When a Child Comes Out, Whose Story Is It to Tell?
Social media can be an incredible tool for finding connection and understanding, which is why so many of us share our lives, stories, and struggles on various platforms. But it gets complicated when adult parents decide to share the highs and lows of their children’s lives online. That’s especially true when the child is too young to consent or not yet old enough to fully understand just how public the internet can be.
In some cases, it’s clear when a child’s privacy has been violated, such as when parents live stream their kids’ punishments for misbehaving. But there are also ethical gray zones, instances when parents clearly mean well but are still sharing sensitive information about their kids. One such gray zone is with coming-out posts, where parents announce their child’s queer or trans identity and voice their support.
About 20 million people in the United States identify somewhere under the LGBTQ+ umbrella – hovering around eight percent of the population, according to a Human Rights Campaign survey. And odds are, nearly all of these 20 million people have navigated coming out of the closet. Coming out is often tied to a queer person’s coming of age – marking the moment they opt out of expectation and are brought in to queer community and life.
For minors, however, coming out can be risky. There’s a significant likelihood of them being rejected, which can have devastating consequences; The Trevor Project reports that 28 percent of LGBTQ+ youth experience homelessness or housing instability.
Against that backdrop, it’s natural to want to celebrate parents who enthusiastically embrace their child. And of course, it’s heartening to see parents who are eager to show their support about their child’s coming out.
But while publicly supporting a queer child on social media may seem like a no-brainer, experts say it can come with its own risks, some of which we’re only just now beginning to fully understand. And as people have begun questioning the safety and ethics of posting any image of a minor child on a public forum like social media, more and more people are asking when it’s appropriate for a parent or guardian to share about their child’s identity – or if it ever is.
Why Parents Post About Their Kids’ Identities Online
“There are so many reasons parents may want to reach out and share about their experiences as a parent [of a queer or trans child] in a public way,” says Dani Rosenkrantz, PhD, a psychologist who often helps family members learn to affirm and understand their LGBTQ+ children. Visibility can be a powerful tool “for building community for families, as well as an essential component to advocacy and expressing dissent with policies that harm their children,” Dr. Rosenkrantz adds.
Right now, the American Civil Liberties Union is currently tracking 491 anti-LGBTQ+ bills in the US, many of which target LGBTQ+ minors. So parents of LGBTQ+ children may see sharing publicly about their child’s experience as a type of activism; a way of providing their followers with personal counter-narratives to these dehumanizing policies.
Kate Brookes*, for instance, believes she has an “ethical responsibility to make the world safer for [her] children,” a cisgender boy and a transgender girl. She says she does that through her writing; her forthcoming book, “Transister: Raising Twins in a Gender-Bending World,” is about her own experience parenting a trans child.
“When you consider the increased rate of violent attacks towards trans people, the decreased access to gender-affirming care, and the highly vocalized attempts by some lawmakers to strip away LGBTQ rights, my trans daughter’s safety is at risk,” Brookes says. “Some of the most effective ways to counter these risks and the hate they represent are through education, increased awareness, and by normalizing the trans experience. Telling personal stories is one of the most powerful ways to do this. Along these lines, I feel I have an ethical responsibility to share our family’s journey, albeit responsibly.”
Brookes, who started working on “Transister” when her twins were 9 years old, takes steps to guard her children’s anonymity, including using a pseudonym (*the same name used in this piece). But she understands that her work requires her to navigate a sometimes-blurry line between effectively sharing her family’s story and doing what’s best for her kids.
Is It Always Safe to Share a Minor’s Story Online?
Regardless of intent, the real-life ramifications of a guardian deciding where, how, and when to tell a minor’s story – especially if that guardian is making money or professional gains from that story – is complicated.
However well-meaning, there’s an ethical gray zone regarding sharing a child’s personal life in public. Can a child truly consent to their story being broadcast in this way? What if participating in a post, book, or public project seems fun when they’re 15 but invasive at 25? The internet, for better or worse, is permanent. And once a parent announces their child as queer or trans, that disclosure can’t easily be taken back.
Recently, many people have been reexamining the ethics of making children public figures. Child stars like Jennette McCurdy say they were exploited by adults and TV networks alike. The recent Prime Video documentary “Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets” pulled the curtain back on TLC’s slew of Duggar family reality TV and featured the now-adult children confronting the religious extremism and sexual abuse happening off screen.
Meanwhile, “momfluencing” has become common – describing the practice of parents, often mothers, turning their families into brands and through online videos and posts. Often, the children in these families don’t have a say as their intimate moments, photos, and faces are plastered on the internet or as their childhood is monetized.
Granted, these are extreme examples. A parent with a few hundred followers and a private account may not see themselves as equivalent to a big-name creator who’s not only posting similar content but also getting paid to do so. But a “coming out turned content” pipeline isn’t that far-fetched, either.
The repercussions of a parent’s posting can impact a child in any number of ways: they may be embarrassed or feel their privacy is invaded; they may deal with harassment in class or among extended family; school administration may get involved; and down the road, it could impact housing or employment opportunities.
What’s more, language and identity sometimes change as people mature. Over the years, a child or young adult may decide a certain label no longer fits them, and if their parent has posted widely about their initial coming out, they may feel the need to “take back” or “relaunch” their identity, which can be hugely stressful.
Especially right now, when there is so much panic and hatred directed at queer and trans people, something as seemingly innocuous as a parent’s posts may add additional, political pressures on a child. They may feel they need to take on the mantle of queer and trans representation and educate their family, friends, and community by giving details of their lives, relationships, and transition. But queer and trans children should be allowed to be kids – not pressured into poster children, educators, political figures, or community advocates.
How to Know When, and If, to Post
Thinking about these long-term implications is a key factor in deciding whether or not it’s appropriate to share a post. “There’s also no ‘one size fits all’ approach to parenting, inclusive of social media,” Dr. Rosenkrantz says. “If we’re centering [a child’s] needs as the adults in their life, we’re going to check in with ourselves about the long-term impact of a post, ideally with the children involved in that exploration,” they say.
“When we make this investment in critical conversations about the impact of advocacy and media, we’re also teaching our children to be intentional with their advocacy and media use,” Dr. Rosenkrantz adds.
Obviously, one option for parents is to simply not post about their children and wait until a child is old enough and mature enough to discuss what they are willing to share publicly.
If a parent is still inclined to post, the following steps can help ensure they’re being responsible and minimizing the risk of harm to their child.
Ask yourself: why am I posting?
Investigate the instinct to share publicly. What’s the motivation for posting? Are you looking for guidance, advice, or community? How will you determine potential impact, positive or negative? How will you talk to your child about media use, boundaries, and impact?
If advocacy is motivating the desire to post, consider alternative ways that don’t force a child to be front and center. There are plenty of volunteer and education opportunities both online and in person that don’t require a child’s involvement. Alternately, parents can post their support, educational resources, and important news for friends and family to see, without mentioning their child.
To find community, there are private parenting groups and meetups you can seek out for support.
Bring your child into the conversation.
If you feel it’s essential to post about your child – or if they want you to – think about what types of age-appropriate conversations you can have with them to make sure you’re both considering the long-term implications of doing so and creating posts that have less potential to do harm. Asking for a child’s consent, and affirming they have all the information they need to make an educated decision, should be the bare minimum for sharing a child’s journey.
“Consent is a critical part of a parent’s responsibility to their children – and that consent should be ongoing and age sensitive,” Dr. Rosenkrantz says. “Whether talking to a youth or adult, asking for consent and honoring their privacy is an expression of respect and, importantly, allows the queer/trans person to have the power in choosing how to tell their story. In a culture that frequently robs them of their agency, it is empowering and shows that you’re putting their needs, safety, and wellness first,” she says.
Think, and talk, about the big-picture consequences.
Again, what you’re posting (if at all) should center the needs of your child, not yourself. So you might ask your child if they want helpful boundaries posted online – for example, a name or pronouns change – to update family and friends.
That, however, requires considering all the people who follow you and how easily posts can be shared online, even if your account is private. It requires talking with your child about whether they prefer to remain anonymous or “stealth” (meaning they’re not generally out to people outside of family and close friends), or whether they might want to be more anonymous in the future, and considering how something you post today might affect their ability to do so down the line.
Don’t moralize the decision to post.
It’s also important not to accidentally pressure or “moralize” a child’s decision. For example, if a parent says sharing their story is the “right” thing to do or that it will help other kids and their families, the child may feel they have to take on the work of activism and representation, regardless of personal impact or if they’re ready for it.
Protect your children’s identities.
This is especially relevant if you’re sharing to a larger audience. For Brookes, sharing her children’s story responsibly meant writing under a pseudonym and “never releasing pictures of my kids for use in my work and doing my best to protect their anonymity,” Brookes says. “This also means I turn down all TV interviews. As a former TV news reporter and anchor, television is my medium of choice, and sometimes it feels like a huge deal for me to say ‘no.’ What makes it much easier is acknowledging that my need and/or desire to write does not supersede my children’s need for privacy.”
Still, Brookes says it hasn’t been easy navigating these boundaries. When it comes to her book and public posting, she says her children have expressed a combination of pride, concern, and anger over the years. She didn’t ask for her children’s feedback, nor did she give them veto power on the contents of the book. Now 14 years old, neither child has read the book.
“Even with name changes and restricted publicity, I know I’m walking a fine line. When they do read the book one day, I’m hoping they won’t hate [it] and will maybe even like what they find. I’m also hoping they won’t hate me,” Brookes says.
It goes without saying: queer and trans youth need loud, meaningful support from their families and communities. Minors, especially minors who belong to marginalized groups, have limited power and visibility. Ultimately, Dr. Rosenkrantz says, “Acceptance and supportive community saves lives and improves mental health – but we have to advocate with intentionality and with each unique child’s needs in mind.”
For some, posting on social media is an important tool for advocacy. But it’s also possible to loudly support queer and trans youth without sharing a story that isn’t yours. True allyship – which is what queer and trans youth need – should never be at the expense of a child’s privacy.