Their Truth to Tell

Helping kids become good LGBTQ allies means teaching privacy alongside acceptance.

A girl high-fives a reveler as she participates in the NYC Pride March.
Michael Nagle/Getty Images

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

Names in this story have been changed.

When Molly Murphy walked into her second school in as many years, she was walking in as just another little girl who likes playing with Shopkins and jumping on trampolines. But that ease didn’t last long: After spotting a new classmate at a local pride parade in California’s Bay Area, 7-year-old Molly decided it was time to tell that classmate that she’s transgender.

Her parents can’t help but worry what happens each time this happens. What if her friends can’t respect her privacy? What if their daughter’s gender identity becomes the hot topic on the playground, spread through the whisper network from child to child? “We don’t want to enter new anxiety for her, but we want her to understand what it means if she tells people,” Molly’s mom, Lisa Murphy, tells me. “Once it’s out of the bag, it’s out.”

The risk of a secret being shared beyond the confines of a friendship is one kids take every day, but for most, the only danger that lies ahead is a healthy dose of embarrassment. For kids who identify as LGBTQ, the dangers of their gender identity or sexual orientation being shared without their explicit consent are much higher. There’s the bullying that more than one-third of LGBTQ kids face on school property, for example, and the growing number of homicides and other hate crimes against the LGBTQ community. And there’s the fact that one in four LGBTQ kids are thrown out of their own homes just for coming out to their parents.

When I sat down to ask Lucas Smith, a transgender gay teen from New York state, what troubled him most about the rumors passed around his high school about his gender identity and sexual orientation, he shared this statistic, one that followed him through his last two years at high school post-transition: “One in 12 transgender people risk being killed just leaving their homes,” Lucas told me. (I found this figure repeated in literature from Trans Student Educational Resources, which notes it’s specific to transgender women.)

Lucas is in college now, but he recalls being afraid when his school bus pulled into his rural high school parking lot each morning, knowing that other students were driving to school with guns locked and loaded in their pickup trucks. “It was never a specific person,” he tells me. “It was mainly the statistic and the fact that the people who go to that school are small-minded and don’t put any effort into learning about what they don’t understand. Also, a day didn’t go by when some hick didn’t talk about hunting or their guns, which added to the paranoia.”

Kids talking about him behind his back, spreading the story of his sexuality and gender without his consent and singling him out as “that gay trans” kid wasn’t just a matter of safety. It was also just plain annoying, Lucas’ mom, Allison, said. “He just wanted to be himself. He didn’t want to be a freak show or a science experiment that people had to analyze,” Allison told me. “It’s not who he is. Yes, being transgender is obviously part of his makeup, but that’s just a small part of who he is.” “It was none of their business,” Lucas added.

When most ally parents sit their kids down to talk about gender and sexuality issues, the focus of the conversation is on acceptance. The kids should be accepting of friends who identify on the LGBTQ spectrum, and hey, Johnny or Susie, if you happen to be anything other than cisgender or straight, Mommy and Daddy love you and support you too. It’s the sort of talk I had with my daughter a decade ago, long before she came out to me as omnisexual. I wanted her to know she’d be safe and loved no matter who she was. I wanted her to provide the same open arms to her friends.

It wasn’t until she actually opened up to me in the front seat of our car one summer afternoon, asking if it was OK that she liked boys and girls, that I realized the usual talk about acceptance is only half of the puzzle. I was thrilled for her self-recognition and relieved she felt safe talking to me, but also afraid: How would other people handle this development? I’d prepared my daughter to be open with me about her sexuality, but I hadn’t talked to her about what to do when a friend comes out to you. I should have explained that coming out is a personal process, and being trusted with someone else’s story does not mean you have the right to repeat it. What happened if all the other parents had similarly failed? What if they hadn’t prepared their kids to help keep mine safe?

An estimated nine in 10 LGBTQ youth say they’re out to their close friends, and 64 percent are out to their classmates. It’s the latter number that may give parents like me—parents of LGBTQ kids—the most pause. Are those kids keeping our kids’ stories close? Have their parents told them that it’s not only good to accept their friends, but also important to respect their right to choose who knows their identity?

I live in the same rural area where I grew up, where my own childhood best friend stayed closeted until we both left for college in New York City. I remember the moment he told me—the cold stone of the Washington Square fountain piercing the cotton of my T-shirt, my “uh, yeah” expression. We’d been best friends since the third grade. I knew who he was but knew, too, that in our town, talking about it was dangerous.

It was a secret important to keep in a small town where now—in 2018—the high school parking lot is filled with vehicles bearing Trump 2020 bumper stickers and Confederate flag license plates. Since the election of Donald Trump as president, anti-gay sentiment has—unsurprisingly—accelerated in towns like mine and cities all across America. Survey data released by GLAAD show that in 2017, for the first time in four years, Americans were found to be less accepting of LGBT people than in years past. Less accepting of kids like Molly and Lucas and my daughter.

Today, talks about gender and sexuality continue in my house, but I’ve taken them several steps in another direction. Acceptance is always there, but so is caution. I remind my child she has to be careful with her own story and careful with those of her friends as well. If they come out to you, I told her, that’s their business. Keep it close. You don’t know whom they might need to hide it from. It could be their classmates. It could be their own parents.

For the Murphys, Molly’s gender identity being a need-to-know-only “secret” is not the ideal. But moving her to a new school and allowing her to start over was the only way to regain the happy little girl they once knew. After she’d announced her new name and pronouns at her first school, she’d encountered bullying and rampant misgendering—some accidental, some purposeful. Several parents went to the school principal to protest, and one belligerent dad got in Molly’s dad’s face over his daughter’s right to use the girl’s bathroom. “I thought for a moment that [he] was going to punch me,” Kevin recalled.

Molly took to begging regularly to leave the country, to threatening suicide at just 6 years old. The change to a new school quieted that. Only a few staff know about Molly’s gender identity, and none of the children or their parents were clued in until Molly came out to her one pal. Her privacy and control over who knows her story has restored her ability to play Monopoly games and ride roller coasters with the reckless glee we expect from 7-year-olds.

The Murphys hope that one day Molly will be able to talk more about her gender identity with more friends, and that those friends will understand that this story is hers and hers alone to tell. When Lisa recently asked Molly what it would mean to her if her friend were to share her gender identity story without her permission, the 7-year-old was matter-of-fact. “If I tell a friend, and she tells someone else, it’s kind of like she’s just telling them what’s in my underpants, and why would you do that?” she asked. Good question.