Friday, September 20, 2019

Should parents "out" their children on social media?

I don't often publish long personal essays on this blog, unless something is really bugging me. 

And something really is.

I have a Facebook friend (not someone I've ever met), a writer and teacher who is deeply involved in gender issues and dispelling stereotypes/stigma around sexual orientation. She counsels students who have been wounded by internet bullies, and her published poetry often touches on these hot-button issues. 

But I do notice something in her posts cropping up more and more.

She describes both her kids as "queer", and is fiercely proud of this identification as an example of personal integrity in the face of an intolerant world. As far as I can make out, they are either pre-teens or in their early teenage years. I know that some parents have helped their pre-pubescent kids "transition" to the opposite gender because the kid identifies as such. I have mixed feelings about this, because I know about the wild emotional swings of late childhood/early adolescence and the highly volatile quest for an authentic identity, which, to be perfectly honest, I am still engaged in now.

I'm not saying "kids don't know what they want". I am saying "kids don't ALWAYS know what they want," and, even more importantly, "kids don't always know what they NEED" - or what is good for them, or even safe for them. 

This fellow poet recently "outed" one of her kids (including photos) as "non-binary", a term I never heard until recently. It's one of the many buzzwords around gender  that I admittedly find hard to keep up with (given that I came of age in the 1960s, before Stonewall even happened). 

I have always believed gender is much more fluid than has ever been acknowledged or accepted in the past. But if a kid in their early teens identifies as both male and female, or neither male nor female, particularly if this revelation is recent, I think they need to be very careful how and where such sensitive information is displayed.

Even if that child gives their parents "permission" to have this information posted on social media, even if that child is "cool" with it or even wants it out there where everyone can see it - maybe because of the rush of initial exhilaration at making the discovery - does that make it a wise idea or even safe to actually do what they are asking?

There is no such thing as deletion on the internet. My son the professional techie calmly retrieved ALL of my files when my computer self-destructed a few years ago. I was in hysterics because I was sure it was all gone forever. He told me he retrieves deleted files for businesses all the time, and it's a piece of cake. People take screenshots of disastrous tweets  every day, then replicate them millions of times, claiming "hey, they posted it first!" 

Can a teenage kid in a highly vulnerable position really make wise decisions about publicly disclosing something so fraught with emotion? What should the parents' role be in all of this? Most problematic: what if the child takes a different direction in the future? The transgendered community is notoriously inflexible and unsupportive of people who DO take a different direction and decide to "detransition". Meantime, the record of their initial transformation is there on the internet: the photos, the videos, the posts - forever.

My four teenage grandkids are all in that violent pendulum-swing between insightful young adulthood (including serious conversations that just blow me away with their astute perceptions and mature observations) and faux-toddlerhood, going wild over shirts with pink llamas on them and the adventures of Peppa Pig, a primitive and extremely obnoxious British cartoon series designed for preschoolers.

So: Albert Schweitzer versus a one-dimensional, lame-looking family of pigs. Where does the truth lie? It should be completely OK for adolescent kids NOT to know where they stand. It may be perceived as healthy to come out, the kid may even ASK to come out, and on the surface of it, coming out on social media may seem like a wonderful way to counter stigma and publicly display an example of personal courage. I "get" this, and the immense pride which seems to be behind all of this woman's posts about the subject

But I very strongly believe that it can be a disastrous decision to let the child call the shots. When parents do not play watchdog, do not act as a filter, and do not safeguard their child from the consequences of too much exposure, they are falling down in the first duty of parenthood, which is to keep their children safe.

Due to the influence of that ravening monster, the internet, parental responsibilities are changing rapidly, and people have not yet had time to adjust to it. Those of us who did not grow up with social media often make disastrous blunders which are the result of not thinking things through, and - even worse - cannot ever be retracted. But in this situation, who if anyone is really thinking it through? This woman is a published author, something which takes her posts to a whole new level of public awareness, and has been very vocal about working with "many-gendered" people. She has shared the way her child came out to her joyously, with a great sense of celebration. She received many warm and supportive comments  from her Facebook friends, backing her up unconditionally in everything she is doing. The one person who expressed concern about how kids sometimes "go back and forth" and should not be expected to be consistent received a hurt, defensive and even angry response.

But celebrations of difference need to be tempered with reality. Having personal gender issues displayed on the social media billboard is risking the child's emotional wellbeing, particularly at school where teachers and students are not likely to react with sensitivity.  "Awareness" programs can only go so far, and haters are going to hate no matter what.  My feeling is that this woman exists in a sort of bubble, preaching to the Facebook choir and thus living in the illusion that most people are OK with all this and that any potential harm to her child can be resolved.

My daughter-in-law has asked me, and sometimes reiterates, that I not post any photos or videos of her daughters on social media. My grandgirls are smart, beautiful, funny, interesting, and (by the way) brilliant dancers who are now winning trophies in competition hand-over-fist, so you can imagine how hard it is for me to stick to this. But I know EXACTLY why she is doing it. My own daughter is careful about her two kids, and does not have  a "share" feature on her Facebook page which, in spite of her being a public figure in media, only has a small and select group of friends. The only pictures I can share appear rarely on their Dad's page, which is part of his internet presence as a prominent sportscaster. But these are posted selectively and with care. I find it all kind of frustrating because these kids are so magnificent and I love them so much, but I totally understand why all the ins and outs of their adolescence CANNOT be made public. 

Lest you think I  believe people should go back in time and hide all revelations about gender identity, it's not that way at all. What I'd say to MY kid is: wait. That part of your identity will still be there and still important to you when you are twenty and on your own. If not, then you have evolved in a different direction, and that's OK too. It's all OK - but it's not always OK, or even safe, to tell the whole world.