Dear Mr. Dad: I’m worried about my eight-year-old son. He loves sports and does a lot of “boy” things, but sometimes I find him playing with dolls. Does this mean he’s gay? Is there a way to tell this early on? And if he is gay, what should we do?
A: Whew, that’s a lot of questions, so let’s dive right in. Boys play with dolls all the time—they’re just named Batman, the Hulk, and Captain America. But since you’re worried about it, I’m assuming you mean that your son is playing with Barbies. Does that mean he’s gay? Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer. Plenty of heterosexual men occasionally played with dolls (girly ones) when they were kids. At the same time, studies of women conducted by Kelley Drummond and of men conducted by J. Michael Bailey and Kenneth J. Zucker have found that those who engaged in “gender nonconforming” play as children were more likely as adults to identify as gay or lesbian.
There are two important things to keep in mind. First, we’re not talking about occasional cross-gender play, which is incredibly common—and perfectly normal. The gay and lesbian adults in these studies were almost always bucking the stereotypes as kids. Second, the operative phrase here is “more likely.” In other words, while cross-gender play may be an indicator of homosexuality, it is by no means 100% accurate. Plenty of boys who play with dolls and girls who play hockey are heterosexual—and plenty of boys who play with trucks and girls who wear frilly dresses and have tea parties grow up to be gay.
With Bruce Jenner publicly (and bravely) announcing that he’s really a woman, I’ve heard from a lot of parents who are worried about “gender dysphoria”—that their son might actually become their daughter or vice versa. Again, while play may be an indicator, what’s more predictive is a child who refuses to acknowledge his or her biological sex, refuses to wear clothes associated with their sex or to play with opposite-sex children, and wants to go to the bathroom the way opposite sex people do, according to Britain’s National Health Service. But it’s nowhere near 100% accurate. Bailey and Zucker found that the majority of children who seem to have gender dysphoria grow out of it by adulthood. As a preschooler, my oldest daughter (now 25 and heterosexual) spent 18 months wearing pants and a cute hat and insisting that she was Oliver Twist—and refusing to answer to any other name. (She also insisted on calling me Mr. Bumble.)
Bottom line, it’s pretty unlikely that your son is gay. But either way, does it really matter? There’s nothing you can do about it anyway—if he’s gay, you’ll find out about it sooner or later, if not, you’ll find out about that too. If he is, you have two options: You could give him your unconditional support, understanding, and love. Or you could make him feel rejected and unloved. Choose option A. Please.
In an article in the journal Pediatrics, Caitlin Ryan and her colleagues found that “lesbian, gay, and bisexual young adults who reported higher levels of family rejection during adolescence,” were more likely to be bullied in school. Worse yet, they were 8 times more likely to have attempted suicide, 6 times more likely to suffer from depression, 3 times more likely to use illegal drugs or have unprotected sex.
In the end, your child’s sexuality is his business. Watch and learn. In the meantime, love him. He’s your son and always will be.