When Do Gay Kids Start “Acting Gay”?

Sometimes when they’re toddlers.

When do gay kids start “acting gay”?

A Minnesota school district is facing a Department of Justice investigation and a private lawsuit over its alleged failure to combat antigay bullying. One of the student-plaintiffs is a 14-year-old boy who hasn’t declared his sexual orientation but has been harassed for his clothing choices and his love for singing Lady Gaga songs. When do gay children start exhibiting telltale signs?

In early childhood, in some cases. A hefty pile of research shows that boys as young as 3 years old who break from traditional gender roles have a high likelihood of becoming gay adults. Predictive behaviors include playing with Barbie dolls, shying away from roughhousing, and taking an interest in makeup and women’s clothing. (Read the Explainer’s take on why boys prefer to play with sticks while girls go for dolls here.) The relationship isn’t one-to-one, however, and it’s certainly not the case that all boys who love Barbie dolls will later identify as gay. The correlation is much weaker in the other direction: A disproportionate number of boys who don’t conform to gender stereotypes turn out to be gay men, but lots of gay men played with G.I. Joe as boys and quarterbacked the high-school football team. Neither does the relationship appear to be as strong among girls. Tomboys aren’t as likely to become lesbian adults.

Psychiatrist Richard Green conducted the leading study in this field in the 1970s and ‘80s. He followed 44 boys who defied traditional gender roles from early childhood to adulthood. Thirty of them became gay or bisexual adults while just one child from a 34-member gender-conforming control group turned out to be gay. The subjects who strayed the most from conventionally boyish behavior were the most likely to be gay. Green’s study has since been repeated by other researchers with similar outcomes. (Studies on females show that only around one-quarter of gender nonconforming girls grow up to be lesbians.)

There is no magical age at which children adopt stereotypically gay behavior and keep it into adulthood. The beginnings of gender nonconformity are hard to pinpoint, and a person’s tendency toward masculine behavior may rise and fall through childhood. Some mothers tell psychologists that they sensed their little boy was gay during infancy. They claim the child behaved differently than male siblings when picked up, showing a stronger interest in nuzzling. (These stories, however, may just be hindsight bias.) Gender nonconforming boys also tend to adopt more traditional gender roles in middle and high school, often as an attempt to cover up their sexual identity.

Some researchers think gender nonconforming children use their toys to rehearse for a gay adulthood. Little girls play with Barbies, high heels, and makeup because they’re practicing the role of wife. Gay 3-year-old boys can’t verbalize their desire to be with a man when they grow up—although many such children exhibit crushlike behavior toward adult men—but they may be trying to learn the behavior that will later attract a male partner. Psychiatrists also point out that these boys don’t typically play with baby dolls or mimic maternal behaviors the way many little girls do. These attempts to explain the basis of gender nonconforming behavior, however, are somewhat speculative.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Gregory Lehne of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Ritch Savin-Williams of Cornell University.