Research evidence: Gender-atypical tots likely to become gay or lesbian

by Michael Biggs

Michael Biggs is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Oxford and Fellow of St Cross College. He researches social movements and collective protest.


Transgender activists insist that children who behave in ways more typical of the opposite sex—a boy who likes dressing up as a fairy princess, a girl who enjoys rough-and-tumble play—are ‘transgender’. Such kids, they argue, must be subjected to medical interventions to make them superficially resemble the opposite sex, and these interventions must take place as soon as possible. The British National Health Service gives puberty-blocking hormones to children as young as 10, while in the United States some surgeons will amputate the breasts of 13-year-old girls.

Many of the kids labelled ‘transgender’ would—if left alone—grow up to be lesbian or gay. This observation has been made by many parents, and sometimes their children who desisted or detransitioned, whose stories are gathered on this website. It is also supported by a growing body of scientific research. Developmental Psychology published an important article last year (Li, Kung, and Hines 2017), which 4thWaveNow has previously highlighted. Thanks to the generosity of Gu Li in sharing some of the data, I will try to explicate the results for the general reader.

The article exploits a survey of exceptional quality, from a well-defined population: mothers giving birth in a county in southwestern England in 1991–2. Therefore it avoids the problem of haphazard sampling which undermines so many surveys of sexuality. The survey is large, so the article analyzes 4,597 children. Because they are tracked over time, we can see how the children behaved just before starting school (at 4 years and 9 months), and then how they turned out by the age of 15.

Gendered behavior

The survey asked mothers (or other caregivers) about their children’s behavior. We are interested in the questions on gender which comprise the Preschool Activities Inventory (Golombok and Rust 1993). This is a standard list of two dozen questions covering toys, activities, and characteristics. For example, the interviewer asks how often the child played with toy guns in the last month, from “never” to “very often.” All these questions are condensed into a single scale, so that the child can be placed somewhere on a spectrum from most ‘feminine’ to most ‘masculine’.

The Preschool Activities Inventory predates the emergence of transgenderism as a phenomenon. Yet the questions bear a striking resemblance to the reasons given by parents for diagnosing their kids as transgender, as catalogued by Lily Maynard. Thus, femininity is elicited by questions about playing with dolls, dressing in girls’ clothes, and pretending to be a female character like a princess; masculinity by playing with cars, or joining ball games. Today’s trans kids, in other words, would be drawn from those on the extremes of the Inventory.

Biggs image 1

The first graph plots gendered activities of the children in the survey. The horizontal axis is derived from the Preschool Activities Inventory, ranging from most ‘masculine’ to most ‘feminine’. Clearly there is a large difference, on average, between boys and girls. But there is also a wide variation within each sex. Indeed, the two distributions overlap at the edges. The mid point between the typical (median) girl and the typical boy is indicated by a vertical line. About 6% of girls behaved in ways more typical of boys than of girls, and vice versa for 3% of boys. A few of these kids were extremely atypical for their sex: girls, for example, who preferred even more ‘masculine’ activities than those chosen by the typical boy.

These atypical kids, incidentally, demonstrate the limits of socialization as the sole explanation for gendered behavior. Parents were not encouraging them to deviate from gender norms, and yet this subset of children were becoming more gender-divergent as they grew up (activities were also measured earlier, at the ages of 2½ and 3½) while most of their peers were gravitating towards behavior more typical for their sex. In fact, analysis of this same population shows that the mothers with higher levels of testosterone gave birth to girls who chose more ‘masculine’ activities, though there was no effect on boys (Hines et al. 2002). As the authors note in the abstract, “nonheterosexual individuals appear to diverge from gender norms regardless of social encouragement to conform to gender roles.”

Sexual orientation

Now fast forward ten years to the children at 15 (in 2006–07). They were asked about their sexual orientation, recording their answer confidentially on a computer. For simplicity we will divide orientation into two groups: on one hand, heterosexuals (“100%” or “mainly”) and on the other, homosexuals (“100%” or “mainly” gay or lesbian). A small number of teens identified as bisexual or asexual; they are excluded from the total.

Only 1.1% of boys identified as gay rather than heterosexual, and 0.7% of girls identified as lesbian. These proportions roughly match the total British population, but younger cohorts—like the millennials in this survey—are more likely to call themselves gay or lesbian than older generations. Therefore one suspects that some of those who called themselves heterosexual at 15 would subsequently come out as gay or lesbian in their late teens or early twenties.

Biggs image 2

The second graph uses gendered behavior to predict subsequent sexual orientation for girls. The horizontal axis is the same as in the first graph. The curve shows how girls who had preferred more ‘masculine’ activities were far more likely to identify as lesbians. As the curve extends further to the right, it is based on fewer individuals (shown as points), and so estimation becomes less certain. We can, however, be confident in the following comparison. A girl who was average in gendered activities has a 0.5% chance of becoming lesbian. For a girl who was midway between average girl and average boy, the probability triples to 1.7%.

biggs image 3

The third graph is the equivalent for boys. A boy who was at the average in gendered activities has a 0.6% chance of becoming gay. For a boy who was halfway between the average boy and the average girl, the probability multiplies eight-fold to 4.9%. Again, we cannot give too much credence to the extreme left of the curve, as it derives from only a few individuals. One final point needs emphasis. While kids who behaved in ways more typical of the opposite sex were far more likely to identify as homosexual than those who conformed, nevertheless the majority of them were heterosexual. As noted already, some of them would come out as gay or lesbian later on. Nevertheless, the majority of gender-nonconforming kids are heterosexual.

In sum, then, girls and boys growing up in England in the early 1990s preferred different toys and activities. To what extent this reflected socialization from parents and television, as feminists emphasize, and to what extent innate sexual differences, remains an open question.

It’s crucial is to appreciate variation and overlap as well as differences. Just as some women are naturally taller than some men, so some girls prefer more ‘masculine’ activities than some boys do. Such girls were far more likely to turn out as lesbian. That was the case, at least, in this survey of children coming of age in a society that was relatively tolerant of homosexuality—and before transgender identities were ascendant in social media and schools. We can only speculate how the cohort born ten years later would identify. But we must realize that the characteristics that now diagnose a ‘transgender child’ are the same characteristics that increase the chances of a teenager becoming gay or lesbian.

Note

Predicted probabilities are estimated from logistic regression. Adding a quadratic term or log transforming the Preschool Activities Inventory does not improve the model’s fit. N = 2,382 boys and 2,141 girls. Data kindly supplied by Gu Li.


References

Golombok, Susan, and John Rust. 1993. “The Pre-School Activities Inventory: A Standardized Assessment of Gender Role in Children.” Psychological Assessment, vol. 5, pp. 131–136.

Hines Melissa, Susan Golombok, John Rust, Katie J. Johnston, Jean Golding, and Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children Study Team. 2002. “Testosterone During Pregnancy and Gender Role Behavior of Preschool Children: A Longitudinal, Population Study.” Child Development, vol. 73, pp. 1678–87.

Li, Gu, Karson T. F. Kung, and Melissa Hines. 2017. “Childhood Gender-Typed Behavior and Adolescent Sexual Orientation: A Longitudinal Population-Based Study.” Developmental Psychology, vol. 53, pp. 764–77.

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23 thoughts on “Research evidence: Gender-atypical tots likely to become gay or lesbian

  1. Pingback: Polite Ticks – Beautiful Heart

  2. It seems to me that it would be more appropriate to examine adulthood gender dysphoria than adulthood sexual orientation for this purpose. There’s nothing that prevents people from being both transgender and attracted to people of their natal sex, and in fact that is by far the most common outcome for early-onset gender dysphoria.

    (From what I understand, the evidence so far strongly suggests that the GNC kids are usually not gender dysphoric as adults.)

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    • “There’s nothing that prevents people from being both transgender and attracted to people of their natal sex, and in fact that is *by far the most common outcome* for early-onset gender dysphoria.”

      Source?

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    • Yes, confusion of orientation with sexual identity is very misleading. GNC kids become mainly conventional people. Most tomboys do not become either lesbians or ftms.

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  3. This is what happens when adults place things onto children. We need to love,guide,listen, support ,engage them in real life and set fair boundaries and try to keep them safe as they are vulnerable. Other than that adults should probably stay out . We always seem to make things way worse when we try to apply adult thinking onto kids. IMO yes gender identity disorder exists but it is becoming way way more common because our society is currently shoving this idea down young pools throats. And yes.. it is being shoved! Just ten years ago ,before Trans was on everyone’s tongues, most kids just worked it out. The growing number of gender clinics should ring alarm bells for anyone who looks deeper than the usual narrative. We as a progressive society are creating trans children by our over focus on gender. Kids are smart and resilient and most figure shit out when adults aren’t cramming a bunch of nonsense down their throats. Leave these gender non conforming kids alone!!! Tell them they are perfect how they are. Tell them yes life is hard and people can be cruel but they are resilient and have many gifts to offer. Stop preaching transition or suicide as the only options. God! I feel so damn sorry for every non conforming kid right now. We have just made life a million times more complicated for them .

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  4. But what this shows that even at the most extreme ends of either graph, people stick to their sex. only 20% of extreme famine play boys are gay and only 10% of extreme male play girls are lesbian. So 80% of the most extreme boys are straight, and 90% of the most extreme girls are straight.

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  5. Correct. I am agreeing with you. This is why I’m saying we need to stop seeing gender non conformity as indicative of anything other than personality or preferences. This is why adults should stop coaching children about gender. Leave them alone!!

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  6. Also… I should correct myself when I say gender identity disorder exists. I don’t believe people have a gender identity… just personality. A better term is gender dysphoria. All that term means is an individual is distressed by the expectations and roles of their gender which ,probably for a majority, could be treated with good therapy. Sex dysphoria is a bit different and is probably more related to body dismorphia or trauma of some sort. Anyway it doesn’t matter what I believe because no one is listening to us bigoted parents. Also a whole industry had been created around the transgender narrative. Just like private owned prisons need to be filled so do these gender clinics. It’s all about the money disguised as help

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  7. If the majority of gnc kids are heterosexual – then why are trans children in the media always talking about wanting to date the same natal sex?? This would not be the case if the majority was attracted to the opposite sex but it’s always young lesbians & gays. Even bisexuals are rare. There is Jazz Jennings who has also feelings for girls but who else?

    Why is trans child media all about young lg people when the most of gnc children are straight according to the study?

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    • Could this discrepancy be accounted for by measurement error in the assessment of gender nonconformity, which then overestimated the gender nonconformity of some pre-heterosexual kids and underestimated that of the pre-homosexual ones?

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    • Well since many of these kids are on puberty blockers they probably arent experiencing sexual feelings at all. But since they desperately want to be seen as normal boys/ girls , a “transboy” will say she likes girls and a “trans girl” will say he likes boys. In regards to Jazz you watch his earlier interviews when he was first put on puberty blockers at age 11 or so he insisted he only liked boys. But now that he is older and has gotten more masculine ( cause lets face the puberty blockers clearly dont work 100%, the boy looks like a linebacker) he’s admitted he likes girls. Im not sure if he legitamely likes boys also, but I did notice in his book he said even after he “transitioned” to a girl as a 5 year old he and one of his little girl friends at school were “in love” pretended to “marry” each other. So Im inclined to believe he started saying he liked boys to fit in and to be perceived as a “normal girl” .

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  8. I am betting what happens with at least some of these non-conforming kids is that, very early in the game, the parent says something to the boy toddler who wants to wear a princess gown or play with dolls, along the lines of “Boys don’t wear/play with those things, only girls do.”

    So the little boy gets it in his head that if he wants to do these things, maybe he’s not a boy at all. Maybe he’s a girl. And voila, a “transgender” identity is invented and unwittingly imposed, where previously there was just…a little boy who wanted to dress up as Elsa in Frozen.

    And then that becomes self-reinforcing as the kid himself sort of adopts it to reconcile the dissonance that’s being communicated to him between his gender (boy) and his preferences (all those fun girl clothes and toys).

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    • I also think we are underestimating how much of these childrens trans identity stems from emotional abuse and/or neglect. I wonder how many of these little boys started acting more feminine because they saw their parents give their sister more attention and love? Or how many dress up like princesses because it makes their attention seeking mothers happy and they wanted her approval? Theres a lot of talk about girls transing
      because of sexism in society, but we tend to forget boys can be neglected and mistreated as well. A lot of these male trans kids have mothers who clearly wanted special little dolls they could parade around.

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  9. Pingback: ACTION: Demand the Guardian and Other Media Outlets Report on How “Gender Identity” Ideology is Gay Conversion Therapy – Gender Critical Action Center

  10. Well I never did the “Boys don’t wear/play with those things…” stuff. I had 2 boy and 1 girl. In all 3cases I was completely open and relaxed about what they played with ..whether toys or doing dress up. My daughter, the oldest, never played with dolls of any sort (wasted lots of money on Barbies)) and preferred construction toys to typical feminine stuff. My middle son loved to wear his sister’s clothes. I had no problem with this at all. Ironically the youngest, now with ROGD, did not so much playing with girl stuff. So I have no residual concern or guilt that I forced a strong social expectation on their play or expression. My son, now 17, never showed any preference whatsoever for anything feminine as a young boy. He had lots of freedom to so so. Now he suddenly and without warming said he was a transgender “girl” at age 15. He was unhappy, lonely, awkward and always felt different than other kids. He is Asperger’s. The new political and social environment pushes the trans agenda. That, and I believe only that, is what makes him believe he is transgender. If he was this age 10 or 15 years ago he may have had a tough teenage period. But he would not be seeing himself as transgender. He has had a cult like experience with this. Plain and simple a form of brainwashing.

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  11. The title of this article contradicts whats actually in it. Its literally says most gender non-comforming kids end up being hetereosexual. This obsession this community has with insisting “transkids” are really gay or lesbian is probably doing grave harm to alot if these children and preventing many of them from desisting. It only legitimizes their delusions since most of them are not attracted to their natal sex. A boy transed from an early age like Jazz Jennings ( who has admitted to still being attracted to girls) will then conclude that this doesnt apply to him and will persist in his delusions.

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    • I think it is a strategy to mobilize LGBs against transing of kids. That’s an admirable goal, but not if it results in falsely tarring LGB youth as a group with the brush of gender non-conformity. Most LGBs are not GNC and they should be able to thrive in their masculinity and femininity without having it undermined and questioned.

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  12. This piece has an inaccuracy and is misleading in one important respect.

    First, the author states:
    “younger cohorts—like the millennials in this survey—are more likely to call themselves gay or lesbian than older generations. Therefore one suspects that some of those who called themselves heterosexual at 15 would subsequently come out as gay or lesbian in their late teens or early twenties.”

    There is simply no basis for the author’s assertion. He has no evidence that any of these heterosexual subjects later changed their minds. While it is true that some people identify as gay at 15 and later come out, it is also true – as CDC youth risk surveys have show in recent years – that some young people who identify as gay or lesbian in adolescence later decide otherwise.

    It is rank bias which leads the author to “suspect” only that heterosexuals will later come out – and only GNC heterosexuals. While it is true that Milennials are more likely to identify as LGB, it is also true that they are far more likely to do so at an earlier age. Therefore, there is no basis for his assumption that 15 year old Millennials would be withholding their true identity. Moreover, even if some of the study subjects did later come out as gay or lesbian, there is no reason to think that they would fall within the GNC cohort. GNC gays and lesbians are most likely to come out EARLIER, since everyone already knows or suspects. It is the gender normative gays and lesbians who have an incentive to delay coming out. (By way of example, every single gay male athlete who has played or is currently playing college football, basketball, or soccer, came out years after age 15. No one suspected and they had no incentive to come out early. Had any of them been part of this study at 15, they would have identified as heterosexual and would have been found on the masculine end of the curve.)

    Second, this piece, like others on this site, seems very eager to muddle the distinction between differences in rates of gender non-conformity on the one hand, with gender non-conformity as an inherent or widespread trait among gays and lesbians on the other. The former is real, the latter is not. This very study by Li, Kung and Hines provides us with the distribution of the PSAI results by gay, lesbian and heterosexual respondents. For some strange reason, the author chooses not to share or discuss those tables. They show that while the distributions for the gay and lesbian respondents does differ from the hetero distribution and while we do see a “bulge” of gay and lesbian respondents at the GNC end of the scale, the majority of gay and lesbians are situated where most of the heterosexual respondents are situated, more or less in the center of the curve, near the center line for their respective genders. (And of course there are some gays and lesbians who surpass their hetero counterparts in gender normativity.) This is true for all 3 waves at 3 different ages.

    The distributions in this study are consistent with other studies which show that gender non-conformity is more prevalent among LGBs, but that at the same time, most LGBs are not GNC. In fact, I am not aware of a single study showing that a majority of LGBs are GNC. While the author doesn’t directly mislead in this regard, it is clear that he and others on this site are very eager to tag gay men as effeminate and lesbians as masculine, as if those are characteristics of most or all members of those groups. That is a falsehood and an insult to the majority of LGBs.

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  13. Feel free to point out the flaws in what I’m saying but – this site’s raison d’etre is to advocate caution and the need for unbiased research around the idea of physical transition for children and young people. There are lots and lots of ancillary points to be made, and the “GNC=GL” association (if true) does point to a troubling tendency to press transition on children who may grow up to be gay or lesbian. However, whether or not most gay/lesbian children are GNC, or most GNC children are gay/lesbian, does not matter much when we are discussing the main point, which is that physical transition for any child or teen, whether GNC, gay, lesbian, or none of the above, is a dangerous, unproven, and foolhardy idea.

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