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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Is my little boy gay? He likes girls' toys!

It's a common misconception that boys who like to dress up in girls' clothes, play with dolls and do other things which are stereotypical 'female' activities are necessarily gay. Not so! I was just starting to write a kids' story about this very issue, and someone's saved me the trouble...  one of my friends just shared this link on Facebook:


Seeing I don't need to write that story, I'll spend the time sharing a few anecdotes to get your thoughts going about what little boys actually get out of playing with girls' toys.

'Mike' is the most energetic, masculine, hyped-up 5-year-old I know.  He shares his time at preschool between building extravagant road systems for his Matchbox cars, racing around the yard with the wheeled toys and dressing up in the princess dresses. When we act out stories, he's equally happy being a superhero or a fairy. He also happily plays family games, looking after the baby dolls with great tenderness.  Yet he's always getting into trouble for being too forceful with his fists while trying to make others do what he wants.

So what's that all about?

Many things. Mike loves to be a leader. I'd describe him as an alpha-male, actually.  If the main character in a play situation is female, then he still wants to be the lead!

Looking deeper, Mike comes from a family where very traumatic and sometimes violent break-ups between his mum and dad are followed by sentimental reunions, over and over again. Maybe Mike is playing out these roles to try to make sense of them, perhaps even trying to act out the gentle parenting he desperately wants. Who knows? I'd be much more worried about what's happening at home than about his dressing up.

And I'm constantly reassured by his loving handling of the baby dolls; at least this vulnerable, wounded little boy does understand what love LOOKS like.

The next most energetic and masculine 5-year-old on my list would be 'Ronnie'. He is able to shimmy up the posts that hold our shade sails, right to the top; he seems to understand how absolutely everything mechanical works; he likes to walk around holding hands with the girls and giving them hugs, saying they're his 'girlfriend'. Yet despite this typical boy-behaviour that takes up most of his playtime, his father was horrified to come in late one evening and find him happily playing with the dolls' house, and his comments were scathing and hurtful. (I didn't tell him that Ronnie also likes wearing the girls' dress-ups, and does so almost every day.)

What is Ronnie learning from that response? That it's somehow wrong, or bad, to experiment with different toys? That his dad won't accept him if he plays with the 'girls' stuff', so his love is conditional?

There are many different things to be learnt from playing with a dolls' house, from sequencing of events to spatial relations. Ronnie has no mum at home, so why wouldn't he think it was okay to play with a stove, a fridge, an oven? He sees dad doing it every night.  He's making sense of his world by acting out what he sees.

And Ronnie likes to work out how things work, so why wouldn't he see if he could work out the best way to fit the furniture into a room? So many different patterns and possibilities...

...but dad says NO, based on a misconception that this play makes his child less masculine.

And the dress-ups? Haven't you ever worn something different, just to see how it feels or what it looks like? Have you maybe discovered that looking a bit different changes the way people react to you?

Ronnie LOVES dressing in the girls' dresses and making the other kids laugh- not AT him, but WITH him.  There's something intrinsically funny and incongruous about this 'boy's boy' wearing fairy wings, and even the other 5-year-olds seem to recognise it. Even if Ronnie wasn't consciously trying for this effect, it's certainly taught him something about himself.

And women out there, have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a man? I certainly have. When I see boys trying on girls' clothes, or girls dressing in that Superman costume, all I see is kids wondering about their world- not some primitive form of sexual expression. Do grown men forget about this childhood stage of wondering and experimenting? It's very common. A girlfriend's little boy decided he wanted to go to a fancy dress party as a fairy many years ago, when he was a preschooler, causing a fair bit of male angst from his dad; ten years later, she was stressing out about the same child downloading very male-oriented porn onto her computer. IT'S USUALLY NOT ABOUT SEXUALITY.

And then there's 'Leo', also 5.  Leo is crazy about large soft toys and puppets. He'd rather play with those than with the other kids.  Is that a worry?

I guess the obvious worry is that Leo isn't socialising with his peers, which is his mother's main concern.  But if you factor in that Leo is a highly gifted child whose language and cognitive development are way ahead of other 5-year-olds, then why shouldn't he cope with being put in a room full of (to him) 'babies' by making friends with toys, whose conversational standard he can provide himself? If you listen to him talking with these 'virtual friends', you'll start to realise how huge the gulf is between Leo and the other children in terms of intellectual development. What he's discussing with these inanimate objects would be way beyond even some of the staff! And let's face it, many of the other toys provided are a bit babyish for him too- he likes the construction kits because they're so open ended, but a lot of the others are a bit dopey from his perspective. (PLAY food and toy ovens? 20-piece puzzles? Picture books? -the child can already read!) He's found a way to solve his own problem, and many points to him for doing so. He's going to have a tough time until he grows up, when he can choose peers based on equal cognitive ability rather than age, so fair go- he's doing the best he can.

So please don't assume that your little boy is playing with girl stuff because he's gay. Take a close look at what he's doing, and try to relate it to what sort of child he is and what his circumstances are. Find out what he's gaining from these toys- it's probably something immensely valuable to him.

And stop worrying!  Let him discover who he is and what he's interested in without misinformed value judgements from his caring adults. Scared your child will be bullied for dressing differently? Discuss the possibility with him or her before they go out that door, and then let them decide.  Scared that your friends and family will judge you for allowing it? Grow some tiger's claws in your child's defence. Love means letting your child be who he or she is, not pushing them into some shape that you (or your friends and family) think is acceptable. Be strong!

Of course there are some children who are actually going to be gay, who express it initially by insisting on dressing like the opposite sex. The word to note here is 'insisting'; not all children who persistently dress like the opposite sex will turn out to be gay, but it's one of the very few predictors that researchers have shown to have any relevance at all.  Even if your son does turn out to be gay, preventing him from dressing up and playing with girls' toys won't have changed a thing, other than making him feel unloved and unaccepted- so if you love him, lay off, and start talking to someone who can help you deal with your own fears instead of loading them onto a vulnerable child.

There is one other possibility with children who insist on dressing as the other sex, which is quite rare and poorly understood.  Just for a moment, let's talk about the issue of  Gender Identity Disorder (GID) so you know what it is and what the signs are.

GID is not about partner preference- it's a diagnosable medical condition in which a person genuinely believes they are of the other sex, even though they are not so in a medical (ie hormonal or anatomical) sense.  In children, you would expect to see much more than just occasional experiments with clothes and toys designed for the other gender.  A child with GID might refuse to wear anything but the clothes of the opposite sex, but that isn't enough for a diagnosis- they also need to be genuinely uncomfortable with their anatomy. A little boy might, for example, refuse to urinate standing up (or the opposite for a little girl, of course). A little girl might expect to grow a penis, or a little boy might express a belief that his penis is somehow 'wrong'.

A child with GID will probably insist that they ARE the other sex, as well as seeking out play companions, clothes and toys normally associated with the other sex and even wanting to change their name to something more suitable for the other sex.  If your child has this condition, you won't be in any doubt that something's amiss.

What to do, if you really think your child has this condition? Your only loving, respectful choice is to accept them as they are, and then seek help to understand and accommodate this 'different' child's needs. Find a doctor who doesn't write it off as being a 'phase' and who will refer you to specialists.  Join chat sites. Seek out other parents of children with GID. It's no different from any other special need, really.

GID can't be medicated out of existence. It is NOT something that the child can be talked (or, god forbid, punished) out of. If your child has been dealt this hand in life, you have to help him or her play the cards they've got.  Your child will need a LOT of support and encouragement, because the path is not an easy one.  Prepare to fight for your child's right to be themselves!


  1. lol as I took a few mins to set up a blog page of my own,,,, you have already re-posted more here,,

    I was just addressing some of the things from the first story here... I will post anyway, but I think you have covered some of it.. ;-)

    Dear Aunt Annie,,,, I love your work.

    Your Introduction to these topics is good, but I would like to see a clarification between sexual preference and Gender Identity, as both are very different things. Sexual preference is exactly that, a choice of which gender you are attracted to. Whereas Gender Identity is a little different and has nothing to do with sexual preference at all. Someone with a gender identity condition can still have a preference to any, either or both genders like anyone else, but has a condition in which their identified birth gender differs from their internal identified gender.
    As you may well have guessed by now, this topic rests quite close to home for me so please excuse any torch I may appear to bare here..

    In regards to the first story here I see a condition that relates that relates gender identity and I know this topic can get a little confusing when writing about, especially to do with the pro nouns used when referring to the person in mention ie: He and She..
    I see a little of this in the explanation to the children
    " By mistake he got put in a boy's body, but on the inside he's a girl. When he puts boy clothes on and plays boy games, it feels DUMB. "

    If "Jackie" has the condition known as gender identity, then she is a she and shouldn't be referred to as a he in giving a child an explanation. This could bring about even more puzzlement into their minds.

    Other than that, in reading both of the stories I have to admit to holding back some tears.
    It's not often that these topics are covered, let alone so well.

    Thank you Aunt Annie for your worthwhile effort in writing.

    Would you mind if I re-posted the first story in a relevant forum,,of course with all due credits and link ?

    Regards and utmost respect, Love and Light

  2. I am actually struggling with guilt for letting my little boy play with girl toys and having girls for playmates for a long time.Now he is 14 year old and six months ago told me he is gay.And I am thinking what if I tried to direct him differently?to play with boy toys and having boys as playmates.Should I have prevented this?I am very depressed and mad to myself for letting this happen.Please tell me would he eventually turn out gay anyway?

    1. Sweetheart, nothing a parent does can change a child's sexuality. Nobody is that powerful! You are not 'to blame' in any way and there is nothing you could have done better that would affect this.

      The only thing a parent CAN change is how happy their child feels in their own skin. If you had forced your boy to play with different toys and different children you wouldn't have ended up with a straight 14-yr-old- you would have ended up with a very unhappy, confused, gay 14-yr-old.

      What you HAVE done by allowing your child to make his own choices is to help protect him from self-loathing and suicidal feelings at this very vulnerable teenage stage. He will already be having enough problems from his peer group without adding parental disapproval to the load. And now he needs you to support him, not to make him feel terrible about who he is by heaping loathing on yourself. Get yourself some counselling so that you can help him through this period of coming out.

      Gay people are born, not made. Who in their right mind would CHOOSE to be part of a minority that experiences so much misunderstanding and prejudice? Please put that thought right out of your head. Your son is still your son, whatever his sexuality. He needs your unconditional love right now.

      I know it can be very hard to accept this challenge, especially in some parts of the world where society has a low tolerance of differences, but that is the hand your son and you have been dealt and now you have to 'play the cards you have' and stick up for your son's rights. All strength to you both.

  3. Thank you so much for your reply.Do you think that this is going to be his orientation?He is only 14.Isn't there a possibility to change as he grows?I am still trying to accept it but I find it so hard.

    1. Honey, at 14 he is becoming aware of feeling attracted to certain people. That goes with terrifying prospects (for a young man) of being vulnerable, of being rejected etc etc... that's hard enough, even without the complication of being attracted to what his parent thinks of as the 'wrong' sex. If he's already come out to you, that took a LOT of guts and a LOT of certainty on his part. Imagine if you were him! How would you feel, knowing that you were attracted to the 'wrong' sex in your mum's eyes? Wouldn't that be hard? The biggest danger right now is that your boy might start to hate himself for disappointing you. HE CAN'T HELP HOW HE FEELS. And he trusts you! He told you! Congratulations, because you have created an atmosphere where he feels safe. Now, don't blow it!

      Please try to accept what he says about himself. If you can focus more on the love you have for your child and on his need for acceptance right now, and focus less on your own expectations and your fears for him and your own fear of society's disapproval, you will be doing the very best job a parent can do.

      You also need some support right now- do you have an understanding girlfriend you can talk to? What about an online support group with other parents who are going through this?

      It's not going to go away through you wishing things were different. This is who your son is right now, and HE NEEDS YOU. Will you be there for him?

  4. Hi Auntie Annie,
    Can you please tell me what to do?

    My son turned 5 recently and his preschool teacher said that he plays dress ups in school
    and in her years of experience as a school teacher she never saw any boy playing dress ups in school
    and also he does not like to play rough housing with other boys and always plays with the girls.

    During summer holidays i watched him closely and saw his behaviour was a little strange..point never noticed any of these
    before the teacher complained even if i did i thought he was just playing because he has a twin sister and they play together
    all the time and naturally it was easy for him to play dress ups in school with her and her friends
    but when i started watching and put everything he did in the google ,
    it comes to a conclusion of gender non conformity (as in gay )

    fascination with long hair like rapunzel doll play
    attraction to female characters in stories, girls as playmates.
    Fear of Injury, rough-and-tumble play
    doen't play group sports,feels fragile, weak, vulnerable to injury.
    He does have limp wrist and very effeminate mannerism, he walks,talks and facial expression everythings
    like a girl i thought he is immitating his sister and he does too whatever she does he does but is it normal?
    soon hes going go to public schoolso very worried and concerned coz he might get bullied.

    is it a phase or is he immitating or is it gender indentity disorder or something else not able to understand
    Please help i know he is just a kid and they do play pretend and all the stuff
    i know i have to let him be who he is and all that....I do love him a lot and what to protect him.
    But i am not understanding any of these please i am not looking for conformation or answer but its
    scary. Scary to think about his future . please help


    1. Hi Anon. Hugs to you- you are obviously finding this very challenging.

      The first thing I want to say is that your son's preschool teacher sounds very inexperienced. If she's never seen a boy of that age playing dress-ups, she either hasn't been looking, has implemented draconian discouragements or is first-year-out. It is completely normal for young boys to experiment with girls' clothes. They don't have the hang-ups that adults do.

      The second thing I'd say is STAY AWAY FROM GOOGLE. You don't have to have any knowledge or experience to post something on the internet. Unless you are using Google Scholar and looking only at recent, peer-reviewed journal articles, you are likely to be alarmed and misled by what you find there.

      I can't tell you, without observing first-hand, whether your son is imitating his sister or not; certainly there are some children who display characteristics that suggest they may be gay very young, but there are others who are simply very good at mimicry. BUT THAT IS NOT EVEN RELEVANT. If your son is in fact gay, there is NOTHING you can do to change it. Your role is to accept the son you have been given and love him with all your heart.

      The best way to protect your son from bullying is to give him strong self-esteem. You can't victimise a child who is confident and aware of his own power and validity. Accepting who he is is the first step to making him strong.

      If he likes to copy his sister, then offer your daughter strong activities- get her outdoors running around and empowering herself through energetic play, and your son may well follow. When we assign certain types of play gender roles, we disempower girls as well as boys.

      But the best thing you can do for both your children is to normalise strength and physicality by showing it yourself. As a mother, model strong, physical activities. Have fun. Laugh at your own mistakes. Try new things in front of your kids. Modelling strength is the best way to teach strength.

      I hope this helps you! Stay strong, and be happy! Above all, your children need a happy mother.

  5. Has a guy ever given you mixed signals?

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    [Sign off]


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