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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