It’s Easy To Tell If Kids Are Gay — As Long As You Don’t Care About the Research

Over at Slate, Brian Palmer has a meditation on gay identity and behaviors in young people — especially timely at a point where we’re increasingly aware that ‘acting gay’ can be dangerous for kids, like it was for Lawrence King. Palmer’s question is: we’re worried about our kids being gay-bullied at young ages,  but we’ve only recently begun even thinking about young kids being out or gay at all. How can you tell, and how early? For instance, he mentions one of the plaintiffs in the court case about the proliferation of bullying in Minnesota — he’s only fourteen, and hasn’t declared a sexual orientation but is still a victim of antigay bullying. If we can agree that antigay bullying is now a problem for our children, does that mean we can agree that our children can be gay, even at young ages?

Well, probably we’re not going to be able to agree on much of this article at all. Palmer starts with the assertion that gayness (behavior? identity? unclear) can be noted as early as toddler-hood, which is certainly possible and which I’m willing to entertain. But then there’s his examples. For instance:

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.

PHOTO VIA RACHELDEVINE.COM

Palmer explains this as being research-based, but it smacks SO STRONGLY of every stereotype gay people, especially men, have had to live through that it’s almost impossible to stomach. It also sounds almost identical to the ‘research’ and ‘theory’ of ‘scientists’ like Dr. George Rekers, whose ‘therapy’ aimed at gay conversion was based on assumptions that sounded very similar: “According to Dr.Green and the grown homosexual man he brought with him on the show, effeminate male children would almost certainly grow into homosexual men if they weren’t treated by psychiatrists at the earliest age possible. She remembers: “I think there was a listing of ten things. If your little boy is doing, like, five out of these ten things, then contact me. And so that’s how I got into this.” 

Is that the kind of ‘research’ that Palmer is thinking of when he says that playing with Barbies is a ‘predictive behavior?’ Why yes! It is! Because the one study he cites is in fact the The “Sissy Boy Syndrome,” which was the exact study run by George Rekers and Robert Green and referred to above.  It followed an entire 44 “non-gender-conforming” men and found that, surprise, thirty of them became gay or bisexual adults. The issue, of course, is that this was in fact a seminal work of gay conversion therapy and along with its theories on ‘gender non-conforming behavior,’ it also held that by correcting that behavior, boys could be trained to grow up straight — “cured.” Not that there’s any mention of this in Palmer’s article! In fact, The “Sissy Boy Syndrome” is referred to as “the leading study in this field” — never mind that it was published over 30 years ago, and that Dr. Robert Green, its primary author has since renounced conversion therapy (aka the results of this study), as has the American Psychological Association. This apparently did not seem relevant to include in the article. The one stalwart loyalist from the study, Dr. George Rekers, was caught vacationing with a handsome young ‘rentboy’ he had solicited online. Not that that means he’s gay, or that conversion isn’t real, or that the findings of his faulty study are invalidated — after all, doesn’t Rekers have totally gender conforming behaviors?

REKERS AND HIS ESCORT

None of this backstory to the “leading study” is mentioned in Palmer’s article; he says only that “Green’s study has since been repeated by other researchers with similar outcomes.” What researchers? Were they also misleading and permanently damaging the families of young children? Did their patients also later commit suicide? Can we assume that leaving out even a mention of controversy over these research findings — or citing any studies on non-gender-conforming children after 1987 — is, charitably, a journalistic oversight? Albeit a glaring one? For instance, we have to be generous in our assumption that Palmer was somehow kept in the dark about this 2003 paper in The Journal of Gender Studies, which is the first result after literally typing “gender non-conforming children” into Google Scholar. Its title is “Same-sex Sexuality and Childhood Gender Non-conformity: A spurious connection,” and you don’t even have to read past the abstract to get a counterpoint to Rekers and Green:

“In this paper I present a challenge to the theory that childhood gender non-conformity is associated with homosexuality, noting in particular that discussions of gender non-conformity and ‘homosexuality’ do not attempt to explain the experiences of heterosexual women. By demonstrating that childhood gender non-conformity has been wrongly associated with same-sex sexuality and posing an alternative explanation for childhood gender non-conformity, it is my intention to present a challenge to the theory that same-sex sexuality is related to congenital gender inversion.”

Even so, even if someone were blissfully unaware of the horrific background of the ‘research’ they had stumbled across, wouldn’t there still be some major issues to overlook?  For instance, the fact that while any social scientist understands the difficulties in rounding up a good sample size especially for minority communities (or things that parents might be reluctant to make public, like non-conforming gendered behavior), 44 is a ridiculously small sample size. Even though the contrasting evidence, that only one child from a 34-person sample of more ‘normal’ kids turned out to be gay, is sort of striking, the fact is that 34 people isn’t enough to draw any kind of meaningful conclusion from. It didn’t occur to Palmer that there might be something out there that was a little more comprehensive? Or did he know, and just didn’t want to tell you about it?

In short, once the deeply misinformed (at least I hope that’s the reason why this article was written from inside a time capsule) research at its heart is revealed, the rest of the assertions made are nothing short of disturbing. “Gender nonconforming boys also tend to adopt more traditional gender roles in middle and high school, often as an attempt to cover up their sexual identity.” Really? How did we find that out? By watching Glee? Since there’s no mention of any evidence backing it up, it’s really hard to say!

Bullying of gay kids, and kids who aren’t out but are perceived as gay or non-gender conforming, is a life-threatening issue. For instance, the heartrending death of Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, is hard to forget — he committed suicide at only 11 after enduring constant bullying and “gay” taunts at school. He didn’t identify as gay. At 11, it would be surprising if he did. Brian Palmer may like to know that Carl played football — a pretty gender-conforming behavior, no?

The question of how torment around an alleged sexual identity was allowed to get so bad that he killed himself, or why sexual identity is so concerning to our kids that they’re increasingly losing their lives over it, is urgent and hugely important. We need to do everything we can, all the research and reaching out and reaching inside ourselves, to try to stop something like this from ever happening again. And in the face of that, in a moment when we need to be honest about what’s happening to our kids and our own responsibility in stopping it, it’s positively reprehensible to choose to cling to the old, frightened stories we used to tell ourselves about what we hoped we could turn our kids into.

In the real world, the one we actually live in, playing with Barbies doesn’t mean anything. But making sweeping generalizations about it based on deeply flawed and prejudiced research from thirty years ago? That makes you a bad reporter.


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Rachel

Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

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26 Comments

  1. Things like this just make me angry. I was the girliest girl you could have gotten, playing in the playground in a flowery dress and plaiting my barbies hair. Apparently this means I shouldn’t be gay, and yet…

    Also, that gay bullying is still prevalent, I was bullied as a lesbian from the age of 11 onwards, I have only recently come out at the age of 19, like hell I knew what my orientation was at 11.

    • It makes me angry too. I spent my childhood with everyone telling me I was a gay male and me fighting against it. I guess they were half right though since I ended up transitioning and being a lesbian trans women.
      I really wish people would stop trying to fit kids in boxes and just fight the bullying it doesn’t matter if kids showing GNC are gay, trans or just cis heterosexauls the bullying because they break the norm is the problem and everyone should be fighting that.

  2. If only everyone on the internets could respond so civilly to what is clearly a slack-ass excuse for “journalism.”

    4 FOR YOU, RACHEL. YOU GO, RACHEL.
    And none for Brian Palmer.
    BYEEEEEEE!

  3. These types of theories bother me for the simple reason that they lead to gay-panic in parents. I’d bet that for every queer adult who was “gender non-conforming” as a child, you will also find a queer adult who had a “typical” gender expression as a child. It also bothers me that we feel the need to talk about sexuality in relation to children at all. THEY ARE CHILDREN. I wish these researchers, and all adults, would just leave them alone and stop trying to predict who they will want to sleep with in 15 years based on what they want to wear and play with at age 3.

    • Here’s the thing though, that mindset is kinda what leads to people banning any mention of gays in Tennessee schools. Being gay isn’t inherently sexual. I had a crush on a girl when I was five, and another much bigger crush on a girl when I was eight. It’s not as though I wanted their bodies.

    • The closest thing I did to gender non-conformity was steal my little brother’s Legos and Hot Wheels. You can bet I played with Barbies (little shoes included), American Girl dolls, and all that jazz.

      I didn’t realize I was a lesbian until 22. I’m still crazy girly. Played with all the girly things, am wearing a dress, heels and makeup right now, and I am absolutely gayer than gay. Screw stereotypes.

  4. It’s all well and good to take issue with a study because you suspect those conducting it of bias in some sense, which could show up in all sorts of ways, but please don’t argue that 44 is a small sample size for estimating a population proportion. It is well above the statistician’s rule of thumb of 30-35. There may be some other issue with the sampling method, but size is not one.

      • I have to cringe slightly at this. Whether findings based on a small sample can be projected onto a larger population is more of a function of how the sample was recruited than the sample’s size. Focus on the Family’s tendency to cite studies conducted at STD treatment centers when describing the “normal” sexual behavior of gay men are a notable case of mismatch in this area. 44 is a smaller sample than you would want, but it is more than were in, for example, the early studies on lesbian parenting.

        Thankfully there have been larger studies subsequent to the one described above. These have confirmed the initial pattern: children engaging in gender non-conforming behavior are more likely later identify as bisexual or homosexual. Why this is/what it means is fiercely disputed.

        • I know that having a large sample size isn’t always a possibility, but for this sort of broad-brushing generalization, you’d think a sample size of at least a triple-digit number would be obtainable. So, since Guy says that 44 is an adequate number and should not be considered problematic, I’m disputing that because, frankly, it isn’t big enough.

          Nevermind the problems of having a biased sample that doesn’t acknowledge cross-cultural populations within the general population…

  5. ‘Some mothers tell psychologists that they sensed their little boy was gay during infancy. They claim the child behaved differently than male siblings when picked up, showing a stronger interest in nuzzling.’

    i can’t even you guys

  6. I disagree with most of this post, but first I will concede that Palmer’s citation of Rekers is regrettable.

    That said, I think a lot of the negative reaction to the sorts of findings discussed by Palmer result from a widespread lack of basic statistical literacy. Here’s a paragraph from Rieger, et al., “Sexual orientation and childhood gender nonconformity: Evidence from home videos,” _Developmental Psychology_, 44(1), Jan 2008, 46-58.

    “A few prospective studies have also assessed the link between childhood gender nonconformity and sexual orientation (see Bailey & Zucker, 1995). The most extensive study to date followed two groups of boys into adulthood (Green, 1987). One group included 66 boys who showed pronounced gender-nonconforming behaviors, such as cross-dressing. The other group consisted of 56 typical boys. For two thirds of each group, sexual orientation was assessed in or after adolescence. About 75% of the formerly gender-nonconforming boys but none of the typical boys reported a bisexual or homosexual orientation. Similar findings were recently reported for 25 very gender-nonconforming girls, who were more likely than the typical girls to report a bisexual or homosexual orientation in adulthood (Drummond, Peterson-Badali, & Zucker, 2008). However, even though prospective studies have shown that children with objectively pronounced gender-nonconforming behaviors were likely to become homosexual, it is unclear how much the findings generalize to the development of most homosexual people. Children with extreme gender nonconformity are rare, and it is at least conceivable that most homosexual people showed minimal gender nonconformity during child- hood” (p. 47).

    I don’t have access to the article by Gottschalk (in JGS 12.1 [2003]). But from the abstract it is unclear what she means by “the experiences of heterosexual women,” on which her argument seems to hinge.

    What studies like the one quoted above seek to show is something like: GIVEN the presence of GNC behavior, the likelihood of adult sexual orientation is higher than in the absence of GNC.

    What people don’t seem to understand—as shown by comments from Howlie, Ava, and Kimberly—is that no one is trying to say anything along the lines of: GIVEN that somebody’s gay, what can I predict about their behavior? (OK, so there might be somebody out there trying to ask such a question, but not in this line of research.) This is made very clear in the passage quoted above, and it is an elementary concept in basic deductive reasoning and empirical research.

    Finally, the sad facts about homophobia and childhood bullying are totally urgent and must be addressed. But the way to address them should not be to suppress scientific research! If it’s true that there’s a significant correlation between early GNC behavior and later sexual orientation (NOTE: a ONE WAY correlation) then we ought to know that and try to understand it, rather than rejecting scientific research because we don’t like the way it smells (Rick Perry much?).

    • Great…so this article talks about correlations between gender nonconforming behaviour at childhood and the propability of being gay in adulthood. But many, many parents will read this as a causal relationship, meaning that if their child does these things he/she will turn gay. Way to cause a parental panic and an increase in applications for children to go to “True Directions”! *Sigh*.

  7. I feel like, rather than deducing a person’s homosexuality from their interest in gender non-conforming activities, it might have more to do with the trait of being open and honest with one’s self. I don’t know how much this could be seen in infants, but say a young boy is given the option to play with legos or a barbie doll. some may go along with what everyone else does or the subtle hints that lead them to believe it’s right to play with legos. others might ask themselves what it is they actually want to play with and might be more likely to play with the barbie than those who never really wondered at all. i think the correlation with supposed gender non-conformation and sexuality might be more along the lines of honest self inquiry (which leaves room for overlap-people asking themselves what to play with and choosing ‘gender-conforming’ toys). i hope i am making sense. i haven’t really thought this all out/know how applicable it even is with youngins.

    also, how fine is the line between ken (as a ‘barbie doll’) vs g.i. joe? i mean, c’mon people.

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