Paria Hassouri and her husband were thousands of miles from home, on vacation in Thailand, when they got a call from their daughter’s school. A teacher told them that Ava, then 13, was questioning her gender identity.
When the couple returned home to Southern California, though, they found Ava wasn’t questioning so much as insisting: She was a girl.
In fact, Ava gave them “a dissertation on what it means to be transgender,” Hassouri told LGBTQ Nation.
Hassouri, a pediatrician, immediately became a staunch advocate for her daughter and transgender equality. As Hassouri observed in her 2020 book, Found in Transition, which covers the period between that May 2017 phone call and Ava’s legal name change a year and a half later — Ava had spent time doing what’s known as “coming in” before coming out, researching different identities and figuring out what experiences felt authentic to her.
“She Googled ‘not feeling right in your body’ and started watching YouTube videos of gender-diverse people describing their experiences, and what she heard and saw resonated with her,” Hassouri said. “She spent months researching to be sure that she was certain about her identity and what she was feeling.”
The coming-in process can take many forms. Some young people spend time contemplating their feelings or confiding in friends. Others look to role models who are visible on social or traditional media. Young people are finding ways to learn about the spectra of sexualities and gender identities, despite book bans and so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bills seeking to limit young people’s access to such fundamental knowledge.
Perhaps not surprisingly, these censorial efforts come as the rainbow shines brighter by the day. Gallup data published in February indicated that 7.1 percent of Americans identified themselves as LGBT last year, up from 3.5 percent in 2012. These percentages are even greater among younger generations. More than 20 percent of Generation Z Americans, those born between 1997 and 2012, identified as LGBT in 2021. That proportion of Gen Z individuals has nearly doubled since 2017.
During Ava’s coming-out experience, Hassouri educated herself about how best to support her daughter. Other parents are trying to do the same, as children and teens are opening up — sometimes even earlier in their lives — about their placement in a galaxy of queer existence. For adults, including educators and counselors who may be unfamiliar with the process, figuring out how best to support young people in their evolving identities can be challenging, especially in a legal and political climate that, depending on the state in which they reside, can veer from supportive to hostile.
Coming ‘in’ is a process
The coming-in process can take years. A 2013 Pew Research report on the coming-out experience showed that the median age LGB adults “first felt they might be something other than straight or heterosexual” was 12. But it wasn’t until 17 that adults identifying as LGBTQ said “they knew.”
Ava, now 18 and a student at Yale, started thinking she might be trans when she was in eighth grade. At the time, she was “far too scared to even consider” telling anyone she knew personally. But she found people chatting about their transness on Reddit and posting photos chronicling their transitions.
“Seeing pictures of people who once looked male now still able to be alive as a woman was so, so important in persuading me to follow through with transitioning,” Ava told LGBTQ Nation. “These photographed timelines gave me evidence of transition being possible. Also, the girls in the ‘after’ photos were happy, which was a big shock to me. I originally discouraged myself from transitioning because I didn’t think it would be worth it, that it would just create more problems than it would solve. But seeing these girls gave me hope and convinced me that transitioning was something I had to do.”
Ava’s sharing of her identity with her mother was an invitation for Hassouri to examine her own fears and preconceptions. Now, she reflects on her growth in understanding gender identities as one facet of humanity. “Ava taught me how to look at people and not see sex or gender but human beings,” she said. “She taught me why she couldn’t just be nonbinary, a negotiation I tried to have with her when she is a transgender woman. Her identity was not up for negotiation.”
Hassouri emphasized that Ava’s coming-in “just helped affirm” what Ava was already experiencing and that her research helped her come out sooner than she may have otherwise. “I’m grateful that those stories helped her process this and come out, so she could start living her life as her authentic self sooner,” she added.
Youth can see themselves reflected in positive images
Of course, self-initiated research is not a new phenomenon. Before the advent of the internet, people would go to libraries, find the LGBTQ section of bookstores, make clandestine forays into gay neighborhoods, or read zines to learn about identities and see what resonated with their lives.
Today, that research can also be done in the privacy of one’s bedroom on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok. And the personal stories, many told in moving videos, are more accessible than ever before. No longer are queer and trans stories relegated to a hidden section at the bookstore or a library shelf. Now they exist digitally, ready to be heard and seen with a tap or swipe. And even better, many of the storytellers are voices that have not historically been granted equal airtime.
“Seeing pictures of people who once looked male now still able to be alive as a woman was so, so important in persuading me to follow through with transitioning. These photographed timelines gave me evidence of transition being possible.”
“Being able to see examples of what it looks like to live as a queer person or a trans person in the world is really important for the self-identification and self-understanding of who one is,” said Kelly George, a therapist at New Constellations Therapy in Chicago. “It’s hard to define yourself if you don’t have the words for it, if you don’t see it reflected in larger society. If we don’t see ourselves reflected, it’s hard to know that we exist.”
Caitlin Ryan said that the immense flow of digital information has been a “revolutionary” breakthrough for young people’s development. As director of Family Acceptance Project, an education and policy initiative, Ryan has spent decades studying how best to support young people. In November 2021, her organization unveiled its LGBTQ Family Acceptance website. Launched with funding by The Upswing Fund for Adolescent Mental Health, the site features evidence-based, faith-based, and culture-based resources for youth and their family members.
“The internet is enabling young people to see a wide range of possibilities for who they are and what they feel and not have to hide,” she said. “Being able to see positive images of people who are happy, healthy, accepted, affirmed, validated — this is really pretty extraordinary.”
Access to technology is helping many young people form identities earlier and with more confidence. “If you go back to the 1970s, on average, LGB people were not typically coming out and disclosing who they were until early adulthood, and of course, many people never came out and disclosed who they are; they lived their whole lives in secrecy, and some never even came out to themselves,” Ryan commented. “If you asked a group of older queer people over age 60, it would have meant the world to them to have been able to live their lives in a way that affirmed them from early childhood.”
Watch out for half-truths and misinformation
Parents and educators also need to help young people navigate the minefield of online misinformation. In previous decades, the coming-out process could be hampered by media reports about the Supreme Court upholding same-sex sodomy laws, the HIV crisis hitting gay and trans populations particularly hard, or surges in anti-gay violence.
“We also want to make sure that the young person isn’t only getting their information online, that they’re also getting support from other people in their life.”
Kelly George, New Constellations Therapy
Today, Gen Zers can discover personal experiences that are often more positive and affirming, but a lot of online stories young people come across are negative and anecdotal, and they might not have developed critical thinking skills yet to sort through the mixed signals.
“Young people can hear lots of wrong things,” said Laura Grimes, a licensed clinical social worker at Inclusive Insight in Chicago. “Like that lesbians can’t get HIV or that you are only trans if you feel like you were ‘born in the wrong body.’ So then they reject information, thinking, ‘Oh, that’s not me,’ not recognizing that they’re working with half-truths or reading information incorrectly.”
George, the therapist, said young people might mistakenly apply the stories of rejection that they see online to their own future. “They think, ‘My parents are never going to accept me.’ When, in reality, that may not actually be true. So we also want to make sure that the young person isn’t only getting their information online, that they’re also getting support from other people in their life, ideally.”
That kind of in-person support can be crucial, especially since anti-LGBTQ propaganda has nearly as much of an online platform as positive depictions. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment highlights this paradox.
“Several participants felt that while transphobia existed in offline media, it was more covert than transphobia online. They felt the anonymity online allowed people to be more explicitly transphobic,” the authors wrote. “However, despite the overt transphobia online, participants elucidated numerous benefits to online media for transgender people, particularly transgender youth. Participants, especially those who identified as transgender, discussed the wealth of resources and information available for transgender youth online to support their identity development and provide a sense of community and representation.”
Social media influencers as role models
Some of the best online resources are young social media influencers who have gone through the coming-out process and seemingly thrived. Twin brothers Aaron and Austin Rhodes came out to their father in a touching 2015 YouTube video streamed nearly 28 million times. Dance Moms alum Lennon Torres excitedly told followers she was transitioning in a viral TikTok video last year. And in a funny 2019 Instagram clip, college football player Jaden Vazquez literally came out of the closet, stumbling out of his bedroom closet to say that he’s bi.
These inspirational comings-out are essential for young people to see, said George, who uses they/them pronouns. “If they don’t see themselves reflected in media or stories or conversations with other people, then it’s hard to know what to look for to figure out who you are,” they said.
Seth Williams is an 18-year-old Los Angeles-based fashion stylist and social media star whose @thatsusboi TikTok account has more than 235,000 followers and 7.2 million likes. They are also one of the most prolific creators behind the #femboy hashtag.
Williams came out as bi “to different people at different times” during sophomore year of high school, and in the last two years, they have embraced a genderqueer identity.
“The internet completely expanded my view of the world, and thus expanded my idea of who I could be,” Williams said. “In that way, the internet granted me freedom to explore modes of self-expression that I didn’t see in my everyday life, which helped me to discover more about who I am and how I identify.”
“I really hope that my visibility helps other genderqueer people understand more about themselves and that our community is not a monolith.”
And now Williams is paying that experience forward. They want people to see videos, to see their individuality, and to know that they “can be whoever they want to be, regardless of what other people think of them.”
“I really hope that my visibility helps other genderqueer people understand more about themselves and that our community is not a monolith,” they said. “Everyone’s journey and where it takes them is different. There’s no one way to be, and everyone should explore to really understand who they are.”
Happiness has a domino effect
After Ava came out, Hassouri was initially concerned for her daughter’s future, knowing how bigoted society can be. After finding Ava feeling down about her career prospects, Hassouri and her husband Babak Dadvand, a plastic surgeon, made a conscious choice to project positivity, to lead not with fear but with love.
“Within days of deciding that we would be optimistic for our child’s future and eliminate all negative talk from our household, we noticed a difference in Ava,” she said. “She wasn’t lying around on the couch as much. She would smile and laugh more. She’d come home from school excited about a discussion in her English class or a new song they were rehearsing in choir. Her happiness had a domino effect on us as her parents. And as I began to see a new light in her eyes, I started to believe what we had decided to tell her — that we were not going to tolerate any limits on her future.”
While Hassouri didn’t know this at the time, she had, out of instinct and love for her daughter, adopted one of the best ways to support a child.
Ryan and researchers at the Family Acceptance Project identified more than 50 family-accepting behaviors that promote the well-being of LGBTQ youth — and more than 50 family-rejecting behaviors that put them in harm’s way.
As part of its new online resource, the Family Acceptance Project created meme images for these behaviors, with artwork by Sam Kirk. Prominent among them is the behavior Hassouri adopted: “Believe That Your Child Will Be a Happy LGBTQ Adult.” The background drawing depicts a young person’s future, including graduation, parenthood, and happy times with family and friends.
Optimism, Ryan said, is critical to the coming-out process. “Your ability to see the future as a happy LGBTQ adult has a big impact on self-care. Your child can have a good life if they can be respected by others. They can have their own family. People will employ them. They can have a career. They’re not going to be disrespected. We’re going into a radically different future when gender diversity is the norm.”
Home as a ‘happy, healthy, safe place’
Lori Duron, an author and part-time business consultant, started fostering that same positivity when her son CJ, then a toddler, started striking her as a “girl at heart.” And as the sister of a gay man their father didn’t accept, Duron knew exactly what kind of parent she wanted to be.
“When I started seeing CJ express himself in feminine ways, I would flash back a lot to my childhood and the temperature in my home growing up. So I knew I needed to do better, that I needed to make home a happy, healthy, safe place for CJ,” Duron told LGBTQ Nation from Orange County, California, where she and her husband, Matt, a retired police officer, are raising their two children.
Duron has also been a longtime member of PFLAG, which provides peer support, education, and advocacy to LGBTQ people, their parents and families, and allies. Through this community, Duron has continued to evolve as a parent and advocate.
CJ explained in a 2020 blog post that his gender identity is male, and his gender expression is female. “That means that I’m awesome,” he wrote in that post. “Just kidding. It means that I was identified male at birth and I like my male body and I prefer male pronouns, but the way I dress and the things I like are considered feminine (whatever that means). Another way to describe me is gender nonconforming or gender-creative.”
Now 15, CJ is attending art school. He enjoys drawing, learning about makeup, and making videos. He told LGBTQ Nation he liked it when classmates called him “basic.” It meant he could express himself and look like the girls in his class.
“I feel like family members think their gender-nonconforming kids or gender-creative kids are extremely different, and they’re not normal,” he added. “But we’re normal. It’s just a little different, the things we like.”
When asked what he appreciates about his parents, CJ said, “Just knowing that I can do whatever I want and be whatever I want and wear whatever I want, and know that, no matter what, I’m not going to be judged. I can really do anything I want to express myself in femininity or masculinity whenever I want and not have to feel the need to cover up or anything.”
Indeed, Ryan said that in addition to projecting optimism, one of the most beneficial family-accepting behaviors is supporting not just a child’s sexual orientation but also gender identity and expression. “Which is, of course, a big issue now, in terms of the devastating response to transgender and gender-diverse children and teens,” she added, referring to dozens of state laws passed or under consideration that ban positive depictions and discussions of queer life.
This can take work, even for affirming parents. “We operated for years assuming this person was X, and now they’re saying that they’re Y,” George said. “And we have to actively work to see them as Y, to see them as they are and as they have told us they are. The parents who make this effort are the ones who are more likely to get name and pronouns correct and are more likely to have a healthy relationship with their trans child, their queer child.”
Different is great
In 2011, to share her insights on raising a gender-creative child and help other parents, Duron created Raising My Rainbow, a blog that became a book of the same name. Over the decade she’s been writing it, Duron has heard from hundreds of readers, some who had gender-nonconforming kids and others who were gender-nonconforming themselves.
“Some of [the messages] are heartbreaking,” Duron said. “I’ve gotten emails from parents who were like, ‘Thank you. I’ve read your book, I’ve read your blog, and I like my child again,’ because they had stopped. And that’s devastating. And then from adults who were feeling hopeless because of that residue that’s left over from childhood and still feeling hopeless, that they feel hope because at least a lot of the next generation is going to be OK — or at least better than they had been.”
Looking back, Duron said the key to her support was the realization that CJ’s identity was never the problem. “[CJ’s] gender identity, his gender expression, none of this is something that needs to be fixed. It needs to just be supported and loved. He has brought us so much joy, especially in his creativity, and has made our world so colorful. I would tell myself, ‘One day, you will look back and you would not want to trade this for the world.’”
“Different is OK. Different is great,” she added. “If we were all the same, that would be boring.”
Free yourself from assumptions when kids are ‘coming in’
CJ grew up in the public sphere, known by the readers of his mom’s blog and book. But he’s an exception. Most children grow up in relative privacy, and the coming-out process can be a waiting game. Queer and trans youth often wait until they know they’re safe to come out, and they look “at all the little micro- or macro-conversations they may have had with people in their lives that may give them some kind of indication of how people are going to respond,” George said.
Lainie Kleemann, a sign language interpreter in Palatine, Illinois, started having affirming dialogues with her kids long before the night her daughter, Reese, came out to her as bisexual.
As the daughter of a gay man and friend of gay classmates from high school, Kleemann saw how societal intolerance kept people from living authentically. So when she had children of her own, she was determined to cultivate a safe space, free of judgment. Part of that involved articulating that all possibilities are open and embraced.
“Broaden how you talk about things. Leave open that what you assume about your child’s identity may or may not be true.”
“With my kids —I have a 10-year-old son — I’ve always referred to their future partners as ‘partners’ or as ‘husbands and wives,’” she told LGBTQ Nation. “I’ve never gender-identified.”
So Reese knew she was in a safe environment when she came out as bi in the seventh grade. “I think she wanted to elongate bedtime a little bit,” Kleemann laughed, looking back on that conversation. “She said, ‘Well, Mom, I want to tell you something. I just want to tell you that I’m bisexual.’ When she told me, it was like, ‘OK, wonderful, thank you for telling me. It’s still time to go to bed.’”
Kleemann’s inclusion of all possibilities tracks with the social worker Grimes’s advice for parents. “Broaden how you talk about things. Leave open that what you assume about your child’s identity may or may not be true,” she said. “You have to ask how someone feels and then be open to their answers. Approach knowledge with curiosity and not fear. Fear shuts down conversations. Curiosity opens it.”
Kleemann also had advice for other parents whose children experience same-sex attraction. “If there’s a same-sex couple on television or something, speak in a complimentary manner about that,” she said. “I don’t mean to highlight it or spotlight it as an anomaly, but [if your child] may be contemplating whether they will identify as LGBTQ, create a space where they know that you’re a safe person.”
Reese, now 16, enjoys hip-hop dancing, drawing, soccer, Star Wars, and Marvel. And she was raised in a progressive environment, she said. “A lot of my close friends have two moms or two dads, or they are part of the LGBTQ community themselves, so I grew up around it.”
In a sign that LGBTQ identities are becoming commonplace — at least in more progressive areas like Chicago, where monuments to Sylvia Rivera, James Baldwin, and other icons line the streets — Reese said that most of her classmates “don’t really care” about her bisexuality. “They just know it and move on. Most of the time, I don’t even tell my friends. I’ll just say, like, ‘Oh my god, this girl’s really hot,’ or something like that. … I kind of surround myself with people who don’t care and who are just friends with me for who I am.”
Identity is a journey
If Reese’s sexual identity changes in the future, Kleemann will be ready. “Just because she identifies as bisexual doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s going to fall into that particular category. And that’s OK,” she said. “You know, from one day to the next, she may identify differently, and I will honor and respect whatever her identity is on that particular day because the only thing I care about is supporting my kids and loving my kids.”
Duron said that one common misconception parents have about queer youth is “that just because a child comes out doesn’t mean that how they understand themselves now is how they will understand themselves later. We don’t, for example, believe that when a 4-year-old says they want to be an astronaut when they grow up, that when they’re 20, they still want to be an astronaut. We know their views of themselves may change and shift over time. Identity also does this.”
“Who you love is your situation. It’s your deal. What you identify as doesn’t affect anyone else’s life. Be sure in yourself and in who you are, and if the people who you surround yourself with are also supportive of you, then life will be so much easier.”
And as these shifts occur, parents should progress through that journey at the same pace as their child, George said, observing that some parents get “too far afield of the child” in an effort to be supportive.
“I see this especially with trans youth. ‘If I have a trans kid, that means we have to get them in to see a doctor, we gotta get them in to see a therapist, we gotta get them started on all these things.’ Some trans people don’t want hormones, or they don’t want surgeries. Some trans kids don’t even need to be in therapy; they’re actually very well-adjusted,” George said. “We always want to jump ahead and predict what our child is going to need, but sometimes, we can’t do that, and that’s OK, and that’s not a failing on our part. It’s OK for us to hang back a little bit and catch up with our kid if we need to.”
George also recommends that parents give their kids “autonomy around who they share that information with and when and why” and to check in with their kids about what future support they might need.
“We’re not wanting to pressure the child,” they added. “It’s like, OK, ask, get the answers that you need, and wait before asking again.”
Reese said she tells other youth that loving who they love is not a fault, despite what others might say. “Who you love is your situation,” she said. “It’s your deal. What you identify as doesn’t affect anyone else’s life. And if anyone is taking the time out of their day to make it harder for you, then that’s on them. Be sure in yourself and in who you are, and if the people who you surround yourself with are also supportive of you, then life will be so much easier.”
Good intentions cannot erase harm
Paria Hassouri, Lori Duron, and Lainie Kleemann were well prepared to support their kids, partly by emotional disposition and partly by experience.
Not all parents are in the same place when their kids come out. Liz Dyer’s son Nick was 19 and a college student in Abilene, Texas, when he came out to her as gay. At first, as she blogged in 2010, she “reacted horribly,” attacking his character, threatening to sever her relationship with him, saying that he betrayed her and that he was untrustworthy, and ordering him not to bring any same-sex dates to visit the family.
Dyer, who lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and now identifies as a progressive Christian, said those initial reactions to Nick’s 2007 coming out “definitely came from fear and ignorance.”
“I was afraid that being gay would mean that Nick would not be happy and healthy, which is what most parents want for their kids, and I was ignorant about what the Bible actually said about being gay.”
“There were absolutely hard times and times where I wasn’t sure where our relationship would end up, but I knew that if I gave myself 14 years to accept this part of myself, then I needed to give someone, like my mom, the time and patience as well.”
Dyer spent a long time studying scripture but couldn’t find evidence that the Bible condemns homosexuality. But even before she came to that conclusion, she had already repaired her relationship with Nick. They had both decided to prioritize their love and respect for one another despite their differences.
“It wasn’t always easy, but I continued to remind myself that I had been struggling with this since I was at least 5 years old and finally accepted it myself at 19,” Nick told LGBTQ Nation. “That’s 14 years of being hard on myself, fighting myself, and grieving who I thought I would be when I grew up. There were absolutely hard times and times where I wasn’t sure where our relationship would end up, but I knew that if I gave myself 14 years to accept this part of myself, then I needed to give someone, like my mom, the time and patience as well. How could I not be willing to give someone else grace and compassion when I gave it to myself?”
In 2014, hoping to create a kinder, safer world for her son and other LGBTQ people, Dyer founded a private Facebook moms’ group for “Mama Bears,” which now has more than 32,000 members. She said that after talking with thousands of other parents, the most significant misunderstanding about politically and socially conservative families of LGBTQ youth is that those parents who aren’t affirming don’t love their kids.
“Most parents love their kids deeply and never intend to harm their kids. Unfortunately, good intentions cannot erase the harm that being non-affirming does,” she said. “That’s why we have to keep connecting with and educating families. I believe as the family goes, so goes the world. When parents wholeheartedly affirm their LGBTQ kids, that attitude and spirit spills over and impacts their friends and family members, the schools their kids attend, the churches in their neighborhood, and even into their local government.”
Now, Dyer and fellow Mama Bears are partnering with the giving community Legacy Collective to launch the Mama Bears Giving Circle, which will award grants to nonprofits dedicated to supporting the LGBTQ community. She and her collaborators are also featured in a new documentary, Mama Bears, which premiered at South by Southwest in March. And her Facebook group’s letter thanking the cast and creators of the popular comedy Schitt’s Creek for the positive representation of a same-sex romance was read during the documentary that aired after the series finale in 2020.
The Mama Bears are also ready to challenge the Texas politicians trying to brand gender-affirming health care for youth as a form of child abuse.
“They are ready to fight,” Dyer said. “They are always asking, ‘What can we do’? They want to be effective advocates for their kids. They are afraid, but their fear will never keep them from showing up. They will protect their kids. They will win this battle.”
Dan Clarendon is a writer and freelance journalist based in Chicago. His work includes articles for Queerty, Teen Vogue, TV Insider, Marie Claire, Us Weekly, and Daily Mail.