• Mon, Jun 13 2011

Gender-Variant Children Aren’t Necessarily LGBTQ Children

Just because your son is asking for nail polish and stealing his sister’s tutu doesn’t mean he’ll grow up to be gay. An article over at The New York Times reveals some of the dialogue that’s taking place with parents of gender-nonconforming children — that is boys who like purple shirts and girls who want mohawks. The parents featured in the article navigate their children’s predilections and unconventional tastes with blogs and like-minded playgroups, letting their children dress themselves as they like. Many of these parent-launched blogs such as “Raising My Rainbow: Adventures in Raising a Slightly Effeminate, Possibly Gay, Totally Fabulous Son” tack on homosexuality when understanding their child’s behavior — but that might be assuming a bit much for a four-year-old.

The Times observes:

In general, researchers say, the behavior of very young children may not be a strong predictor of their adult sexual orientation. “Even when the child has extremely gender variant behavior at 4, it doesn’t necessarily mean the child will be gender variant at 10 or 15,” said Dr. Edgardo J. Menvielle, who directs the Gender and Sexuality Psychosocial Programs at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. “It’s possible they will remain who they are and they may also change in a variety of ways.”

In other words, parents have to wait, a limbo that many find unbearable. Some rush to aggressive advocacy. Diane Ehrensaft, a therapist in Oakland, Calif., said that a parent might say to her, “ ‘I know my child is transgender and I’m ready to go with hormone blockers.’ ”

Her response? “Whoa, not so fast.”

While it’s lovely to see an new generation of supportive, advocating parents completely ready to throw up the rainbow flag and sign up for PFLAG, the immediate jump from boys with Barbies to gay presents a very limited understanding of gender — and homosexuality for that matter. If we’re going to narrowly define gender or assign sexual identities based on what toys children like to play with, that alone can be just as short-sided as repressing gender-variant behavior. If anything, what these gender-noncomforming children are showing us is that our conceptions of gender are too confining — as girls who want short hair might just turn out to be straight. Boys with princess phases may never exhibit same-sex interests or identify as transgender.

Appearance and preferences are not necessarily anchored by gender, nor should they be. Gendered interpretations of our children need to be expanded as well as support for those children who are do eventually identify as LGBTQ.

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  • Sarah Hoffman

    Thanks for talking about this issue. While girls have a great deal of leeway to express their gender–few parents fret that a girl who wears pants or plays soccer is going to be a lesbian–boys who stray outside of the very tightly proscribed boundaries of masculinity are not only labeled gay (and not necessarily in a good way) but bullied for their differences.

    I explored these ideas in this essay on Salon:

    http://www.salon.com/life/real_families/index.html?story=/mwt/feature/2011/02/21/son_looks_great_in_dress

    I write about raising my gender-nonconforming son at http://www.sarahhoffmanwriter.com

    -Sarah Hoffman

  • Kate

    I agree! Remember, we all probably know hetero people who dress homosexual but apparently aren’t …even girls who almost look like guys! Plus not all gay people look gay. I also had friends that had strong tomboy phases and are straight adults

  • Adrian

    I agree with everything you said. Except it seems like the mom in Raising my Rainbow is aware that her son could very possibly be straight. She’s actually has a lot of interesting things to say about gender variant children. :)

  • mod rad

    Good to see a sensible article on this. we live in such a conservative, extreme gender stereotyping culture, any variation from the ultra narrow stereotype is seen as gay our trans. And why do we care if a kid is gay? We need to change culture. The average age of identifying supposed trans gender kids is 3 or 4 – this is a horrific imposing of gender stereotype, leading to dangerous long term hormones etc and surgeries. This is a very serious issue of child rights. Parents imposing their narrow gender ideas on children & forcing trans on them is child abuse.

  • adriennefabulous

    I think that if we’re going to worry that parents speculating that their gender-variant children might be gay is “a bit much,” we have to be consistent with our worries. Parents insistently, relentlessly heterosexualize their children all the time– but we don’t see many people wringing their hands about the potential pitfalls of assuming one’s child is straight. Despite the overwhelming evidence that assuming your child is straight can be emotionally damaging to both child and parent– arguably, much, MUCH more damaging than presuming one’s child might be LGBTQ– there doesn’t seem to be much outrage when parents talk about their 4-year-old son playing with his “girlfriend” on the playground, or about telling their daughter that when a boy teases them, that means he likes them. Why not worry about the thousands of parents who are attributing a heterosexual orientation to their toddlers, rather than about the few parents with gender-variant children who speculate that their kids might grow up to be LGBTQ?

  • http://twitter.com/MacGrrrl Carolyn Hayes

    True true true! My younger son (now 14) wore dresses at home for a long time. We would let him dress and take him out to dinner where he was unlikely to come across friends. Then he stopped. 3 years later he wore a kilt to 7th grade, and told his classmates it was manly. This year he is into victorian fashion, bow ties and suspenders. So he likes to dress and has a sense of flair. He identifies as straight – not that his lesbian moms care either way. He follows his own drummer, for sure, and is comfortable with that.
    Parents who make assumptions, and worse, parents who decide kids are trans at an early age and allow them to delay puberty (basically sterilizing them for life) are doing children no favors. I consider trying to change their bodies to fit a stereotype as child abuse. Let them figure out who they are while supporting their explorations.

  • Mark Daniels

    the most interesting thing to me is that if a boy likes purple sparkles then the gay thing automatically raises its’ head. not that, hmm, that fellow likes purple sparkly things, vs that boy that likes camp, assuming of course the other boy likes camp because he likes camo, not being taught he likes camo. big difference.

    it was funny, that on one blog a cafe mom, terrible blog BTW, said she was so proud her boy liked to play kitchen, because his dad did most of the household cooking. sigh as and a smile. yet if the boy wanted to wear nailpolish she was soooo not OK with it. gotta wonder. she said it herself and didn’t recognize it. early accustomed likes are learned behavior, but can be overruled by the nature of the individual. so instead she slipped into stupidity rather naturally and hence easily.