One group of studies that has begun to fuel debate about the role of early childhood in the development of homosexuality is gender-role nonconformity research. The studies are based on the observation that boys who exhibit cross-gender traits—that is, who be-
have in ways more characteristic of girls of that age—are more likely to grow up to be gay, whereas girls who behave in typically male ways are more likely to grow up to be lesbian. As children, gay men on average have been found to be more feminine than straight men, whereas lesbians have been found to be more masculine (J. M. Bailey et al., 1995; Pillard, 1991). Remember though that these findings are correlational, meaning that cross-gender traits and later homosexuality appear to be related, but do not have a cause-and-effect relationship.
Overall, cross-gender boys are viewed more negatively than cross-gender girls (Sandnabba & Ahlberg, 1999). In addition, cross-gender boys are more often thought to be gay than cross-gender girls are thought to be lesbian. One therapist who works with gay men reports that they saw themselves as
. . . more sensitive than other boys; they cried more easily, had their feelings more readily hurt, had more aesthetic interests, enjoyed nature, art, and music, and were drawn to other “sensitive” boys, girls and adults. Most of these men also felt they were less aggressive as children than others of their age, and most did not enjoy participating in competitive activities. They report that they experienced themselves as being outsiders since these early childhood years. (Isay, 1989, p. 23)
Green (1987) did a prospective study by comparing 66 pervasively feminine boys with 56 conventionally masculine boys as they matured. Green calls the feminine boys “sissy-boys,” an unfortunate term. However, he found that these boys cross-dressed, were interested in female fashions, played with dolls, avoided rough play, wished to be girls, and did not desire to be like their fathers from a young age. Three-fourths of them grew up to be homosexual or bisexual, whereas only one of the masculine boys became bisexual. The “sissy-boys,” however, also tended to be harassed, rejected, and ignored more by their peers, were more sickly than other boys, and had more psychopathology (Zucker, 1990).
One cannot tell from these types of studies whether these boys are physiologically or developmentally different (an essentialist view of homosexuality) or whether society’s reaction to their unconventional play encouraged them to develop a particular sexual orientation (a constructionist view of homosexuality). A constructionist might point out that girls are permitted to exhibit masculine play without being ridiculed, and gender nonconformity in girls—being a “tomboy”—does not correlate with later tendency to become a lesbian. Whether right or wrong, gender-role nonconformity theory cannot be the sole explanation of homosexuality, for many, if not most, gay men were not effeminate as children, and not all effeminate boys grow up to be gay.