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!