Will our child grow up to be gay or straight? Can we note his or her play style, dress preferences, manner of walking and interests, and accurately predict whether he or she will fall in love with, or feel sexual towards a man or a woman? Blogger and psychologist Jesse Bering is clearly torn. On the one hand, he cites a significant group of studies that suggest a relationship between gender atypical childhood behavior (boys playing with dolls, girls with trains, etc.) and adult homosexuality. But on the other, he totally wrestles with the image, produced by the idea that one might be "born gay," of a little male neonate appearing with frilly pink diapers and grasping a Barbie doll.
If we do not pop out of the womb with pre-made traits, then what are the processes through which traits, preferences and feelings develop? As always, I emphasize that traits and feelings are processes, not things. First, we emerge from the womb and, by the time we are age 5, we have definite—albeit not permanent—preferences for lots of things: what colors we like; what kinds of kids we like to play with (not just boys or girls but also loud or quiet, leaders or followers, etc.); whether we are fascinated or repulsed by slugs and worms and more.
It is these sorts of things that scientists ask us to remember when we are adults, using our answers to correlate childhood preferences with our reports about sexual preference. Two graphs, kindly provided to me by psychologist Martin Plöderl tell the story as many social scientists currently see it. Plöderl compared self-declared homosexual or heterosexual identities in adults to their memories of gender conformity in childhood. Take a look. First, by concentrating on the left side of the graphs, the reader can see that there is a segment of adult gay men who remember being highly gender non-conforming as kids. Clearly too, the straight men in this study did not have memories of even moderate gender non-conformity. But there were a significant number of gender-conforming men who, nonetheless, developed a gay or bisexual identity in adulthood.
The story for women does not parallel the men's tale. To start with, straight adult women remember a much wider range of gender-non-conforming child play. And even girls who recalled gender non-conforming behaviors as kids sometimes grew up into heterosexual adults. This is another feature of most studies that correlate childhood gender play with adult sexual preference: the boys tend to be more rigidly confined in terms of the brand of gender non-conformity remembered. This might be a topic for a future blog, but I want to circle back to my opening question: How do early childhood preferences develop in the first place?
Healthy full-term babies vary. They are bigger or smaller, have better or more poorly developed sensory or motor neural systems, and have colic or not. They have more or less reactive temperaments. These differences are not, primarily related to sex, although there are very small average differences in weight, head circumference (boys heavier and bigger heads) and general health (girls have higher 20 minute Apgar scores) at birth. But the differences are so tiny that they are swamped by the variability within each group. For example, two boys can differ from each other on any trait to a much greater degree than a boy and a girl.
These birth traits are part of the infant's contribution to the parent-infant dyad, a unit that forms, probably starting before birth, and plays a crucial role during the first year of life. If all goes well the main care-giver and the infant learn to synchronize with one another and to reestablish synchrony when for some reason it breaks off. Through this dyadic connection the infant learns physiological regulation (control of body temperature, control of sound production, ultimately control of elimination and emotional regulation). As a toddler, the child exits the dyad to establish itself as an individual. The process of individualization and increasing abilities of self-regulation is, of course, a long one. (Some of us never quite get there!)
But what does this have to do with gender and memories of gender non-conformity? First, most adult European-Americans can't retrieve specific memories that pre-date the age of 3, well after the period I am discussing. Second, during the first year of life, all that dyadic back and forth takes place at the same time that infants take on board gendered aspects of their world. By six months they can distinguish male from female voices; by nine months they can associate male or female voices with male or female faces. By 18 months they have acquired significant gender role knowledge: For example, they stare longer at pictures of men putting on lipstick and women with hammers. Gradually, children use this developing gender knowledge to articulate gender preferences and self-identity. By one year, for example, Euro-American girls begin to prefer dolls over trucks, and vice versa for the boys. By three years, and in certain contexts, children prefer play partners of one sex or the other. And, importantly, in this same two- to three-year timeframe, children evidence a process of gender identity acquisition which can, itself, take two to three years, and proceeds by degree.
My final point, then, is about timing. Maybe we can agree that the image evoked by "born gay"—that little girl neonate appearing wearing overalls and grasping a toy truck—does not help us think through questions of sexual desire and identity. Instead, let's imagine developmental traces that result from periods during which dyadic sensory inputs shape the developing nervous system, associated with periods during which infants acquire knowledge about gender from their surrounding world, and followed by periods during which this knowledge about the external world begins to transform itself into self-knowledge. There is a transition from pre-symbolic, pre-linguistic knowledge to symbolic knowledge that uses language. It is in this period that gendered preferences start to emerge. So, logically, this is where we need to focus our studies. We need to get the time-line right, and we need to study developmental processes, not fixed images. That's how we can move forward.