Source: Jacob Riis (1849-1914) [Public domain]
Back in the day—before ex-gay advocates began confessing their own same-sex attractions—conversion therapists argued that, among a litany of causal agents, being abused as a child causes one to become a sissy boy or a tomboy girl and through this process the deviant gender behavior becomes homosexuality. To cure or convert gays to heterosexuality one simply counters the abuse by getting rid of the unorthodox gender behavior—give the girls their Barbies and the boys their trucks. Nice, simple, and straightforward.
Although these assumptions have been challenged as overly simplistic, research has clearly established that non-straight children (especially boys) report elevated levels of emotional, physical, and sexual maltreatment (that is, abuse). Here are four recent studies that attest to these relationships:
1. From the U.S. National Epidemiologic Survey in the United States: Roberts and associates found a history of childhood sexual abuse predicts increases in the prevalence of same-sex attractions, same-sex partners, and same-sex identities—the connection is stronger for boys than girls.
2. From the U.S. Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System: Anderson and Blosnich reported that gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals have higher odds of adverse childhood experiences compared to their heterosexual peers.
3. From the U.K. Avon Longitudinal Study: Xu and associates reported boys with a history of childhood parental maltreatment are more likely to be nonheterosexual “even after controlling for important covariates.”
4. From a Canadian Community-Based Study: MacMullin and associates found gender-nonconforming children have higher levels of suicidality/self-harm compared to children who are gender-conforming; group effects are mostly due to having poor peer relations and behavioral and emotional challenges.
Questions this research raises but does not answer include: Does childhood maltreatment directly cause or shape a not-straight orientation? That is, does the parental and peer abuse cause children to be not straight? Given the well-established finding that sexual-minority youths are more gender nonconforming than straight youths, do children provoke the abuse by being gender deviant? That is, do parents abuse their gender unorthodox children in an attempt to straighten them out? Do peers abuse them because they are disgusted with masculine girls and feminine boys? Do the not-straight children elicit sexual encounters with same-sex adults because of their homosexual inclinations? Are not-straight youths biasing their retrospective recall of abuse?
These possibilities and others have been proposed as the causal chain leading some children not to be straight. Public health researchers Roberts and colleagues warn that their “results suggest that causal relationships driving the association between sexual orientation and childhood abuse may be bidirectional, may differ by type of abuse, and may differ by sex.” For psychologists, Yin Xu and colleagues, the association between maltreatment and sexual orientation is reduced to non-significance when taking into consideration the gender nonconformity of the sexual-minority youths.
This implies that not-straight children and adolescents are more likely than straight peers to be mistreated, even abused, not because of their sexuality but because they are not conforming to gender expectations. Hence, gender-nonconforming children (regardless of their sexual orientation) are at risk for mental health problems due to poor parental and peer relations and, because of their biology, not-straight youths are more likely to be gender-nonconforming and hence maltreated. After all, the abuse begins during childhood, prior to any knowledge by the parents—and perhaps the youths—of their sexual and romantic attractions. What is visible and hence known is their gender expression. It is not that the child is not straight which provokes parents and friends to mistreat them but that they are acting too much like the opposite gender.
The larger question this research raises is whether the gender-nonconforming child is abused because of the association parents and peers are making between gender nonconformity and gayness or because they just cannot stand their child or friend expressing a nonstandard gender. Given these associations between childhood gender nonconformity and childhood trauma (often by an adult family member), sex and gender professor Henny Bos and colleagues recommended: “interventions aimed at increasing the social acceptance of gender nonconformity might also lower the levels of childhood trauma and sexual victimization, especially among gay and bisexual men.” I would add, among all of us.