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Mom, what does gay mean? Add to ...

"Between the book launch wait lines and extended Halloween costume hunts, being a parent of a Harry Potter fan has always required a hefty commitment," The Globe's Tralee Pearce writes today in her article A teaching moment for parents

"But after J.K. Rowling revealed Friday that one of the series' most beloved characters, Dumbledore, is gay, there may be one more to-do item for Potter fans' parents: the sex and homosexuality talk.

"While it may provoke some anxiety, Dumbledore's new gay icon status presents a 'teaching moment' that parents should seize, experts say.

"With more children being raised by same-sex parents in communities across Canada, more kids are learning about two-mommy or two-daddy families earlier. Still, parents are often caught off guard when the subject comes up."

To help you broach the subject with your kids, and to give you insight into how much information is enough, Michael Ungar, a professor at Dalhousie's school of social work and a family therapist, was online earlier to take your questions.

Your questions and Mr. Ungar's answers appear at the bottom of this page.

Michael Ungar, Ph.D., has worked for more than 20 years as a social worker, and as a marriage and family therapist.

Now a professor at the school of social work at Dalhousie University, Prof. Ungar is the author of dozens of peer-reviewed articles and five books for parents, educators and helping professionals, including his most recent, Too Safe for their Own Good: How Risk and Responsibility Help Teens Thrive.

Editor's Note: globeandmail.com editors will read and allow or reject each question/comment. Comments/questions may be edited for length or clarity. We will not publish questions/comments that include personal attacks on participants in these discussions, that make false or unsubstantiated allegations, that purport to quote people or reports where the purported quote or fact cannot be easily verified, or questions/comments that include vulgar language or libellous statements. Preference will be given to readers who submit questions/comments using their full name and home town, rather than a pseudonym.

Rasha Mourtada, Globe Life web editor: Good afternoon, Prof. Ungar, and thanks for joining us today. What's your take on J.K. Rowling announcing that Dumbledore is gay? How should parents handle this?

Michael Ungar: When I heard this news, my first reaction was, "Is this a joke?" Dumbledore is a fictional character, after all. His sexual orientation is only mildly hinted at in the books. Why this revelation? Thinking about it further, however, I wonder if Rowling is trying to make a point, a point that she has been trying to make all along. We need to show tolerance towards those who are different from ourselves. We need to look carefully at whether we are creating prejudice against people based on differences that are their's alone to define. Your readers might be interested to know that others, like David Nylund, a family therapist in California, have already written that youth who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) find the stories of Harry Potter inspirational. They see in his experiences of exclusion and prejudice at home with the Dursley's something akin to what they experience because of their differences.

I can imagine many young people having one of two reactions to this 'outing' of Dumbledore. Many will celebrate. It will be another way that we as a society can demonstrate concretely our tolerance for differences. That will be nice to see. As nice as watching Nova Scotian youth dress in pink shirts to protest the bullying of a young person some weeks ago who was taunted with slurs just because he wore pink.

Many other youth, however, like my own son, will respond with an eye roll. "So what?" they'll say. It's not apathy. It's wonderment at why something like this is newsworthy. On this issue, I think the kids are way ahead of us adults. They've been raised amid gay pride and same-sex marriage. They, for the most part, make me proud of the tolerance they show to each other.

So, what should parents say to their kids? I think it is important we ask the kids what they think first. Find out if they are the type to celebrate or ignore. Find out if they think it's weird or normal. What is normal anyway? One thing Rowling has done is give us all an opportunity to discuss values with our kids, over dinner, during a drive to soccer, wherever is convenient. Now it's up to us to listen.

Of course, younger children are going to not necessarily understand the issue at all. And older teens may blush and go silent. In either case, parents can take this opportunity to show they are open to talking about issues like sexual orientation, and sex. That we are there to help our kids define terms. It's a chance to explain what we know about loving relationships. We have an opportunity here, if we're willing to take a deep breath and seize it.

Lots to think about!

Poli Ansieta, Ottawa: How can a parent give a child a solid explanation on something if she isn't sure where she even stands on the issue?

Michael Ungar: Hi Poli, Thank you for such an honest question. I suspect there are many parents just like yourself who are figuring this issue out just like their kids. And now you're expected to lead your child through a thoughtful discussion! That's difficult.

It can be a bit easier the more transparent one is. If you yourself aren't sure where you stand on the topic of homosexuality, be honest with your kid about how your feel. But share your questions as well as your opinions. I like to think of this as an exercise in bracketing. "I'm not sure how to respond," you might begin. "On the one hand I can see reasons to think nothing of this. It shouldn't be a big deal." Once you've laid out that side of the argument, you can move on to what's troubling you about this.

Now, I'm assuming your child is old enough to discuss this. A teenager will likely appreciate you arguing both sides of your feelings. You are modelling some great lessons here! First, you are demonstrating tolerance for diversity by being open to another's point of view. And second, you are demonstrating integrity. You are allowed to have your own beliefs, up to the point that those beliefs don't build walls around others. For me, the seeds of this discussion are not much different than other times in history when we as people have had to challenge our beliefs and fears of 'others'. History tells us that once we stop showing tolerance, and at least questioning our beliefs openly, we are destined to make grievous errors against minorities.

Of course, with younger kids, maybe it's best to just explain what the words mean. Gay means men who love each other and have a special relationship. Younger kids don't need details about the 'plumbing'. But they are watching how you set the tone.

Telling them, "People in our church think…" and completing that sentence is okay as long as you are able to at least tell your child, "Though other people think differently about this too." If you really want to raise a caring child, one who adds to the solutions, not the problems, then I think we need to help cultivate a spirit of critical analysis. Of questioning all values, even those of their parents.

Amanda Cockshutt, Canada: I notice that school aged children often use the word 'gay' as an insult, especially for boys. Once, after hearing my 9 year old son refer to something as gay, I asked him not to. I went on to ask him if he knew what it meant, and he didn't have a clue. I had obviously plunged myself into that conversation without any forethought. I think that given his developmental stage he was more than a little confused by my description of sexual interactions between individuals of the same sex. Can you give some pointers on how to discuss this with kids who are older than those who will be satisfied with a non-sexual description, but younger than a teenager who has a better understanding of sexuality outside of reproduction.

Michael Ungar: Hi Amanda. Yup, those tweens are a tough age to discuss this with. But one thing I've learned…they often know more than we think, and less than they think they know. You are definitely on the right track by first defining the terms. I'd then focus in on relationships and what it means when two people love each other. You might think in terms of concrete descriptions of what people do (like holding hands, living together, raising kids). But the question might really be, "So what?" What's the fuss, right? Why is it important that Dumbledore is gay? We haven't put on the news that Harry is straight? This is where it gets tricky, because you will likely want to explain to your kids that some people look at being gay as something bad. And for a long time, people who have been identified as being gay (or GLBT) were treated very badly. Still are!

Once some information about the behaviours associated with being gay are cleared up, and people's attitudes towards people who are gay are explored, then maybe its time to ask your child, "And what do you think about all this?" In my experience, you're not likely to get much more than a shrug or "None of my business." Some kids may go "Ick" and tell you what they've heard on the playground or in someone's home about people who are gay. In my books, such dialogue is exactly what I want. At least now I know what's on the child's mind. Prejudices can't be addressed unless we know what they are. I for one am happier with those who speak their mind than those who harbour their intolerance with stealth. No matter what happens, Rowling has given us a conversation starter.

T. Scott, Canada: How do you explain to your kids why there is still a lot of intolerance and fear regarding homosexuality? How do you explain what are some of the root causes of these negative emotions some people have? How do you answer the simple questions, why do some people think being a homosexual is wrong or bad? How come you say it's normal when others say it isn't?

Michael Ungar: Hi! These are excellent questions. And they would need pages to answer. I have to confess, I have no easy answer to such profound questions. But I think we effectively talk about these things more by doing that telling. I don't honestly think I could explain to my kids why there is intolerance for another's sexual preferences except to talk vaguely about fear, and the mechanics of society, that people like to make those who are different into 'others' who then can be excluded, making us, the in crowd, feel that much more powerful, self-assured. We can think we're right. I understand this as being about power, control and privilege. None of which is going to help with a 10 year old. Though that same ten-year-old is likely to understand the actions of a bully on the playground and what it means to put others down so that an individual can feel powerful. That's closer to home. That's a story they can understand.

So…do something different. Show your child what tolerance means. Not just for people who are LGBT, but for all people. Attend a gay pride parade; take your child travelling to places where people look different, eat different foods, listen to different music. Invite into your home an foreign exchange student. In my experience, tolerance in one area (say for racial differences) breeds tolerance across the board. It is a lot easier to talk about how people feel excluded when you are among people who are excluded, than in the comfort of your own home (assuming you are of the 'majority').

If you yourself are part of the minority, then here again there is the opportunity to show rather than tell. Help your child decode the prejudice you or he/she experiences. Observe it. Talk about it. Wonder aloud why someone would treat another person so meanly. Ask the child to speculate on an answer. It's easier to talk about a verbal slur when it is heard first hand than to read a newspaper article and jumpstart a conversation, though at least that jumpstart is a good first step.

Thanks for the questions!

David Langan, North Vancouver: I find a lot of parents inextricably link the 'sex talk' with the 'what's gay' talk (as did the article). Can these be treated as two talks?

Michael Ungar: Hi David. I find the two talks do sort of link. The tough part I find in my work and at home is not to put into the sex talk an overtly heterosexist bias. By that I mean, if I have the sex talk and assume I'm talking to a child who is 100% bona fide heterosexual, then I have likely excluded from our discussion lots of feelings he/she is having that don't fit. I'm inclined to be a little more neutral, recognizing that even heterosexually oriented young people can experience intense relationships with their peers and wonder over their sexual orientation. I think the kids can handle this double conversation. If I'm explaining sexual relationships, then why not talk about intense and loving feelings for "another person", man or woman. I can talk about commitment, to a man or woman. I can talk about masturbation, oral sex, and petting, without necessarily identifying the gender of the partner. Let's face it, there is very little about our sexuality, when explored in its full range, that has to do with the biological aspects of procreation.

That said…there is also the principle of TMI-Too Much Information. I hear from kids they appreciate some restraint on the part of their parents. They likely don't want to hear everything at once. There is a time for a 'relationship primer' and another time for talks about 'plumbing'. Those conversations will more often than not happen as episodes, like 24, only over more weeks.

I hope that helps, even if just a little. Even if we adults try to keep these topics separate, likely the kids are muddling things together in their minds. This Dumbledore thing may be a perfect opportunity for some discussion, about both sex and sexual orientation. I would invite all readers to think back to when you were younger. Didn't you have questions about both too?

Len Koskitalo, Canada: If you suspect your son/daughter is gay, but hasn't said anything about it, should you ask him/her, or wait for them to broach the subject?

Michael Ungar: Hi Len, The answer to your question depends so much on the 'culture' of each family, and the relationship one has with their child. I'm hesitant on such a big issue to say categorically, "Do this…" or "Do that…" I'll leave that to Dr. Phil!

What I can tell you is that you can influence how comfortable your child is speaking with you about this. You can use this Dumbledore media event, and other moments like it, to show your family's tolerance for your child's self-expression. You can set an environment in which you show yourself to be the child's ally. Will they be able to count on your support? Even if you're not sure you can give it, like most parents who are initially confused and a little upset after their child discloses they are gay, you can still show openness to talking about things important to your child.

That said, there are moments when a child would like to be nudged into a conversation, but not too often. Far better to leave the door wide open. Let's face it, gay or straight, it was hard for most of us to talk about our sexuality with our parents. It is likely easier for a child to bring it up him/herself. If it looks like the young person is really suffering, or getting into some confused behaviour because he/she feels constrained, then maybe better to say, "It's okay whatever you want to tell me. I promise to listen…" Still watching an anxious child wrestling with feelings? Try offering a few options…"Please tell me what's on your mind…I can handle it. Don't worry about my feelings for a moment. Maybe you're worried over whether you're gay or not, or maybe something has happened at school, or your anxious about something you did, something criminal, or drugs….Please just let me know and I promise not to freak. I promise to support you."

Okay, a bit melodramatic, but I think you can see the pattern. Most young people seem to tell their parents about their sexual orientation when they are ready, and when they feel safe doing so. It's up to us parents to create the right conditions.

Rasha Mourtada, Globe Life web editor: Thank you, Prof. Ungar, for your time today. Any last thoughts?

Michael Ungar: Hello everyone, Great to have this opportunity to ponder some tough questions alongside all of you. Speaking with our children about sexuality is never easy. At least this is an opportunity to raise a few of the issues they are likely wondering about.

The very best to you and your families,

Mike

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