussions Russo and Owens-Reid began engaging with in 2010 with their website Everyone Is Gay, an online resource for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth.
Little Village recently spoke with co-author Kristen Russo about her new book, how humor can be constructive for discussing LGBTQ issues, and what progress she would like to see in the interactions between parents and kids coming out about their sexual and gender identities.
Little Village: The book is organized as a series of questions parents might have and answers to them. Some of the questions you address are divisive within the LGBTQ community. For example, the question of whether one’s sexual orientation is a choice. Were there any questions you struggled with responding to just because of the amount of nuance you needed to give to fairly address them?
Kristen Russo: You kind of hit the biggest one actually. The question of whether it is a choice. The general narrative is that is not a choice. So, parents are like, “my kid couldn’t choose, so I accept my kid.” Dannielle and I both take some issue with that way of thinking about things because it sort of suggests that if it was a choice, we might not choose to be the people who we are.
When answering that question, it was really important to us to answer it in a new way. I think that it is really important to not just answer that question quickly and say, “No, no, of course not!” But instead, to ask why are we asking that question — what does it mean, what’s behind it. And to talk about the fact that, for many of us, it doesn’t feel like we necessarily we were born this way, that there is not just one way we come to our sexuality or our gender identity. And that that is okay.
This is a Book for Parents of Gays Kids is the title of the book, but it gives advice also gives advice for parents whose kids are coming out in terms of their gender identity. Can you describe how you address both gender identity and sexual orientation in the book?
The core of the book is focused around parents of kids who are questioning their sexuality, but we know there are a large number of young people who are questioning their gender identity as well. So, it was extremely important for us to include what turned out to be the longest chapter, a chapter for parents of kids questioning their gender identity.
But we felt it was really important to separate those two questions because they are very different paths in a lot of ways. So, primarily the book is for parents who have kids who are questioning their sexuality but so many of the questions in multiple chapters can apply in a lot of ways to parents of kids who are questioning their gender identity. And of course there is that expansive chapter that covers that.
Have any responses that you’ve received from parents about the book stood out to you or surprised you? Were there questions that mattered or to them that you didn’t anticipate?
Yes. I actually have a two part answer to that. First, we had a large group of parents who we sent the table of contents to, and one of the questions that unanimously all of them said needs to be in the book, one that wasn’t in the first run of contents, was “Will my kid be more promiscuous?”
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That was a question Danielle and I thought wasn’t as high up on parents’ minds these days, and we didn’t think it was still a concern. And we were very, very wrong. So many parents wonder if their kid’s sexuality or identity has a direct impact on things like promiscuity and sexual activity and things like that.
That was a surprise. But it was a welcome surprise in that it was really great that we got to address it in the book because it is obviously something that is not directly connected at all. We are all human beings and our interest in sex, our frequency of having sex is not dependent upon the gender of the person we are attracted to or the gender identify we have.
So that was one. And the second thing is that we have noticed that there are a lot of parents who are not on your stereotypical trajectory of struggling and wondering if it is okay, wondering if their kid chose to be this way, etc. There is this whole crop of parents now that are super-accepting and want equal rights for all human beings, so they feel like asking any questions is not okay when their kid comes out because they want their kid to know they are okay with everything. So, they don’t ask anything.
For Danielle and I, we are trying to encourage parents to ask questions because asking questions doesn’t mean that you don’t accept them, that you don’t love them. It just means you need more knowledge, and all of us need more knowledge.
Daniel and I work with LGBTQ young people everyday, and have for the last four-plus years, and there are still things that we learn on a daily basis by engaging in and having conversations. So, we try to highlight that dialogue is a positive thing, and that it isn’t a signal that you aren’t accepting or loving.
You take a humorous with your website, Everyone is Gay, and in parts of this book as well. Are you ever concerned about using humor to address LGBTQ concerns, or do you think that without humor, the discussion becomes too clinical?
I think our concern is always that we are not treating it with enough humor because we started the project with Everyone is Gay, our entire mission was just to make people laugh. We didn’t even start it to form a community or to be a resource in the beginning. What we found by that approach was that treating issues openly and honestly but also joking about some things that are funny and light was what made young people connect with us.
I think that goes for parents as well. Even in the most serious situations, we all know we can have some of the funniest, lightest moments. Those things go hand in and hand. And when you take that lightness and humorousness out of it, it does become clinical. It just becomes heavy. Heavy, all alone. And I think it’s important to balance the heaviness with lightness.
We try to strike a good balance. Obviously, we are not going to be super-silly with serious question. Where it makes sense I think is really important.
Did the title of your website have any particular meaning?
[Laughs] It is such a valid question. When Dannielle and I started this site, we didn’t know we were starting an organization, and we didn’t really know that we were starting what would become a bigger website. We had a tumblr which was a little bit funny and little bit sassy. When we named the site, it really just came from a place of being silly.
But in the years that followed, and looked at the title again to see if it held a bigger meaning, and we actually felt like it really does. So many of the young people who write to us ask questions that are along the lines of “my friends don’t understand me,” or “I’m afraid of what my parents are going to think if I come out to them.” So, Dannielle and I just say, “let’s just say everyone is gay. Let’s say everyone is bi. Let’s say everyone is trans.”
Just for a minute, take that part out of the question, and what you are asking then is, “I’m afraid my parents don’t love me.” “I’m afraid my friends don’t understand me.” So, we feel like that is a universal thing. That all people can understand some of those feelings at their core. So that is what the name has come to mean to us.
What would you most like to see happen as a result of of your book being out there as resource for parents of kids who are coming out?
I would like to see parents talking to their kids, and kids talking to their parents more. And we are already seeing that. We are already getting emails from people who are using the book as a catalyst for discussions. It’s really hard to start a conversation when it’s just you and your parents. But when there is a book or a text where you can say, “Can you read this?” Then there is a concrete piece you can speak about together.
And I think that’s what so many families need. They need the knowledge that the book holds, and then they also need the permission to ask questions and to have those conversations. I think that so many people are afraid they don’t know how to approach it. They don’t know how to talk about it.
And once you get past that initial little awkward moment of freeing it up and getting into the conversation is when parents start to really connect to their kids and vice-versa. And they understand each other, and then become closer and are able to cultivate relationships where those conversations are ongoing.