Have you ever wondered if a child -- maybe even your own -- might be gay? If so, you're not the first parent who has. But a better question may be: How would you handle it if he or she were? In this special report, Parenting explores what is and isn't known about kids' sexuality, and how parents can show their love no matter what.
I saw a little boy recently wearing a T-shirt that said, I Like Pink and I Don't Care What You Think! At first, I thought, Cool! His mom and dad are clearly encouraging their kid, who was around 4, to express what makes him happy, even if what gives him joy is atypical for a person with a penis.
Then I got a little, well, blue. The fact that he's probably too young to read his own shirt also means he's not reading the larger cultural messages about what is "normal" for a boy. No matter how much he continues to like fuchsia as he gets older, there's a good chance his survival instinct will tell him it's not worth getting his butt kicked at school. Because as absurd as it is to think that an affinity for a specific color could suggest that someone is homosexual, kids have a knack for teasing and bullying over such things. And sometimes with horrific outcomes.
Last April 11-year-old Carl Walker-Hoover, a Boy Scout and athlete, hanged himself outside his room with an extension cord. He had complained repeatedly about being bullied at school, and particularly about being called "gay" by classmates at his Springfield, MA, middle school. His mom, Sirdeaner Walker, did everything right: She comforted her son and supported him; she called school administrators and met them in person. She was assured the situation would be addressed. But clearly the damage was done -- three months later, her son was dead. "Kids are singling out others for being different, whether it's for being happy-go-lucky or smart or gay," says Walker. "They're using these words to hurt." Carl hadn't hit puberty, and had never discussed with his mom whether he might be gay. If the taunting and nastiness can become too much for children like him who still don't understand their sexuality, imagine the pressure on those who do.
That pain may partly explain why gay youth try to take their own lives four times as often as their heterosexual peers, according to The Trevor Project, an organization that runs a 24-hour helpline and an online community for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) kids. (Many of the 2 to 4 percent of people who identify as LGBT report knowing that they were as children.) Even more disturbing: When a kid's family rejects him, the odds of attempted suicide are nine times higher. Nine times.
Right about now, you may want to click to the recipes section. It's a lot easier to think about what's for dinner than your children being sexual in any way, let alone in a way you may have strong feelings about. Totally understandable. But bear in mind that kids as young as 9 begin to have crushes and perhaps physical feelings directed at other people, says Erika Pluhar, Ph.D., a sex therapist and educator in Atlanta. (There's a wide range, but children usually start to figure out whom they are attracted to between the ages of 9 and 12.) So for some parents, it's not too soon to start considering the possibility -- and making the effort to understand what kids are thinking and feeling now can make a huge difference when they're older.
Indeed, new research in the journal Pediatrics suggests that gay, lesbian, and bisexual young adults from very rejecting families (as opposed to families who were neutral or mildly rejecting) are nearly six times more likely to have major depression and three to five times more likely to use illegal drugs or have unprotected sex. In other words, even if you're not exactly doing a tap dance about the fact that your kid may be LGBT, finding a way to accept your child and love her goes a long way toward keeping her safe later on. Right -- later. Hopefully much later. In the meantime, it can't hurt to get informed.
Playing and Exploring
It's fashion-show time, and your 6-year-old son is looking fierce in plastic Snow White heels and a nightie along with his older sister and her girlfriends. He even has the I'm-bored-with-the-catwalk facial expression down pat. Could this display be a portent of his sexuality? Should you start readjusting your vision of "someday" to include a dutiful son-in-law to pass down your mom's secret recipes to? Or, if you're freaked out, should you sign Junior up for the most testosterone-fueled sport you can think of?
No on all counts. It's not uncommon for girls and boys to pretend to be of the opposite sex on occasion, particularly if an older sibling and that kid's same-sex friends are all having so much fun doing whatever -- playing pirate, wrestling, or spackling their faces with your new eye shadow, says J. Michael Bailey, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Northwestern University.
There are also quite a few sexual behaviors that even preschoolers exhibit that have no bearing on future sexual orientation. Little boys and girls may try to touch a woman's breast or sneak a peek at adults when they're changing. They may also play doctor, or even imitate adults' kissing and hugging, says Pluhar. Some parents may cringe, but these are all signs of normal curiosity. It's not until they hit that 9-to-12 window, usually, that kids begin to play deliberate kissing games like spin the bottle and to experiment privately with one another, she says. "We don't have a lot of data on what kids do and don't do sexually," says Pluhar. Whether and when they do anything at all depends on a combination of psychological, environmental, and biological factors, such as when they start producing sex hormones, as well as whether they have the opportunity. It is safe to assume, however, that "some kids experiment with homosexual behavior, just as some experiment with heterosexual behavior," Pluhar says. And even then, it might still be experimentation.
Behaviors that May Mean More
Besides an affinity for pink and for playing dress-up (for boys), there are certain other behaviors that might raise a parent's brow: children who often pretend to be the opposite sex, or who prefer to play only with them; a passion (for a girl) or a dislike (for a boy) of rough play; or a preference for dressing like the opposite sex in everyday situations as opposed to isolated incidents. The official psychological term for these types of behaviors is "gender nonconformity."
Northwestern's Bailey has researched this area extensively, including whether these behaviors in children are predictive of homosexuality later in life. The bottom line? If a boy does many of the above-mentioned things -- playing dress-up, preferring social games to rougher ones, only wanting to hang out with girls, etc. -- and keeps doing them over a long period of time, it may be significant, says Bailey. "If they do it over and over, it's not a passing thing, and if they seek it out, then it's often predictive of homosexuality in adulthood in males," he says.
Girls who seem to prefer "boy" things, however, are not as likely to turn out to be gay. Researchers don't know why, exactly, but it could be that girls in general tend to do more boy activities than vice versa, as well as the fact that there just seems to be more leeway for girls to be tomboys than there is for boys to be feminine, says Ellen Perrin, Ph.D., a developmental pediatrician at Tufts Medical Center. Plus, female sexuality may also simply be more fluid than male.
A woman I know jokes that she hopes one of her twin sons, who are now 8, grows up to be gay. She thinks it means he'll stick around and squire her to Broadway shows in her dotage. But for the majority of parents, the prospect of a gay child is not funny. You can believe that homosexuality is a natural part of the human experience, but at the same time be worried that your child is going to face discrimination. You can admire and respect gay people, and still be shocked that someone in your family is one, or have feelings (like not wanting your friends to know) that surprise you. You might have some misconceptions about disease and promiscuity that add to worries you already have. Or you might believe that homosexuality is a sin.
No matter how you or your spouse feels about it, one thing is certain for all kids: Children are desperate to know that they're loved and accepted by their parents -- even if it takes some time, and even if everyone doesn't always say exactly the right thing, and even if they act like your opinions mean nothing. "You need to make the decision that your child's happiness and safety is totally unrelated to his sexual orientation," says Judy Shepard, cofounder of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, a group that works to foster a more accepting environment for all people, including the LGBT community. In 1998 in Wyoming, Shepard's 21-year-old son was beaten, tortured, tied to a fence, and left to die because he was gay. "It can be hard, though. Many parents feel they are responsible. They think, 'What did I do wrong?'?"
The answer, of course, is nothing -- nada, zero, zip. No study has proved that you can "turn" a kid gay. (That also means that parents can't make a homosexual kid hetero, says Bailey.) "What parents can do, however, is make their kids happy or miserable -- they have that ability," he adds. "A gay kid whose parents think there's something wrong with him, that tends to be a miserable kid."
Okay, you might still be thinking: She's only 11 or 12, and that's too young for her to be dating anyone, male or female. There's no doubt you're with the vast majority of parents there. But if she's thinking about girls, and you're having issues with that, it's a good idea to reach out to others who can help you connect with her. "We get parents who call the helpline, and they are scared -- scared themselves, but also worried about their children being happy and having a hard life. We validate their feelings, try to correct stereotypes, and show them that gay people can live happy and productive lives," says The Trevor Project's program director, Phoenix Schneider. "Parents have to do their own coming-out process as well," adds Shepard. "It can be a sort of mourning -- you've lost what you thought you were going to have."
Creating a Safe Haven
"The one place kids cannot be afraid is in their homes," says Shepard. So how can you make sure your child knows that with you, at least, he's safe being himself, even if he's not ready to discuss sexual feelings per se?
Find a casual way to bring it up. Remark positively on a gay relative, friend, or celebrity. Or when talking about current events, introduce a topic like gay marriage and make it clear that it's not a subject you shy away from.
Have non-gender-specific toys in the house. If a child categorizes them as "girl" or "boy" toys, use that as an opportunity to discuss what that means, says Shepard.
Act as you would if there were a gay person in the room. That is, don't tell or laugh at gay jokes or use denigrating words about gay people, even if you're not talking about anyone your child knows, says Schneider. If an older sibling says a movie or a song is "gay," offer him alternate adjectives. Say something like "I think what you meant is 'silly,' 'ridiculous,' or 'corny.' Because 'gay' is not a word we use to mean those things."
Leave age-appropriate books on gender or sexuality where your child can find them if you suspect he wants or could benefit from information. (Find some suggestions at Parenting.com/out.)
Follow your child's lead. If she wants to cut her hair short and pass as a boy, fine, but be aware that next week she might change her mind. Parents need to roll with it a bit. help your child sort it all out Let her know that if she has any questions about sex or love or close friendships, you'll do your best to answer. "You don't want to assume anything, but the idea is to let the child know that she can feel comfortable talking about anything with you," says Schneider.
Be Deliberate. Tell him or her outright, "I'll love you every bit as much no matter what you are," says Bailey. "That's the most important message any parent can send."
Stephanie Dolgoff is Parenting's editor-at-large. She lives in New York City with her husband and twin girls.