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On gender, sexual orientation, and children

Posted Oct 23 2008 4:57am

I am thinking this morning about a blog post by Hugo Schwyzer and The Atlantic article I read yesterday.

Hugo’s post is his response to a question about a bisexual man who is in a monogamous marriage with a woman, and what that means.  The Atlantic article is about transgendered children, the range of reactions and parenting approaches, and what it all means in adulthood.

These are both long articles, and fully worth your read.  In order to discuss them, along with some other points, in this space, I am going to radically (and probably unjustly) paraphrase them.

The relevant points in Hugo’s blog post can be boiled down to this: Bisexuality exists in both men and women, and fully realized and monogamous adults can identify as bisexual.  (This has ended up less intrinsic to the rest of the post than it was originally slated to be.  But it’s still an interesting post, so I’m keeping the reference.)  The Atlantic article’s relevant points are something along these lines: We’re not yet fully sure whether sexual orientation or gender identity is based in nature or nurture, but it probably doesn’t matter a whole lot in how individuals experience themselves.  These two points prompted my thinking which led to this post, more than they directly have influenced what I say.

As parents, we have a child in front of us with needs and a personality and all kinds of ins and outs.  Some of those things are gender based, but not all of them.  There’s some research that suggests that people who are transexual or gay have a brain make-up that’s closer to that of the opposite gender than the same gender.  But it’s sketchy research at best, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of good comparison studies or replications or anything else that would make sit up and take notice of their results.

Regardless of the research, the general thinking behind gay adults has swung wildly from entirely nurture (i.e., it’s the mother’s fault) to entirely nature (i.e., it’s because of a prenatal hormone imbalance).  Either way, of course, it’s the mother who is the elemental cause of the child’s gender and sexuality (because it was her womb, after all).  And this is, of course, complete crap.  Are we really still so tied in to Freud that we can’t move past mother-blame?  Kids are who they are.  This doesn’t, of course, mean that it’s okay for kids to be rude, whiner, brats.  One of our jobs as parents it to teach the little buggers to be socially acceptable.  But sexual identity and sexual orientation have very little to do with social acceptability and a whole lot to do with a great unknown.  Which is to say, we don’t know much about it.  So take a shot of Zen in your morning coffee, folks, and just chill the heck out.

So what to do with these kids?  As parents, teachers, and generally caring adults, the only response I can think of as humane is to meet them where they are, and accept them in that place.  I am so tired of adults telling children who they are - rather than just relaxing and letting the child be who they are.

Yes, kids get funny ideas in their heads sometimes.  Maybe they want to be a boy, maybe they want to be a girl, and maybe they want to be something else entirely.  (My 4-year-old keeps telling me she wants to be “a people” not “a person.”)  But they will be who they are meant to be.

But here’s the really important thing to remember: If it’s a phase, they’ll grow out of it.  I promise.  If it’s not a phase, well, they won’t grow out of it.  While that point is not very tricky conceptually, it is a heart-wrenching and deeply challenging situation for parents, particularly ones who have strict gender identification roles themselves or who live in an environment that is not open to fluid gender roles.

There is, of course, much, much more to say about this topic.  The religious, spiritual, physical, emotional, social, sexual ramifications are substantial and well worthy of serious debate and conversation, even if no concrete answers would necessarily be forthcoming.  I hope to spend more time thinking and writing about this growing awareness of the nuances of transgender-ism and how it relates (or doesn’t) to homosexuality over the next few months.

And before I end, I want to give a plug for this public service campaign.  It’s a good one, so go check it out and be sure to watch the ads.

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