On a recent spring Saturday afternoon at the American Museum of Natural History, the carpeted atrium beneath the giant blue whale in the Milstein Hall Ocean of Life teems with children. Preschoolers and kindergartners lounge on the carpeted floor and race from diorama to diorama while their beleaguered parents try to catch their breath. I’m here to meet the family of a three-and-a-half-year-old boy who’s not like other boys. His father, whom I’ll call Arnold, has watched for the past six months as his son clung to dolls and tried on dresses. Arnold joined a national Listserv that connects parents of children who express this kind of gender-atypical behavior. Today, his son, the unusual Joseph, is somewhere in the throng below me.
If you think a boy who’s acting girly would stick out in a crowd, you haven’t been around five-year-olds lately. At the museum, boys who seemed feminine were everywhere I looked. Was Joseph the little blond one clinging fearfully to a stair rail? The boy in purple with the Farrah Fawcett hair? It turned out Joseph wasn’t any of them. He turned up wearing boyish jeans and a T-shirt, and sneakers with tiny red lights blinking in the soles. Up close, his curly brown hair is shaggy and long, tufting delicately out over his ears, but he’s hardly shy or clingy. Instead, he’s bold and gregarious: He immediately jumps out of his stroller to meet me. Nothing about Joseph seems notably feminine, until he holds up a doll dressed in a bright pink dress. “See my Barbie?” he says, proudly.
Maybe you’re tempted to see Joseph as transgender, someone whose gender identity doesn’t match the body he was born in. Over the past decade, transgender has shed its Jerry Springer stigma and come into its own as an identity. Long enshrined alongside sexual orientation as the T in LGBT, today transgender is almost trendy. Oprah’s done several shows on the topic; trans people are coming out at work at the Los Angles Times and Fortune 500 companies across the country; and the rising number of transmen at women’s colleges in the Northeast is forcing schools like Smith and Mt. Holyoke to rethink the use of pronouns entirely. Newspapers and magazines have seized on trans as the new gay—the latest, freshest deviant identity to be dissected and exhaustively profiled. At the top of the hot-story list is the tale of the trans child. This particular wave is partly my fault. In April 2006, I wrote an article that appeared on the Voice website about “the country’s youngest transgender child,” a five-year-old biological boy whose claims that he was a girl were so urgent and persistent that his family was raising him as one. They let him use a female name, let him wear dresses and grow out his hair, and convinced his school to treat him as a girl.
Since then, “Jazz” has gone on to become a poster child for transgender children. Last August, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an article about “gender variant” children in the Bay Area that mentioned Jazz. In December, The New York Times ran a story on transgender children. This April, along with two other transgender children, Jazz appeared on 20/20 with Barbara Walters. A few weeks later, Newsweek ran a cover story called “The Mystery of Gender: The New Visibility of Transgender America Is Shedding Light on the Ancient Riddle of Identity.”
That new visibility may not be helping Joseph all that much. Arnold doesn’t think transgender makes sense for his son, who is clearly comfortable in his boy body. Though he never puts his Barbie down, Joseph begins playing with another little boy in a classic rough-and-tumble way, racing around a park with rocks and sticks. His father says the kid doesn’t reject boyhood—instead, he embraces girlishness on top of it. “To me, he identifies as both,” says Arnold. “He says: ‘I’m a boy and a girl.'”
Instead of trans, Arnold has wondered whether Joseph might simply be gay. “I sometimes try to pick up clues as to who he’s attracted to,” he says, “and I have no idea.” He’s approached PFLAG, but isn’t sure whether that’s the right place for his son. PFLAG, he says, never called back.
The media blitz about transgender kids coincides with another big queer story, that of younger and younger people declaring their minority orientation. In February, USA Today reported that “gay teenagers are ‘coming out’ earlier than ever, and many feel better about themselves than earlier generations of gays.” “Youth are coming out earlier, that we’ve definitely seen,” says Jennifer Chrisler, the executive director of Family Pride, a Washington, D.C., group that supports LGBT families. “They have a lot more images around them in the media and the mainstream press that give them something to sort of latch onto, to identify with, and they clearly see that being lesbian, gay, or bisexual doesn’t need to limit them.” Those images are everywhere. Teens and kids as young as 12 can turn to magazines like the new glossy Young Gay America. There are gay-straight alliances in high schools across the country, and more popping up in middle schools. On prime-time TV, Justin Suarez, the dapper and immaculate 12-year-old character on Ugly Betty, is widely assumed to be gay, though the show’s producers are coyly silent on the topic.
There are even gay babies. In March, Radar Magazine ran an article headlined “Is Your Baby Gay?” about the possibility that doctors could create a hormone patch for pregnant women that could turn potentially queer fetuses straight. And last summer, the Ali Forney Center, a shelter for LGBT youth in New York, launched an ad campaign featuring parents holding naked babies. “Would you stop loving her if you know she’s a lesbian?” the caption asks. “Would you stop loving him if you know he’s gay?” For now, Arnold says, he’s avoiding labels altogether in order to let Joseph become whoever he’s meant to become. “There’s every variable he could turn out to be,” he says. “We want to keep exposing him to all his options.”
While a straight dad like Arnold can keep the options open, the LGBT community can only keep its distance. Kids are a tough subject for gay adults. When you’re a minority tarred with pedophilia and sexual depravity, you learn to stay away from children. And gays have: Almost 40 years after Stonewall, same-sex-leaning children are completely absent from the gay discussion.
If you walk into the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center on 13th Street, you can have your pick of programs for LGBT adults, LGBT teens, and LGBT families. But don’t bother asking for services for gay children under the age of 10. “No, there really isn’t anything like that here,” the attendant told me when I showed up at the Center’s front desk. “But did you see that 20/20 episode about the trans kids?”
New York’s LGBT Community Center isn’t alone—all organizations specifically aimed at gay youth cut off at the pre-teen crowd. Society—queer and straight—acts as if gays emerge from the ether, fully formed, as teenagers. Yet we also lean on science to say that, at least in many cases, people are born gay. If that’s true, then there must be gay children. And the anecdotal evidence bears this out. Ask a gay man or a lesbian when he or she first knew that they were gay, and you’ll get story after story about first hints of being different at the age of five and six.
“I can think back to when I was very young, and say, ‘Oh my gosh, this was such a gay thing that I did,’ says Allan Acevedo, an 18-year-old in San Diego who just received a 2007 Point Foundation scholarship for LGBT students. In kindergarten, he and his best friend, a little girl, would play with Barbies at her house after school.
“I can go back and remember that I had a crush on my fourth-grade teacher,” he says. “I liked girls to be my friends, and I liked boys to be attracted to. I think, if you ask most gay people, they can think back to when they were really, really young and realize that they were gay.”
There are almost no scientific sources of information about gay kids, other than a few anthologies of the memories of gay adults and one study, published by a psychiatrist named Richard Green in the late 1980s, which tracked a small group of “sissy boys” from childhood to adulthood. Even in this small sample, though, stories of feeling gay in childhood are everywhere.
“Since kindergarten I have had crushes on guys,” says a gay man in an anthology of the experiences of LGBT youth called The Shared Heart: Portraits and Stories Celebrating Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Young People. “In fourth grade I secretly fell in love with my best friend. My love lasted eight years.”
“From as far as I can remember, I’ve always been gay,” says another man in the anthology. “Even before the age of five I said I wanted to be a girl.” “One thing I do remember from kindergarten or first grade was that everyone, the kids on the block, saying who they were going to marry,” reported one subject to Richard Green. “And I said, ‘I’m going to marry Gary,’ who was the next-door neighbor. And people said, ‘You can’t do that!’ But it was a feeling of I did want to marry Gary, I did want to. I’d like to bond with him. I’d like to be with him.”
All of these stories suggest that any given playground or classroom, even one filled with very young kids, includes a few people who will one day call themselves gay. Our inability to perceive their difference may be more a matter of selective blindness than of there being nothing to see. “These adolescents don’t just materialize out of nowhere,” says Will Fellows, the author of two books about the lives of gay men. “They have childhoods.”
Even with the recent push for gay marriage, we still tend to define gayness in terms of having sex—a framework that necessarily excludes kids. But pay attention to the childhood memories of gay adults and you’ll hear plenty of talk about wanting to keep house with a playmate of the same gender, or to marry a same-gender friend—just as straight adults remember wanting to marry a playmate of the opposite gender. Gay or straight, these kids aren’t trying to sex each other up. They’re just imagining future families, or describing their current friendships.
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 penis—the 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.”
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, too—parents will say, ‘Oh, she’s going to be a heartbreaker—she’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.'”
Ever since offering me his Barbie, Joseph has been grumpily ignoring me. His father and I have been chatting for an hour, dissecting his activities and behaviors in low voices just out of earshot. He may only be three and a half, but Joseph clearly knows that we’ve been trying to figure him out. And he doesn’t like it.
According to most progressive-minded parents, doctors, and educators, Joseph’s right to object. Labels are bad and restrictive, they say. The best and only thing to do for kids who express atypical gender and sexuality is to leave them alone and teach them to respect difference. It’s a Free to Be You and Me mentality, and in practice it involves stressing that there are “different kinds of boys” and “different kinds of girls.”
“If we could just allow people to choose what is right for them, then this wouldn’t be so difficult,” says Stephanie Brill, a midwife and gender educator in California who runs a teaching program called Gender Spectrum. “We’re not always talking about sexual orientation and gender identity—we’re actually talking about personal preference. Some of these kids are gay, some of them aren’t, but if we support them when they’re young, they’ll be healthy.” It’s a beautiful goal, but to make it work, you have to accept that kids will occupy points across the whole range of difference. If they never hear about gayness in schools, gay kids will be a lot longer in understanding who they are.
“I think adults are rightly wary of trying to force kids into the labels and preconceptions that we have,” says Dee Michel, a former assistant professor of library science at the University of Wisconsin who’s writing a book about the importance of the Wizard of Oz in the childhoods of gay men. “But when the kids are initiating it, I think adults can be a lot more sensitive.”
From his research, Michel has seen how gay children appreciate having gay role models to look up to, and right now, they don’t have any. “In schools today, you have kids’ books about two mommies, but no books talk about gay kids,” he says. “Just adults. That’s one of the things The Wizard of Oz does. There are these images and scenes that resonate with these gay kids and pre-gay kids.”
One of Michel’s respondents, a gay man named Eric Rofes, wrote a moving description of how Oz helped him as a young gay child. “I think the general narrative of lots of the Oz books I read as a child . . . helped me find comfort from the more problematic narratives of my day-to-day real life,” he wrote. “In a nutshell, these books told the story of a small group of misfits, who claimed and enjoyed identities that seemed at odds with the staid and regimented identities of ‘normal’ folks, who were pursued and persecuted. They found creative and daring ways to escape this persecution and, at the end, often ascended to positions of glory and respect in their culture. As a child who was bullied for being gender-nonconforming (girlish, nonathletic, studious, emotional) and who often felt trapped and without recourse, these stories offered me a happier ending to my own story.”
Without that hope of a happy ending, all kids, gay or not, will be worse off. Which is why Allan Acevedo, the Point scholar who’s only a few years out of puberty himself, thinks that adults should just get over it.
“You should lose the assumption that your child will be born heterosexual,” says Acevedo. “If you’re having children and you’re not allowing the discussion of gayness, you’re not allowing the option to exist.”
No one’s saying all gay kids know they’re gay by the age of naptime and cookies. It’s just that some do, and some know they’re different but not why, and most will eventually figure it out.
“Why should their chance of arriving at adolescence in a relatively intact, healthy, well-adjusted state be compromised by an unwillingness to acknowledge that they’re headed to their adolescence from birth?” asks Will Fellows. “The fact is that the lives of many young people, now increasingly even earlier than junior-high-school age, are redeemed and sometimes saved by being able to see a label and recognize the connection that it has to what’s going on within them.
“Labels,” he says, “are tremendously valuable things.”