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Most people will do anything to avoid calling children under the age of 10 "gay." Teachers, especially, have reason to avoid the topic, says Kevin Jennings, the executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. "They're putting their fingers in their ears and going 'La-La-La, I'm not going to address this' because I'm not going to get accused of having some nefarious hidden agenda with the children."
Rather than go ahead and acknowledge that a kid might be gay, adults these days are quicker to suggest that a dress-wearing Daniel or dragon-slaying Tamika was born in the wrong body.
Indeed, while there's no such thing as a support group for "gay children," parents across the country have rallied around both transgender children and the more nebulous category of those who express "gender variance." Deirdre is one parent who feels that the term "gender variance" captures the essence of her child. "These children are not identified as gay at all," says Deirdre. "And at this age, we're not talking about transgender."
Dr. Edgardo Menvielle, an associate professor of child and adolescent psychology at Children's National Medical Center Department of Psychiatry, is at the forefront of the gender-variance field. His program, in Washington, D.C., organizes a national Listserv for parents of gender-variant kids. "We needed a category that would be descriptive of children that were not old enough to declare gender or sexuality in the adult sense," he says. "Because, obviously, a five-year-old is not going to know what they are in terms of sexuality or gender."
But why not? We know almost nothing about gender and sexuality in young children, but what we do know is that they both emerge in children quite early.
"It varies, and development varies from child to child, but awareness of sexuality begins in elementary school," says Caitlin Ryan, a researcher studying LGBT families with the Family Acceptance Project in California. "Even though adults who work with children or adolescents are typically not aware of this as part of their professional training, regardless, it's happening. It's very common for young people to have attractions to same-sex peers if they're young."
Just ask the parents. "In their kindergarten class, I've definitely observed three or four of the boys being flirtatious, with both girls and other boys," says the mother of the little boy who wants to marry his "god brother."
Ryan says that elementary school health teachers have told her that they hear children talking about crushes beginning as early as kindergarten. "Children can describe thinking of Valentine's day and of having that little special feeling of having butterflies in their stomach," she says. "Why would we think that this is only something that takes place in their twenties?"
And why would we think that only straight kids are getting twitterpated? Is it because we still think gayness is such an undesirable outcome?
"If children preschool age have very intense friendships that are boy/boy or girl/girl, parents don't even notice," says Dale Rosenberg, a lesbian mother of three children in Park Slope, "But it's a boy/girl friendship, then it's 'Oh, he has a little girlfriend.' Babies, tooparents will say, 'Oh, she's going to be a heartbreakershe'll have all the boyfriends.' There's an assumption of compulsory heterosexuality."
Throughout the modern history of sexuality, gayness and transgenderness have been lumped together. Gregory Lehne, an assistant professor of medical psychology at Johns Hopkins University, has been working in the field of sexuality and gender development in children since the days of Dr. John Money, a notorious and still-controversial pioneer in the field. "Back then," Lenhe says, "the assumption was that children with gender-variant behaviors would end up being transsexual. What's happened now is that the wheel has turned around again. We're almost back to the way that we were 25 to 30 years ago, when many people believed that these kids are going to turn out transsexual."
When Money and other scientists began studying gender-variant children, Lenhe says, they found that instead of becoming transgender adults, many of the kids were growing up to be gay males and straight or gay females. They also found that most transgender adults didn't report having gender-variant childhoods. That's why, today, Lenhe is bemused by the sudden emergence of transgender and gender-variant children.
"Almost all of these gender-variant children are gay children," he says. "What we're seeing before our eyes is evidence that the origins of sexual orientation are very real in life. These are gay kids."
Lenhe points out that defining all gay children as gender variant is in some ways a throwback to the 19th century, when doctors and psychologists called homosexuals "inverts" whose "contrary sexual feelings" were caused by being born into the wrong gender. Freud argued that "inverts" were psychologically deformed women, and the iconic lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall portrayed its main character as an "invert" with a self-loathing take on sexuality and the gay community.
"We're going back a hundred years," Lenhe says. "It's taking gay kids and saying, 'Well, you're really a girl trapped in a boy's body.'"
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