The one thing I know about raising children is there is no perfect handbook for being a parent; the best way to learn is through your own experience. Having five kids has given us a lot of experience, but when our fourth child (when he was 11) told us he was gay, we had no prior understanding of how to handle such a revelation. The easy part was starting from a point of love and acceptance. We weren’t shocked when he told us; we always knew with five children, odds were at least one of them wasn’t going to be straight. It was that at 11 years old, he felt confident and secure enough to share his truth with us. After the hugs and the assurances that all was good, we sent him to bed, and my husband and I looked at each other and said “How do we make sure this affects his life in the best and most positive way possible?” which led our family to the path of activism.
All of a sudden, we were extremely aware of the ways in which our society was not equitable towards those in the LGBTQ+ community. We learned the rates at which LGBTQ+ teens contemplate suicide are four times higher than their peers. We learned most schools in our area are ill-equipped to handle the harassment and bullying that is directed at LGBTQ+ students. We learned our own city and state did not include sexual orientation and gender identity/expression as protected classes. So, we got to work.
Our first step was to talk to our son. He had an extended family who loved and supported him. He had a bubble of friends who rallied around him. He had the privilege of being a white, cisgender, talented young man who, for the most part, got a long with everyone he met. We asked his permission to use our roles as his parents to help advocate for those who did not have the same privileges. He graciously agreed, and our journey to become parent advocates began.
I focused my attention on inequity in schools. Local school districts lacked protections necessary at the district level for their LGBTQ+ staff. The possibilty of being fired, loomed over the head of any teacher who dared to speak of their same-sex spouse or have family pictures on their desk. I worked with several local groups to educate board members on how their policies were negatively affecting both their staff and their students. We explained how LGBTQ+ students just need one supportive adult in their life to reduce their mental health and suicide risk factors and better their chances of leading successful lives. Cisgender, straight teachers needed tools and training to be better allies, and LGBTQ+ teachers needed the same legal protections and support of their administrations as their peers. After several years of advocacy, the three largest districts in our county added non-discrimination clauses to their employment and accessibility policies to make this a reality.
Legal language at the top is a great start, but the message of inclusion doesn’t alway trickle down quickly. When our son wanted to help start a GSA (Gender/Sexuality Alliance) as a club at his middle school, his principal illegally denied the request. When we threatened to pursue the matter, the principal canceled all clubs at the school. The GSA formed anyway and met before school hours where the principal could not deny them access.
Advocacy began to take center stage in our lives. Every week there were city council meetings or school board meetings to attend, politicians to educate and persuade, events within the community to support. I sometimes worried that by advocating for the unheard, we were pushing our own son away. But the night that our city council passed their Non-Discrimination Ordinance, he stood by my side and hugged me and cried with me when the final vote was counted. I could see how much it meant to him.
Interwoven with our advocacy and activism has, of course, been parenting. Despite having a variety of friends and even several family members who identify as LGBTQ+, we wanted to make sure to give our son ample opportunities to see older gay men living their best lives. This led to us attending Heartland Men’s Chorus concerts—Kansas City’s gay men’s chorus. Their shows are a mix of serious, issue-based story and history telling with major camp and a whole lot of fun and talent! After attending one of their more solemn concerts, we saw that next in their lineup was a lighthearted Broadway bash. We reached out to their director, told him our son’s story and ability to dance, and he cast him in the next show. At 12 years old, he spent several weeks in the dance ensemble rehearsing surrounded by about one hundred gay singers. His self-confidence inspired the older generation, and their knowledge and struggles imparted a major life lesson in return.
The first new take on a seemingly normal growing up situation that we dealt with was when he wanted two of his closest female friends to come over on New Year’s Eve and spend the night. He had already been out to his friends for a couple of months with no repercussions, so it was a natural ask. My husband and I didn’t see any harm in it, but when their parents agreed, it still felt like we were doing something against the rules.
The situation flip flopped when he hit high school and dating age. We wanted to be sure to not treat his experience any differently than we did his older brother and sisters. He started dating a guy a few years older than him, and it didn’t bother me as much as I thought it should. I had to examine my bias when I realized that we would not have been as comfortable with one of our daughters choosing to date a senior guy during her freshman year. We did make sure to impart the same type of rules regarding curfews and not being at the house alone. It required constant awareness in making sure we held all our teenagers to the same dating standards no matter their sexuality.
The most difficult part of parenting a young LGBTQ+ child is keeping the balance between acknowledging the unique experience it brings while not making it the only defining part of their personality. His being a devoted brother, smart student, talented dancer, movie buff, dad joke champion, and a comic book nerd are just several more pieces to the full picture of who he is. Every gift doesn’t have to be rainbow colored or LGBTQ+-centered. But at the same time, there is a history and a culture that we take responsibility in exposing him to, so he understands just how far the LGBTQ+ community has come, and how much further there is still to go. Striking this balance can be difficult, and I’m never confident we’re walking the line correctly. But on our most recent trip to Disney World, now 16 years old, our son donned his rainbow pride Mickey t-shirt and rainbow pride Mickey ears and proudly took pictures in front of the castle.
Wendy Budetti (she/her) has lived in Johnson County for over 30 years. She and her husband, Brett, have five children, ranging in age from 14 to 23. She has been a homeschool mom, a public school substitute teacher, a bartender, and held a variety of other interesting people-oriented jobs. She spends her free time reading mostly non-fiction books and working on her fitness. She loves to travel, and you can often find her with her family in NYC or Disney World.