A true mark of today’s paradigm shift is seeing how quickly the media and American society at large learned to address Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox by their new gender identities. The widespread visibility of diverse LGBT identities continues to expand. This is the kind of progress that’s important to see, especially for children who are gay, trans, or nonconforming to binary gender.
Growing up is hard enough as it is; children growing into their sexuality and gender identity need all the role models and support they deserve. That support begins, of course, with the parents. In “You Can Tell Just By Looking” And 20 Other Myths about LGBT Life and People, Michael Bronski, Ann Pellegrini, and Michael Amico explain that it isn’t always easy for parents to accept their children’s sexual and gender identities because of the long-held myth that “there’s no such thing as a gay or trans child.” They tackle this myth and address the internal issues these children face.
Myth 16: There's No Such Thing as a Gay or Trans Child
Over the past two decades, more and more young people have been declaring, and at younger and younger ages, that they are gay or trans. But these gay and trans youth are consistently told that their feelings are not real and will just go away. Some parents fear that if mainstream culture accepts same-sex desire and gender noncomformity as normal, healthy, and positive, their children may be encouraged to engage in it. They are correct. Different models of sexual behavior and gender, especially the widespread visibility of LGBT identities, do offer new ways for people of all ages to behave and identify themselves. The increase in children actively identifying as trans is a direct result of the greater cultural visibility of transgender adults since the mid-1990s.
This is more than a question of identity, and adults know it. Think about all the work parents and educators put into teaching children how to be proper young men and women and shielding them from sexually explicit material. This considerable labor reveals the fear that underlies the myth that there are no gay and trans children: a child, especially your own, might somehow become gay or trans. Given this cultural tension, it is no surprising that when young people assert that they are gay or trans, many adults become very nervous and upset. Clearly, these young people not only know too much about sex and gender, but they know far too much about the wrong forms of sex and gender—and are willing to say so publicly.
The best way to silence to voices of children and ensure they grow up the "right way" is to create a special social category around them that adults control. This may sound odd to us now, but it is exactly what has happened. In the not-so-distant past, adults created this category. It is called childhood. Conceiving of childhood as a separate phase of life is a distinctly modern way of defining an individual by age. In his 1962 landmark book Centuries of Childhood, Philippe Ariès dates the invention of the child to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
By the twentieth century, psychologist G. Stanley Hall had invented the concept of adolescence, understood as a later stage of childhood even though adolescents looked and acted more like adults. Adolescence effectively extended the time given young people to develop the self-control necessary to meet the coming demands of adulthood. (If they still didn't conform, they could be put into yet another category: juvenile delinquent, which frequently included adolescents who were homosexual or gender deviant.) Ironically, this process often infantilized children and adolescents, making them less mature and less autonomous. They frequently became worrisome and needed to be controlled, apparently for their own good. This battle to regulate children and adolescents continues today, particularly in regard to gender and sexuality (see myth 8, "LGBT Parents Are Bad for Children").
In past years, prior to the emergence of young people identifying as trans, most children who manifested some form of gender nonconformity were presumed to be at risk of growing up gay. This was especially so for boys, whose range of proper gender behavior is more constricting than girls'. Tomboys are often culturally valorized; the sissy is never a hero. Beginning in 1980, both could be diagnosed with gender identity disorder in childhood (see myth 6, "Transgender People are Mentally Ill").
Many adults consider puberty the beginning of an individual's sexuality. Puberty is the name for the broad and varying period of time, roughly between the ages of ten and seventeen for girls and twelve and eighteen for boys, when bodies change and secondary sex characteristics—such as body hair and breasts—emerge. At this age, most boys and girls become capable of sexual reproduction. The popular imagination equates reproductive ability with sexuality—so children being sexual before puberty can't even be a question. Then why, as a culture, are we simultaneously suggesting otherwise? We scold sexually curious children and create cultural panics about sexting and adolescents having sex at younger and younger ages. Despite what many parents and other adults would like to believe, sexuality exists from birth to puberty, and its presence enormously shapes our sexual identities as adults.
What does sexuality look like in children before puberty? One of the first, and most groundbreaking, assertions that children are sexual beings was made by Sigmund Freud. In his 1905 Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Freud claimed that, contrary to the popular ideals of the innocent, unknowing child, children were deeply curious about sex, explored their bodies, played with their genitals, had sexual fantasies, and could experience sexual pleasure.
Children made sense of these evolving desires and experiences of bodily pleasure in a variety of ways. They often know them only to be pleasurable, and see nothing wrong with them. Adults often have a more conflicted mix of feelings about sexuality, gender, and their bodies. They may experience pleasure and joy from sex, but they may also feel guilt, anxiety, and shame. They may feel a mixture of all these things at any given time. Unfortunately, these adult confusions and ambivalences are often communicated to children. If adults see a child touching herself, do they communicate to her that it is wrong, shameful, or sinful? Or do they communicate some version of, "Honey, it's wonderful to explore your body, but it's also a private thing, so be sure to do that when you are alone"? These two parental responses may create vastly different experiences of sexual desire and psychological self-confidence in children.
Parental authority over children is one of the most important reasons why society denies that children can be gay or trans. Many parents want to raise their children to emulate their own values, social ideas, and ways of viewing the world. With gay and trans issues in social media, television, advertising, and even political coverage, parents may feel the need to exert even more control over their children. We can see this in campaigns to protect children from homosexuality, usually promoted by conservative religious groups such as Focus on the Family. Many parents insist that heterosexuality is the only acceptable route to happiness. They never seriously consider the needs, and desires, of the child. This only protects, and secures, the existing social order for the comfort of adults.
Parental control of gay and trans children happens on a large-scale, organized level. In the early 2000s, the conservative Christian ex-gay movement began targeting younger and younger teenagers to stifle their supposedly unwanted same-sex desires. They are now creating ministries and reparative-therapy groups to help transgender people transition "back." In 2005, fifteen-year-old Zach Stark became a cause célèbre after his parents, upon learning he was gay, forced him to attend an ex-gay camp, Love in Action (now called Restoration Path), against his will. His parents told him he was gay because they had "messed up." Ex-gay camp was supposed to help clear things up. Stark blogged on his MySpace page about his experiences, and his story went viral, garnering great sympathy for him and exposing the enormous injustice of the situation. Stark started at the camp—and even enjoyed some of the other young women and men there—but eventually left and happily claimed his gay male identity.
This gross abuse of parental authority is not restricted to conservative Christians. Many nonreligious send their children to therapy to help them "get over" their same-sex attractions. (Some parents, to their credit, offer their children support, even using gay-friendly therapists to make sure that they have additional emotional help in the face of potential bullying.)
Parents' panic over a gay or trans child is really a panic that they produced the wrong kind of child. Parents might also be ashamed at what their neighbors and friends would say or think if they knew their child was gay or trans. Acknowledging a gay or trans child may be difficult for parents, especially if they live in a socially or religiously conservative community. But there is no doubt that all of this is much more difficult on the child. Denying children their sexual or gender identities, indeed their human right to be gay or trans, is not guidance, oversight, education, or instruction. It is abuse. All children have a difficult time growing up. They have little power, little agency, little freedom, no ability to be independent, and are almost entirely at the mercy of their parents. Beyond the intense expectations and anxieties of the adults around them, children are also routinely subject to their own fears, hopes, and fantasies. But no one asks straight children "when they knew" they were straight.
The question here is not if children understand their sexuality or gender at a young age. It is how they understand it. How we name people, experiences, feelings, actions, and mental states matters a lot. This has been true of the classification "childhood." It matters because it shapes people's lives in many concrete ways. It matters because it helps organize how people think about a topic. It matters because it affects how the world views the issue. Even when the names we use are inaccurate, they do name something and can give people the cultural space to talk about their lives.
Sociologist Tey Meadow has found that both trans children and, especially, those parents supportive of their trans kids have become highly adept at using and remixing the ideas of medicine, psychology, religion, and secular spirituality. They use this remix to explain who their children are and why they need and deserve support and care of medical professionals, schools, and churches.
No labels can adequately describe the overwhelming variety of sexual expression or gender play in children. How much room do we, as a society, give children to imagine and experiment with all the possible ways they could be in the world and still be—still become—themselves? Young children's play-acting is a form of socialization, as they imagine themselves into the adult roles they will eventually be asked to assume. But this play-acting also has endless, unimagined possibilities. Children may play-act being cowboys or Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. They may also play doctor with one another or interact with their beloved pets in the pretend role of veterinarian, or as if they, too, are a collie or a kitten. All children play and experiment with gender and sexuality in various ways that defy expectations and categories.
The phrase "feeling different" has become an acceptable way to describe the nonconforming child to a heterosexual mainstream culture because it does not explicitly name same-sex desire and behavior. Perhaps people are also comfortable with this phrase because at some point in our lives, every one of us feels different. Watch children play with a doll or stuffed toy, and you can quickly see how ready they are to bend the social rules they are simultaneously learning. What adults may interpret and judge as rebelliousness or immaturity, children may experience as a queer kind of freedom, a divergence from the straight-and-narrow. It may even be that there is no such thing as a straight child after all—if we understand straight not to mean "heterosexual," but regimented and normalized to become heterosexual. Gay and trans may thus describe all children's inventiveness, resilience, and agency, as well as their need for unconditional support from the adults in their lives so that all of these vital potentials can bloom.
About the Authors
Michael Bronski has been involved in gay liberation as a political organizer, writer, and editor for more than four decades. The author of several award-winning books, including A Queer History of the United States, he also coauthored “You Can Tell Just by Looking”: And 20 Other Myths about LGBT Life and People. Bronski is Professor of the Practice in Activism and Media in the Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Ann Pellegrini is professor of performance studies and religious studies at New York University, where she also directs NYU's Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality. She has written extensively about religion, sexuality, and US public life. Her publications include Performance Anxieties as well as the coauthored Love the Sin and “You Can Tell Just by Looking”: And 20 Other Myths about LGBT Life and People.
Michael Amico is a PhD candidate in American studies at Yale University, and is writing a history of the love between two men in the Civil War. He has written for LGBT youth publications, such as Young Gay America, and provided political analysis for the Boston Phoenix and other venues. He also coauthored “You Can Tell Just by Looking”: And 20 Other Myths about LGBT Life and People.