Dr. Jesse Bering at Scientific American has created quite a stir with his recent post on gender norms in children as they relate to a child’s future sexuality. First and foremost, people – including Bering himself – seem to be uncomfortable with the term “prehomosexual,” which scientists have coined in the study of future gays. Of the term, Bering says, “it manages to achieve both an uncomfortable air of biological determinism and clinical interventionism simultaneously.” It does evoke the notion of a cocoon-like state that pre-gay children reside in, as if becoming a homosexual takes a certain level of extra preparation. “It’s hard work being this fabulous!” is a fitting mantra for trannies and drag queens, but not necessarily your everyday gay of either gender.
Secondly, the sole photo accompanying Bering’s piece (also used here), which may or may not have been his editorial choice, is of a young girl dressed in baseball gear, presumably getting ready to strike-out with the boys on her team. (If you know what I mean – wink wink nudge nudge – this is what a lesbian looks like when she’s little.) Indeed, Bering’s piece does go on to say that gender-bending behavior in childhood can be a reliable predictor of sexual orientation (if boys like makeup they’ll also like boys, if girls like trucks they’ll also like girls). But strangely – that’s not the part of the article that has feminist panties in a bundle. It’s the photo itself women are objecting to. But why?
In a repost from Sociological Images on Jezebel, Dr. Gwen Sharpe hinges the future of women’s sports on this one photo, saying:
The idea that an image of a girl in jeans, holding sports equipment, is considered an obviously relevant photo to use in a story suggesting that in fact the old stereotypes are true and gender non-conformity can tell us if a kid is going to be gay, thus reinforcing the stereotype that playing sports is an accurate sign of future sexual orientation, just depresses me beyond reason….
I suspect what most people will take away is not that most girls who play sports, or act like “tomboys,” aren’t gay, but that those things are signs a girl might be gay. And that means all girls who play sports continue to face the stigma attached to female athletes, driving away many girls and women who worry that liking, or being good at, athletics… is unfeminine and will get them labeled as gay.
Really, Dr. Sharpe? Really? You think girls who like sports are going to be worried about whether or not people think they’re gay? Sure, there may be a few sports with lesbian jokes still attached to them (softball, field hockey… tennis, anyone?), but honestly, I went to high school in the early 90′s (before it was really okay to be gay) and none of the many, many female athletes in my school were ever made fun of for being “gay.” The president of the drama club, on the other hand, I bet she was called a dyke by random strangers in the hallway. (Not that I would know. Ahem.)
Honestly, if your aim, Dr. Sharpe, is to stand against gender stereotypes, then why would you be bothered to see an image of a little girl dressed in sports gear? The whole point of Dr. Bering’s piece is to point out that, yes, “gender-atypical behavior in childhood is strongly correlated with adult homosexuality,” so why not use the classic tomboy as an example? Would a photo of a young boy in a pink dress have been better?
Sharpe admits in her response to Bering that he includes all of the important caveats to the research, and that he asks what I consider to be the most important question surrounding any of this: Why should any of us care if our kids are gay? Which is not to say that I haven’t thought of it myself as a parent. I think when you’re straight, because you can take for granted that your lifestyle is considered “normal,” it’s easy to assume that your children will be straight. So you begin thinking inevitably about them getting married, having kids themselves, etc. etc. on and on in a long, linear line of straightdom.
But I have so many gay people in my life, it was fairly easy for me to press pause on my future fantasy and ask, “What if my daughter is gay? What does that mean to me?” Of course I would have no problem whatsoever with my daughter being gay, but it does require an adjustment to the future fantasy. (“Okay, so maybe she’ll have a double-bride wedding. Maybe she won’t want to get married at all.”) That last thought does break my heart a little bit, even after a troubling divorce.
I don’t know if every parent takes a moment as they observe their children growing up to wonder if their kids might be gay, or if something has to “tip them off,” as it were. What made me consider the possibility was the way my daughter very assuredly told me – more than once – that she doesn’t want to have children, only a puppy, when she grows up. (She’s 4.) I understand that many straight women have no desire to have children – I’m just saying that hearing my daughter say with such certainty at such a young age that she didn’t want to have children threw a wrench into the long, straight fantasy I detailed above. (Especially since she is and could very likely remain my only child.) So I figured while I was adjusting my expectations for what her life might become, I might as well entertain the thought of having a future daughter-in-law, as well.
Which brings me to Bering’s point about parental homophobia having more to do with “unconscious genetic interests” than anything else. He says:
Evolutionarily, needless to say, parental homophobia is a no-brainer: gay sons and lesbian daughters aren’t likely to reproduce (unless they get creative). And I would imagine, on a viable hunch, that even in today’s most liberally-minded communities, coming out of the closet to parents is a much easier thing to do for gay individuals who have the luxury of demonstrably straight siblings who can carry their own reproductive weight…. In any event, I think it’s far better for parents to recognize the source of their concerns about having a gay child as being motivated by unconscious genetic interests than it is to have them fibbing to themselves about being entirely indifferent to their son or daughter “turning out” gay.
It’s important to note, too, that Bering is a gay man (“I often say that I wanted to get out of a vagina at one point in my life, but ever since then I’ve never had the slightest interest in going back into one.”), so I don’t think his work is coming from a place of homophobia, latent self-hatred or trying to enforce gender norms. I think he’s transcended a need to prove anything to anyone about gendered behavior and is instead looking at what the science says, not worrying that girls will be afraid to like softball because they don’t want anyone to think they’re gay. People think I’m gay all the time, and all that lets me know is that I must be a cool person who isn’t hung up about trying to conform to what the world wants women to be. That sounds pretty feminist to me. I say relax ladies, and play ball.