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Gay parents and
gender-bending children

Gay parents and
gender-bending children


Kyle's lesbian moms are worried that he likes dolls and girls' clothes. But shouldn't LGBT parents be more accepting of gender-nonconforming kids? Or do we worry they're bad PR for gay parenting?

Suzannah and Lia sought out family therapy because they were concerned about their youngest son. Kyle is a 5-year-old boy with a gentle, soft nature who scoffs at traditional boys' toys and games. He spends most of his time in day care playing with girls, and his favorite games involve playing with dolls and dressing up in princess gowns. Suzannah and Lia are progressive parents who have never forced gender-based roles or toys on any of their three children. "Our oldest son also played with 'girls' things,' " they said, "but never exclusively. Kyle's behavior stands out, and everyone is commenting on it."

As Suzannah and Lia talk about Kyle they keep contradicting themselves, saying, "I know that we haven't done anything to make Kyle this way, but maybe it's because he has no father?" and "I just want him to be himself, but maybe we shouldn't let him play with Barbies?"

There is something about transgressing gender boundaries that sends even the most liberal people running to their worn and tattered copies of Freud for explanations. On one hand, most of us believe that gender-based play and clothing is mostly about a social convention that we would rather not enforce. On the other hand, the division of the sexes is deeply embedded in our psyches. We may feel fine about our sons rocking their baby dolls to sleep, but not so fine about them wearing baby-doll pajamas to bed. We may encourage our daughters to play soccer, but bristle when they want to wear slacks and men's tailored shirts to their sisters' weddings.

We have all absorbed many social messages about proper gender behavior, and when children exhibit strong and intense aversion to the gender roles of their sex (or passionate desire for those of the "opposite" sex), we fear that something is terribly "wrong." What, if anything, is wrong with Kyle?

Well, the answer to that question depends on whom you ask. Some child psychologists will tell you that Kyle is confused about his proper gender role and that cross-gender behavior is fundamentally unhealthy (read: pathological, mentally ill, a sign of bad parenting). Many in the field have been especially concerned about boys' femininity, and gender transgression in boys has been more thoroughly researched and more aggressively treated than similar behavior in girls.

Much of the research describes four general outcomes for cross-gendered children. One, they grow up to be normatively gendered, heterosexual people. Two, they grow up to be feminine men or masculine women. Three, they grow up to be lesbian or gay. Four, they grow up to be transsexual or transgender. [See the note on sexual orientation and gender identity at the end of this story.] The most common outcome seems to be that gender-variant boys grow up to be gay. Treatment--in the form of behavioral modification programs geared at eliminating cross-gender behavior--is the standard recommendation.

Phyllis Burke, in her book Gender Shock, documents these treatments, which consist of encouraging greater father-son interaction, eliminating exclusive cross-gender friendship, forbidding opposite-sex toys and games, and shunning boys when they behave in an overtly feminine way. Marion, whose son Gregory, age 4, was treated for his feminine behavior, says, "When Gregory began to play more roughly with boys, shamefully hid his Barbie dolls, and began to mercilessly tease girls, the therapist thought he was getting better--that's when we decided to take him out of the program."

Underlying this treatment philosophy is the belief that cross-gender expression in children is indicative of later homosexuality or transsexualism, and that these are negative outcomes to be avoided at all costs. One author admits that treatment is rarely successful but says that "parents have the legal right to seek treatment to modify their child's cross-gender behavior to standard boy and girl behavior even if their only motivation is to prevent homosexuality." I think this should raise our queer eyebrows very high.

Something is very wrong here, but I'm not sure it is Kyle who has the problem. In order to decide if something is "wrong" with Kyle, we need to define what we mean by wrong. Do we think it is wrong to be a sensitive heterosexual man? Do we think it is wrong to be a gay man? I suspect most of us will respond to those questions with a resounding "No!"

We need to ask ourselves, as LGBT parents, what it is that we fear for our children who cross gender boundaries. Cross-gender behavior can be very anxiety provoking for parents; we may be embarrassed or frightened by a son's overt femininity or a daughter's masculine expression. Indeed, we also might be more fiercely protective of our children, living as we all do with the ghosts of our own queer childhoods. We are often torn between wanting to give our children room for self-expression and wanting to protect them from being teased. It is a rare LGBT parent that does not succumb, at least sometimes, to the fear that we are hurting our children because we are queer, especially regarding the development of their sexual and gender identities.

Suzannah and Lia have trouble articulating their fears about what is wrong with Kyle. And they preface their words with qualifiers ("We don't care if he's gay" "We will love him no matter who is"), but in truth they are worried that Kyle is gay and that it might in some way be their fault. Even though they are very aware that growing up with heterosexual parents did little to influence their own emerging sexual orientations. Even though their other children appear to have typical gender presentations. Even though it is not clear what the relationship is between playing with girls' toys and being gay. Even though they really really really think it's OK to be gay.

When we dig a little deeper, Suzannah and Lia have another concern. They are afraid that Kyle is not "just" gay but actually transsexual. As transsexual people are developing a more public voice, we may hear echoes of our children's words in the stories adult transgender people tell of their childhoods. "I was always different when I was younger." "I always knew in my heart that I wanted to be a girl." "I never played with traditional girls' toys, ever."

Clearly, most transsexuals did not grow up in homes with supportive parents. Their behavior was silenced and punished. The last thing we want to do is silence our children, but most of us (if we are being honest) say to ourselves "not transsexualism" with a frozen sense of terror. We have to honestly ask ourselves the question: Do we think it is wrong to be transgender or transsexual? Many of us, LGB and perhaps especially trans people, are confused about and fear transsexualism in our children with the same lack of knowledge with which our parents feared our homosexuality. We worry that our children will be beaten to death. We can't picture them having a satisfying career, a loving partner, or healthy self-esteem. We imagine them living in a netherworld where they are forever condemned as outsiders. And like our own parents, we worry, "What did I do to cause this?"

The research has shown that only a small percentage of cross-gendered children grow up to be transgender or transsexual. However, it is possible that this number may increase as transgenderism becomes more socially acceptable. Children who show persistent and strong indications of disliking their physical bodies ("I hate my penis"), in addition to other cross-gender behavior, are more likely to be exhibiting early signs of gender dysphoria.

Adding to our confusion about our children's gender expression is the fact that many LGBT parents are consciously raising children with fewer traditional sex role expectations. We stood firm when our sons took dance lessons, and we refused to buy toy makeup kits for our daughters. Perhaps we have trouble standing quite as firm when our sons insist on wearing nail polish to school and our daughters tell us that they really wish they were boys. We are torn between encouraging our children to be themselves and protecting them from a judgmental world. Jennie from Alameda, Calif., mother of a 3-year-old son who loves to dress in beautiful clothing, says, "I'm afraid he will be ridiculed and learn not to be his kind, gentle, sweet self because someone made fun of him for wearing bright, sparkly clothes. I fear that even if he doesn't get beaten up this year, he sure as heck will in a few years. I want him to be as blissfully happy as he wants to be, but not to the point of putting his self-esteem and body into peril."

For some of us with differently gendered children, our uncertainty about our children's behavior is intensified because we are not all that "gender-normative" ourselves. LGBT parents sometimes worry how our children will develop healthy gender identities in the absence of a same-sex parent, or in the presence of parents with left-of-center gender expressions. What are the messages a butch mom or a nelly dad sends to developing children? When a transgender parent transitions, how does that impact the gender identity of small children (or teens) living in his or her home?

Children develop a sense of their own gender from myriad sources; parental influences are just one aspect. Our children attend schools, watch television, and learn that the rules within their families may be different from those in the outside world, just like they understand that Grandma lets them eat way more pie than Dad does. Like Jewish children living in a Christian culture, they learn to see the world through both the eyes of the dominant culture and their own unique cultural lens.

Many years ago, I worked with a young boy who was completing a homework assignment. He had to write sentences describing pictures on a worksheet. One picture was of two children with short hair playing tag. He wrote, "The boys are playing." I asked him how he knew they were boys. He looked at me and matter-of-factly said, "Because they don't have dykes in school." He understood that although in his family and social environment short-haired women were common, in school, girls were not pictured with short hair.

Young children may ask lots of questions about gender when they have a parent who has an atypical gender expression. They may say, "You're a woman, right, Mom?" Often children are more comfortable with gender ambiguity than adults. "Mom is a little bit like a boy and a little bit like a girl," they conclude. When my older son was about 3 years old, he explained the world of clothing options to me. He said, "Men wear pants and so do women. Women wear dresses or skirts. Men do not wear skirts or dresses--unless they really want to, right, Mom?" Exactly right, dear.

Although we have a great deal of influence over our children's attitudes and behaviors, we are not so powerful that we can direct their sexual orientations or gender expression. This means that we cannot make them gay (as the conservatives fear), but we also cannot make them straight. Generally, our children have been exposed to a greater range of gender expressions than other children, which may make them more liberal, more accepting of diversity, but it does not influence their own developing identity. I work with many children whose parents are transsexual. Their lack of concern about their own gender is always eye-opening for me. "If Dad is happier as a woman, that's cool; it doesn't have anything to do with me." And the converse is true too; our children's gender identity has little to do with us.

The pressure on LGBT parents to raise "normal" children (read: heterosexual, gender-normative) is tremendous. The world, even the liberal world, cautiously watches this generation of children. If our children turn out to be drag queens and trans men, we have clearly, in their eyes, failed. Despite the fact that research repeatedly shows that our children do not have more social or emotional problems than other children, we persist in wanting to prove that our children are 100% "normal." But just like children being raised in heterosexual homes, some of our children exhibit far from typical gender expressions. Have we bought the message that if our children grow up to gay or transgender, we have failed? Surely we don't believe that boys and girls who grow up to be drag queens or transmen have less need for loving, supportive families?

Ultimately, it is unclear what gender transgressions in childhood will mean for our children, so the only pertinent question is: How can we best support and advocate for our children, regardless of what it will eventually mean for their adulthood?

As queer parents, most of us are aware of how little control our own parents had over the direction of our emerging sexual and gender identities. Few of us grew up supported or encouraged by our families of origin to be queer, and yet we became who we are despite our parents' efforts to normalize us. Disallowing the toys and clothing our children love will only teach them not to trust us with their most vulnerable and precious selves. Do we really think that behavior modification will change our child's sexual orientation or gender expression? And if it could, what is the cost?

I do not think there is anything wrong with boys like Kyle; I think they were born into a challenging society. If therapists really want to help differently gendered children, perhaps they can start by reassuring parents that there are many expressions of gender that are healthy. Interventions can be focused on teacher education and creating safe schools.

Parents must find a balance between allowing children their own gender expression and protecting them. In a discussion on boys wanting to wear nail polish to school, one mother said, "If I forbid him to wear the nail polish in order to protect him, he will be angry at me and never understand what I am protecting him from. Instead of being the one who punishes him for the outside world's cruelty, I would rather him experience the world and know that he can always come home to my safe arms for support."

Differently gendered children will have many foes. We can be their best advocates. Our support can help them grow up strong, with intact self-esteem and a sense of pride in themselves. As LGBT parents we have an advantage over our heterosexual counterparts when rearing potentially differently gendered children. We have a lot of personal experience in growing up different. Our children have more diverse role models and examples of how they can be men and women. They are being raised in homes where they will have words and language to talk about their gender.

For many of us, our earliest realization that we were queer was emotionally devastating. It took a long time to realize that being queer was really one of our greatest blessings. Who knows what hidden blessings are in store for our cross-gendered children? Who is better equipped to recognize this gift than LGBT parents?

On sexual orientation and gender identity:

The relationship between sexual orientation and gender identity is hotly debated in both the professional literature and the growing transgender community. Sexual orientation--whether someone is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or heterosexual--is about our sexual desire and attraction to others. Gender identity is about whether we experience ourselves as men or women, boys or girls, regardless of our physical bodies. Some people think that gender identity and sexual orientation are connected to one another, on a continuum where transgender is "more queer" than just being gay. Others think they are completely unrelated. All agree that they impact one another in profound ways. For example, if a person identifies as a lesbian, it is precisely because she has a sense of herself as a woman who is attracted to other women. If she believes herself to be a man (even if her body is technically female), she might not see herself as a lesbian, but rather as a heterosexual man.

Books for further reading:

Gender Shock: Exploding the Myths of Male & Female by Phyllis BurkeThe "Sissy Boy Syndrome" and the Development of Homosexuality by Richard GreenSissies & Tomboys: Gender Nonconformity & Homosexual Childhood edited by Matthew RottnekTrans Forming Families: Real Stories About Transgendered Loved Ones edited by Mary BoenkeSocial Service With Transgendered Youth edited by Gerald P. MallonThe Last Time I Wore a Dress by Daphne Scholinski

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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Arlene Istar Lev, LCSW