Could Your Child Be Gay?
What is and isn't known about kids' sexuality, and how parents can show their love whether their kids are gay or straight. Plus, get tips on talking to your children about sex
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.