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Will Fellows has done some of the only scholarly work on defining gayness as a holistic identity that goes far deeper than sex. He's interviewed scores of gay men for a book on the lives of gay farm boys and his latest book, A Passion to Preserve: Gay Men as Keepers of Culture. He says that it's no coincidence that many gay men are also effeminate, creative, and expressive, but that those traits are as integral to being gay as same-sex attraction. "This kind of simpleminded idea that you have to nail down evidence of genital activity with someone of their own sex in order to use this label gay is just ridiculous," he says.
In A Passion to Preserve, he explained why. "My own findings do not support the idea that gay men are exceptionally creative and artistic because of their reaction to being stigmatized, marginalized, oppressed," he wrote. "It would seem that anyone who embraces this idea has not bothered to take a close, careful look at gay lives, beginning in childhood. Based on observing, inquiring, and listening, not on disembodied theorizing, I conclude that gay sensibility is an essential facet of human nature."
By Fellows's schema, all the behaviors and activities are traditionally associated with gayness for a reason: They're gay. That means that one of the earliest signs of being gay, for males, can often be the most obvious: being girly.
"There's plenty of evidence that gay men have disproportionate gender-variant natures, from childhood on," Fellows says. "'Gay,' has so many connotations. It's really kind of shorthand, in my mind, that when applied to a young child of three or four has connotations of gender variance."
This sheds a new light on my conversations with parents of girlish boys, like James, a four-year-old boy in Brooklyn. His mother, whom I'll call Deirdre, says that he loves dinosaurs and rough-and-tumble play with his male friends, but also has a thing for pretending oversize T-shirts are dresses. "Pink is his favorite color," she says. "I've never bought him a dress, but we're just at the point where I need to get him a new wardrobe. Before, last season, I was dressing him very metrosexual, and he liked that, but now he wants girl stuff."
Like Joseph, James doesn't say that he hates his body or that he wishes he had a vagina instead of a penisthe kind of things that transgender kids say over and over again. He'll agree with his mother that he's "really" a boy, but he loves dolls, wearing dresses, and telling his friends that he's a girl. Maybe James and Joseph are gay, even though their parents don't think so. James could be telling his boy friends that he's a girl because he wants to interact with them the way girls interact with boys. Joseph might have a "deep appreciation of feminine beauty," as his preschool teacher describes him, because he's got a lovely queer future in fashion design. Who knows?
But we don't have to rely on the gay stereotypes to find gay behavior in kids. Some young children actually call themselves gay or announce that they're going to marry another child of the same gender. Go to any playground and ask around, and you'll be amazed at what parents will say is coming out of their kids' mouths.
"When I took my kids to the science museum to learn about birthing, my daughter, who was five at the time, decided that she would marry another girl and let her have the baby," says one mother at a playground in Boston. ("Oh, how cute!" exclaimed another mother nearby.) "My son has a very close friend," says the mother of a five-year-old boy. "He calls him his 'godbrother' and he does want to marry him. It's just kind of like that's what you do."
That's no surprise to Elaine Winter, principal of the lower school at the Little Red School House in Manhattan. "There absolutely is dramatic play in early childhood," she reports. "They'll say, 'This can be a house with two mommies,' because that's the book we read yesterday, or that's what Susie's family is like."
Inevitably, some of those kids are more serious about the lesbian role-playing than others. Whether they're saying they're gay or just embodying elements of a gay sensibility, kids who seem so queer so young thoroughly unnerve parents and educators from every walk of life. Parents come to the LGBT Community Center worried about their kids' sissy behavior. Others fret that they've "gayed" their own children.
Winter, the Little Red principal, is reluctant to talk about whether her kindergartners might be gay. "I would never make a presumption like that," she says. "What a child does at four may be different from what a child does at six." This is coming from one of the most progressive educators in New York, the head of a school that actively supports LGBT-headed families, encourages its youngest children to explore nontraditional gender roles, and has a float in the Pride Parade.
The school's director of diversity, Sharon Dupree, a lesbian, is more comfortable talking about the sexual orientations of her students. "Some young people four or five years old might be aware that something is different," Dupree says. "But they don't have the language at that point, or the knowledge, to express that difference. They might say, 'I want to be a lesbian because I want to be best friends with Lisa,' but they're not connecting it with sexuality."