Hello! My ten-year-old niece has confided in me that she thinks she is gay, and is scared. I know from my experience her maternal family will be supportive but I am concerned for a few reasons:
She is visually impaired and she is insecure about this on top of being gay. All searches for other visually impaired gay gals brings me gross jokes. Do you know of resources that may make her feel less alone? I can talk about my own experiences to her, but I know she could use people she can relate to. As is she feels like the only blind gay in her school and she already struggles with making friends.
Because I am the very QUEER one of the family, I worry that there will be some push back and accusations that I am influencing my niece and her sister, or for better words, converting them. I see this happening with my niece’s seven-year-old sister, suddenly proclaiming that she likes girls when previously she talked a lot about boys. I really don’t care who the kids like and want to be supportive and encourage them to explore their identity, but I feel there is such a stigma already about queers and kids and the kids’ paternal family is super conservative!
Let’s take a moment to pause and acknowledge how awesome it is that your niece has you in her life and that she feels safe enough to share this with you. She’s going through something confusing and kinda scary and is incredibly lucky to have someone like you in her life to guide her through this process. You clearly care deeply for her and her well being and she trusts you with her burgeoning identity. That she talked to you about this at all is a beautiful and important thing that a lot of young people don’t have. So know that just being there for her is already making an enormous difference!
The other side of it is that you are taking on an important position in her life and that can also be scary and intimidating. Add conservative family members on top of that and you’ve got lot of responsibility on your plate. Know that these feelings are valid, but also know that you’re not alone. I make queer media for kids in a public space and it’s really scary! There’s an immense pressure that comes with being a queer role model for young people. A lot of that pressure comes from internalizing the stigmas you mention around queerness and young people. I’m here to help!
First, here are some really awesome thought leaders your niece can look to who can speak to the intersections of queerness and ability. As a currently able-bodied queer person these are people I follow to expand my knowledge of the disabled community and its queer intersections. Some are more kid-friendly than others and I would encourage you to point your niece toward these people and to follow them yourself to expand your knowledge and help your niece navigate issues around her ability status from a space of knowing. Belo Cipriani is a queer, visually impaired disability activist. I found him through an organization called LightHouse, a non-profit for blind and visually impaired folks headquartered in San Francisco. She might also like Tommy Edison, a blind comedian on Youtube. Here are also some other awesome queer disability activists who I love and could be helpful resources: Autostraddle’s very own Carrie Wade writes beautifully about queerness and disability, Ali Stroker is a singer and actor and the first person on Broadway to perform in a wheelchair, Annie Elainey is a super smart YouTuber and activist who frequently talks about intersections of queerness and disability, Rikki Poynter is another YouTuber and activist who is hard of hearing, and Zach Anner is another fantastic creator with Cerebral Palsy. These content creators will not only increase your (and your niece’s knowledge base; but also reaffirm that she is not alone in being disabled and (potentially) gay. You can embrace both of those things and lead a fulfilled life!
And now to deal with the issues around your niece’s conservative family members. Stigmas surrounding queer people and kids are rampant and they aren’t going away anytime soon. But we have to put the work in to debunk these ideologies. I truly believe that these conversations will progress our movement toward a better future for queers. But these conversations are scary and difficult and new even for queer people and they require a lot of emotional labor. I get comments all the time that my work is inappropriate for kids or that I’m sexualizing and brainwashing children. Here’s what I’ve found works best in those arguments:
First, separate queerness from queer sex. Sexuality is about a combined understanding of gender and narratives of love and relationships. Talking to a kid about gayness does not need to include a discussion of gay sex. Kids don’t understand sex and frankly they don’t need to because it doesn’t really affect them and their lives until puberty. Kids don’t need to understand queer sex to understand queerness because they don’t understand sex in the first place, or at least in the way we understand and experience it as adults. That’s where I usually start. That argument is great for debunking stigmas around queerness and sexualizing kids by taking sex out of the equation.
For talking through the brainwashing or conversion stigma, I usually turn to the lack of LGBTQ+ representation in children’s media. It’s important for kids to learn about queerness to balance out the lack of media representation that’s oversaturated with stories of cisgender heterosexual romance. It’s about diversifying their knowledge of the world and the humans in it. What’s important about this is that no amount of knowledge about queer people is going to make a kid more or less gay. Adults tend to think that queer kids are going through a phase or that they’re confused, but that’s rarely the case. People pick up on information and narratives they identify with, no matter their age. If a kid is gay, then they’ve always been gay. The age at which they realize that doesn’t change anything. But that can be a difficult concept for straight cis people to understand.
Then I would try connecting it to your story as a queer kid. When did you first realize you were gay? Can you point to specific memories of recognizing your queerness at a young age? Do you have friends you could point to with experiences like this? Sharing your story with them helps create empathy that will help you and your niece in future conversations and interactions with conservative family members. Adults often forget that kids are just small people with thoughts and feelings and identities of their own that are valid. You are a queer adult who was once a queer kid and there was no moment where you “became gay,” because that’s who you’ve always been. The same is true for your niece and her sister despite their age. Kids are autonomous people with valid identities, and a lot of adults forget that.
And finally, use the support from the rest of your family to your advantage. When your niece is more comfortable being out with the rest of the family, let your allies help you. There’s a lot of emotional labor tied up in all this and you want to conserve that energy to use with your niece rather than with your conservative family members. Let your allies do some of the work for you. The saying is true, it does take a village.