Girls with Footballs and Boys with Dolls: Understanding Gender-Bending Play
Some parents feel uncomfortable when their children play like members of the opposite sex. How should you handle it when your kids don't want to "behave like a lady" or "act like a man?"
Does It Mean That Your Child Is Gay?
Gender roles—the fashions and behaviors a culture assigns to each gender—are distinct from sexual orientation. For instance, soccer, once considered a boys’ game, is now a coed sport with millions of girls taking the field each weekend. Likewise, cooking was once viewed as woman’s work, yet top celebrity chefs are predominantly male. And despite the shift in gender roles, most female soccer players and male chefs are heterosexual.
So why does a boy wearing a dress make adults uncomfortable?
One of the biggest reasons our culture frowns upon kids, especially boys, who play outside of their assigned gender roles is the fear that it’s a sign of homosexuality. And that fear has some statistical support.
Psychiatrist Dr. Richard Green, MD, spent 15 years studying two groups of boys. The first group of 66 boys preferred dolls, dress-up, and playing with girls. Seventy-five percent of them grew up to be gay men. The second group of 56 boys enjoyed rough play, boys’ clothes, and sports. All but one of them turned out to be heterosexual. Dr. Green published his results in the 1987 book The “Sissy Boy Syndrome” and the Development of Homosexuality.
In a 1973 landmark study on this topic, psychiatrists Dr. Marcel T. Saghir, MD, and Dr. Eli Robins, MD, interviewed groups of homosexuals about their childhoods and current lives. They reported that nearly 66 percent of gay men preferred feminine toys and games as children while 70 percent of homosexual women recalled being “boy-like” in childhood compared to 16 percent of heterosexual women.
Lev says that interviews with adults be misleading because a gay man who’s asked to look back on his childhood will find significance in wearing Mom’s high heels whereas a straight man wouldn’t even mention playing patty cake with his sister or watching a Strawberry Shortcake movie because it wasn’t relevant to his sense of self then and isn’t now. A gay man sees his cross-gendered play as an expression of his sexuality, whereas a straight man sees his gender-bending play as childish goofing around.
The facts get even fuzzier for girls when you consider that in a 1998 research experiment of college students, their mothers, and their grandmothers, 67 percent of all the women across three generations reported that they were tomboys as young girls. A similar questionnaire-based study back in 1977 had similar results. Yet according to a 1994 University of Chicago survey, only 1.4 percent of American women define themselves as gay.
While men and women’s impressions of their childhoods vary greatly, it’s clear that gender-atypical play does not cause or nurture homosexuality. It’s merely a possible indication of a person’s eventual sexual orientation in some cases.
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