Dear Mr. Dad, I have an eight-year-old son who loves sports and video games and does lots of other “boy” things. But he also likes to play with dolls—really girly ones. Does that mean he’s gay? Is there a way to tell this early on? And if he is gay, what should we do?
A: Have you ever noticed that there’s something of a boy-girl double standard? When a girl climbs trees, refuses to wear dresses, plays with trucks, and tears the heads off her Barbies like my oldest daughter did, no one worries about whether she’s gay. In fact, being a Tom-boy is seen as kind of cool. But when boys buck traditional gender roles, people start to panic.
So let’s get this out of the way right up front: your son is too young to have discovered his sexual orientation. Could be that he just likes dolls and is giving his imagination a workout. The fact that he plays with dolls doesn’t mean that he’s gay (neither would singing show tunes or having tea parties) any more than wresting or showing an interest in hunting or monster trucks would mean that he’s straight. There are plenty of heterosexual men who played with dolls when they were kids, and plenty of guys with daughters (myself included) who’ve discovered that playing with dolls can be a lot of fun. It’s even more fun when the daughters join in.
Researchers have tried many times over the years to identify behaviors that predict a child’s sexuality, but no one has come up with any sure-fire rules or red flags. Estimates are that about 10% of the population is gay. So statistically, the odds are that your son is straight. That said, if he dresses like a girl, wears makeup, does a lot of other non-gender-conforming activities, and keeps that up for years—not days—there is a possibility that he could be gay.
But here’s the big question: So what? Spending a lot of time trying to analyze your son’s behavior is a complete waste of time and serves no purpose other than to demean your son—and yourself. Despite attempts by some religious groups to “deprogram” or “convert” gay people, the science is pretty clear: your son is who is is—sexuality and all—and there’s nothing you or anyone else can do to change that fact.
You can, however, make him feel miserable, unloved, and unaccepted. If he actually turns out to be gay, you’re putting him at risk for what has become a frightening trend. Gay teens are over four times more likely to commit suicide than heterosexual teens. Young people who have tried to kill themselves and either failed or left a note, say that the lack of love and acceptance from parents, family, and friends, along with being bullied at school and online contributed to their decision to take their own life.
Your son is only eight, and when his sexual orientation becomes clear, it’ll be his business and no one else’s. If you’re confident that you can ask your son in a non-judgmental way what he likes about dolls, go ahead. But stay away from labels like “gay” or “straight.” He’s your son and all he needs to know right now is that you love him.