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The Power of Language

Chernyakhovsk Julia RobertsJulia Roberts is an advocate, writer, speaker, strategist and community builder who co-founded Support for Special Needs in 2010 for families touched by special needs. Married to Julian and living in Atlanta, Georgia, they own a small business. They are raising two kids with learning disabilities who survived kidney transplants at age eight and will require liver transplants as a result of ARPKD/CHF. Julia is addicted to naps, Diet Coke and laughter.


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“Your wife.”

As soon as I said it to my son, I knew it didn’t feel right.

I corrected myself and said, “I mean the person you end up with, because it could be a wife or husband.” My son was probably five years old at the time and I was talking about the future, as one does when picturing our little ones when they’re older. Because he would marry a woman, she would marry a man.

Except how could I know?

The truth is, I can’t and none of us can. I do know if they end up in a committed relationship, I am fairly certain it will be a person, so since then I say, “The person you end up with.”  For over a decade I’ve been conscious of the words I use with my kids relating to my LGBTQ friends, my people.

“Wait, who will have the baby?”

One of my kids asked this as I told them our friends were getting married. Our friends, Kate and Kirsten, are two amazing women who came into our lives by chance. My sister knew them states away and thought one of them would make an excellent babysitter while attending school in Georgia. My sister was right. They came into our lives at a precarious time for our family and saw us through crisis, forever linking us together.

In relaying my excitement about Kate and Kirsten’s upcoming nuptials, I realized that in all of my thoughtful language about people in the LGBTQ community, I’d not covered the detail about having children. Talking to the kids about sex wasn’t the issue. I had no problem discussing anything sexual with the kids, including gay sex. I just hadn’t explained how a couple would go about having children with only sperm or only eggs.

Being close to friends who are gay and bisexual, I’d always wanted to raise my kids in an environment that would allow them to talk about their sexuality freely, especially if they were having feelings they might be gay. I think it came from horror stories of friends being kicked out of homes and worse, homeless, or living years into adulthood still in the closet with their families, essentially living double lives. I didn’t want that environment for my kids.

As states make marriage legal we’ve had the chance to talk with the kids more about equality for all people, not just the ones that society says should have basic human rights. I told them that not too recently two women or two men wouldn’t have been able to be married. They would have had to do something else, like a ceremony, but not a “marriage” ceremony – not legally anyway. I watched my 10-year-old daughter think about that for a second, then say, “That is stupid. Why can’t people just love who they love and marry who they want to marry?” I replied, as I often do, “I don’t know why, but I know it’s our responsibility to support it. What if you want to marry a woman when you grow up?”

So the discussions continue as my kids move into teenagehood. Luckily, I have friends who are in the LGBTQ community who keep sharing their stories so I may bring them into my home. I’m still learning which words to use, so I’m still reading.

Language. The words we choose can help our kids feel at ease so that they can be themselves with us but can also help them help others be at ease as they go out into the world.

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  1. Thank you for always standing with us, Julia. You have mad ally cred 😉

  2. Love this! It really is just that shift in language to make things inclusive. The other day I found myself talking to my son about the White House and my mother told him, “you have to be the president to live there.” And instantly I said, “or married to him or her.” And that was that.

  3. GrandeMocha says:

    I’m definitely thinking more about the language I use with my son. I worry that his religious school teaches him that their way is the only way.

  4. Marriage equality is definitely paving the way for open conversations about relationships and politics in this country. I’m so grateful that we’re raising our boys during this time of change, and I’m even more grateful for the right-on allies like you!

  5. This is the perspective that will make all the difference, that is already making a tremendous difference for children. So affirming and an empowering way to parent.

  6. “The words we choose can help our kids feel at ease so that they can be themselves with us but can also help them help others be at ease as they go out into the world.” Truer words have never been spoken. Now, if I can somehow get my Albanian nanny on board.

  7. Thankyouthank you sister Julia! I second Vikki’s rave: you are an ally’s ally.

    Also thank you Dresden: “And that was that,” indeed. 🙂

    Also also I second Clare’s calling out of your point about the impact of our kids’ comfort: it magnifies in huge ways.

    It is very interesting how casual language can be, even as its impact is so undeniably powerful. Your simple use of “person” is so so very easy, and also so much more accurate. With so many language questions, I have come to realize that it’s really not about being hypersensitive so much as precise. Right? Way easier from that standpoint.

    You know, as to how to talk about how LGBT families bring kids into them: in keeping with the striving toward accuracy and practical inclusion, I back out to the most basic thing (esp. when my kids were younger and asking): that you need something from a man and something from a woman to create/ conceive a baby. No need to use the default language “mother” and “father,” since I see those as social/ emotional terms rather than biological ones.

    Following up, I say that “most” parents are a combo of male and female, and so most of those have their own sperm and eggs to use, though not all. The rest of us rely on others for help to one degree or another (for sperm, egg, gestation, whichever). It has helped our own kids’ evolving understandings that they know one of absolutely every variation on the family building theme: hetero couple who have used alternative (in vitro) insemination of their own egg+sperm to abet their fertility challenges, hetero couple who used donor egg, same sex couples who’ve adopted, become parents through surrogacy, had both a genetic & gestational mother, had donor sperm from both known and anonymous sources. Helps to put a friendly local for instance.

    I find that the “most,” “many,” and “some” distinctions are so daggone helpful. Because practically nothing about family-building is true of “all.” Thank you for walking this path together with both heart and mind so open and sharp.

  8. Love this. For the record, even as a queer/feminist parent, I’m constantly thinking about and adjusting the way I use language, and calling myself out on my own entrenched assumptions and habits. So easy to refer to everything as “he,” for example — letter carriers, garbage collectors, that dog or cat the kid is petting, etc.

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