Over at Slate, Brian Palmer looks at research in an attempt to answer the question: when do gay kids start “acting gay”? The short answer is that it’s hard to pinpoint when a person stopped conforming to gender stereotypes, but the interesting answer for this space is that sometimes it can occur in toddlerhood. The important part of all the answers is something that I hope we all know: just because a boy does stereotypically girl things doesn’t mean he will grow up to be gay.
It also doesn’t mean he won’t.
And, either way, who cares, right?
Still, read on about the study (the problems of which I’ll address later):
A hefty pile of research shows that boys as young as 3 years old who break from traditional gender roles have a high likelihood of becoming gay adults. Predictive behaviors include playing with Barbie dolls, shying away from roughhousing, and taking an interest in makeup and women’s clothing. … The relationship isn’t one-to-one, however, and it’s certainly not the case that all boys who love Barbie dolls will later identify as gay. The correlation is much weaker in the other direction: A disproportionate number of boys who don’t conform to gender stereotypes turn out to be gay men, but lots of gay men played with G.I. Joe as boys and quarterbacked the high-school football team. Neither does the relationship appear to be as strong among girls. Tomboys aren’t as likely to become lesbian adults.
Okay, neat. But here’s a problem: the leading studies, from which Palmer reports his conclusions, were done in the ’70s and ’80s — a period, for those of us who can remember, when we paid lip service to “Free to be You and Me” but, in the end, we didn’t tolerate gays so well and discouraged boys from “being sissies” and crying and stuff like that — things that would then, as they are still now, considered feminine behaviors. Less so for butch-y girls, at least until they got to be teens or young adults who didn’t date (men).
Right now, at least in my bubble, parents encourage boys to play with dolls and don’t care so much if they put on their sisters’ princess dresses or cry, etc. A study that tried to decide whether certain behaviors were associated with sexual orientation, done today, might have a hard time categorizing gender-specific behaviors since we’re mercifully letting some of that go (though, yes, they persist). Even if such a study went with the old-school definitions, I’d predict the boys’ outcomes would start looking more like the girls’, as Palmer writes: Studies on females show that only around one-quarter of gender nonconforming girls grow up to be lesbians.
Back in the ’70s and ’80s, it was OK for girls to wear overalls and push trucks. But a boy in lipstick? That was trouble!
I want to point out that I’m writing about this only because it’s interesting, not that I am invested one outcome for my kids or the other. But I bet I’m not the first parent to stand back and wonder, “Hey! Could one of my kids be gay or bi-sexual or transgender, etc.”
Haven’t you ever wondered?
Also, what’s your take on this study? Or the idea of gendered behaviors? Or your toddler?