“What Does
Gay Mean?
How to Talk with Kids about
Sexual Orientation and Prejudice
“What Does
Gay Mean?
How to Talk with Kids about
Sexual Orientation and Prejudice
Visit or call the NMHA
Resource Center at 1-800-969-NMHA (6642) for more
information or to request copies of this brochure.
Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2
Why Should I Read This Brochure? . . . . . . . . . . . .4
Tips for Your Discussion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .6
How to Talk with…
Preschool-Age Children (3 to 5 years) . . . . . . . . . .7
School-Age Children (6 to 12 years) . . . . . . . . . . .8
Teenagers (13 to 18 years) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .10
Questions and Answers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .12
Resources . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .14
Dear Parents,
Kids are incredibly
smart and they figure
things out. They know
if you’re lying or
keeping something
from them. And the
schoolyard is filled with
all kinds of information
— I’d rather talk to
them myself. So I’ve
always believed in
being open, and it’s the
same when I talk about
gay and lesbian people
with them.
— Marta Miller,
mother of three,
Wyckoff, NJ
As the mother of two teenage daughters, I’ve realized
something obvious to most parents: talking about
sexuality with kids is not easy.
I found it awkward and uncomfortable at first, even
frightening at times. But I also knew it was important to
talk about tough topics with my children so they could
trust me for correct information, and so I could share my
values with them.
The more we talked, the better we all felt.
The National Mental Health Association asked me to
write this brochure out of concern for the impact anti-gay
prejudice and discrimination have on children — gay and
straight. People have different views about homosexuality,
but most Americans believe that everyone should be
treated fairly and with respect.
Children learn about gays and lesbians at a young age
from television, the playground and their friends. It’s far
better for you and your child to talk about issues like sexual
orientation when your child is young — and before she or
he gets bad information and is exposed to prejudice.
While a recent poll showed that 76 percent of all
American parents are willing to discuss sexual orientation
with their children, nearly as many wanted a guidebook to
help them through this process. Like many parents who
are straight, I wasn’t sure where to start or what kind of
information our kids wanted.
We are a society with many kinds of families. Many of
us have neighbors, friends and family members who are
gay. Kids recognize this but may still be confused about
sexual orientation. They will look to you for guidance on
how to act and feel.
In these pages, I share what I’ve learned as both a
parent and a doctor.
The National Mental Health Association (NMHA) has
created a web page (
to provide additional guidance and resources for parents.
As part of the research for this brochure, NMHA spoke
with straight parents across the country about their
experiences talking to their kids about sexual orientation.
Throughout this brochure we’ve included stories and
advice from those interviews.
This brochure doesn’t have all the answers, but I
hope it’s a starting place to open a healthy dialogue with
your child.
—Dr. Lynn Ponton
Dr. Lynn Ponton, author,
mother of two, child
psychiatrist and expert in
teen issues.
Parents need to have honest conversations with their
kids about all kinds of tough issues. Talking about
sexual orientation is especially important. Here’s why:
1. Talking about sexual orientation can protect
your child from prejudice. Your child may at some
point be called “gay” or “fag” — even if she or he
isn’t gay. And your child will probably see kids
teased or attacked for supposedly “being gay.”
There are more than two million school-age lesbian
and gay Americans. Many of these children are
subjected to verbal or physical abuse by their peers
and even by their teachers, according to a report
by the highly respected organization Human Rights
Watch. Visit the web site to read
the powerful Human Rights Watch report.
Many heterosexual children also suffer the conse-
quences of anti-gay prejudice. Talking with your
kids from a young age about sexual orientation will
help them to deal with fears, prejudices and misin-
formation they will inevitably be exposed to.
2. Talking about sexual orientation will help you to
pass on the values of respect and understanding
to your child. Like most kids, your children and
teens probably have relatives or family friends who
are gay and they see gay characters on TV. Your
child will have questions about gay people and will
look to you for answers. Your silence on these issues
can be interpreted in ways you don’t intend, so it’s
important to take these opportunities to share your
values with your child.
In the suburbs where
we live, the worst insult
you can sling at
another kid is to call
him gay. “He’s so gay,”
kids say. Out of all the
bad things you could
say about someone —
he’s mean, selfish, ill-
tempered, ignorant,
greedy — I can’t
believe that calling
someone gay is the
ultimate cut.
— Marta Miller,
mother of three,
Wyckoff, NJ
why should I read
this brochure?
You don’t have to fully understand or accept homo-
sexuality to promote tolerance. Misinformation, igno-
rance and fear about homosexuality can sometimes
lead to violence and bullying against children per-
ceived as different — regardless of whether or not
they are gay. By speaking with your son or daughter,
you will be teaching important values like respect for
the feelings of other people, regardless of differences.
3. Talking about sexual orientation will make it easi-
er to discuss other tough issues with your child.
Sexual orientation is one of the toughest issues for
parents to discuss with their children. If you can talk
to your kids about it, you’ll be better prepared to talk
about other important yet difficult subjects.
This brochure suggests a few ways to turn awkward
moments into opportunities for you to become clos-
er to your child. Throughout this brochure are
quotes from parents who discuss their experience
talking to their children about gays and lesbians.
A nationwide survey of 1,000 parents in
2001 found the following:
61% said they would discuss homosexuality
if their children asked questions.
56% of parents say that prejudice and
discrimination against gays and lesbians is
morally wrong.
67% of parents believe in teaching children
that gay people are just like other people.
Survey of 1,000 parents, Lake Snell Perry and Associates, 2001
Your kids take clues
from the things you do
every day. But other
things you want to
bring up with them
because they won’t
bring them up.
Especially because the
media is a huge
influence on the way
my kids see things. It’s
everywhere. I mean the
TV and the advertising.
And their friends, too.
So when it comes to
sexual orientation, I
want them to know
that my view is that
people are people.
Their sexual orientation
is their business. It
doesn’t have to be a
big deal.
— Anne-Marie O’Dowd
mother of three,
Nonantum, MA
1. Don’t wait for your child to bring up the subject
— seek out “talk opportunities.” Although parents
may agree that talking about sexual orientation with
their kids is important, many don’t want to start with
young children. But if you begin to talk with your child
from an early age — with age-appropriate language
you’ll teach your child tolerance and respect.
When considering a discussion with younger children,
remember that you don’t need to talk about sex when
you talk about sexual orientation. Only part of being
gay or lesbian is about a sexual relationship. It’s more
important that children understand that an intimate,
loving relationship is sometimes shared between two
men or two women in the same way men and women
who are heterosexual care for one another.
You can use “talk opportunities,” like TV shows,
experiences in your own life, or experiences in your
child’s life to start a discussion. Teens tend to tune
out more formal discussions anyway, often categoriz-
ing them as just another lecture from mom or dad.
Keep an ear out for these “talk opportunities.”
2. Listen. Listening carefully will help you to understand
what your child really wants to know as well as what
he or she already understands. It will keep you from talking above their heads
and confusing them even further.
3. Talk about it again. Most young kids can only absorb small bits of informa-
tion at a time. Let some time pass then ask your child to tell you what he or
she remembers about your conversation. This will help you correct any mis-
conceptions or fill in missing facts.
4. Relax. Don’t worry if you don’t have all the answers. You can always do a bit
of research later (see the Resources section at the end of this brochure). What is
important is how you respond. If you can convey the message that no subject
— including sexual orientation — is forbidden in your home, you’ll do just fine.
What I’ve always told
my kids is that some
people choose to be
together in a long-term
relationship — just like
their mom and I chose
to be together. I
discuss it in the context
of a relationship — not
sexuality. I give an
answer that’s
appropriate for an
eleven year-old. I think
you need to keep it
simple and short. Keep
it in a realm that a child
can handle. The
important thing is just
to have a relationship
that’s open with your
child and to be able to
discuss anything.
— Geoff Hill,
father of two,
Bakersfield, CA
tips for your discussion