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Boys Will Be Girls: Understanding Childhood Gender Nonconformity

Leah Bonnell's picture
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Glimpse into last year’s Trans-Health Conference in Philadelphia and you might see a pool-and-pizza party, a treasure hunt, Sue’s Sand Art, and Jack the Balloon Man. (1) These youthful events might seem anachronistic at a transgender event, but they were targeted towards the expected audience: the 12 and under crowd. Last year about fifty children and their families showed up from around the country to participate in the conference. The children, who are biologically born one sex, but identify as another, represent cases of childhood gender nonconformity (CGN). CGN is a broad term used to designate when a child’s interests and behaviors are more typical of the opposite sex. (3) Understanding CGN can help us learn more about gender and homosexuality, particularly in regard to the nature vs. nature debate.

             CGN can be thought of as a spectrum from mild to extreme cases. Mild cases would most likely involve boys exhibiting some degree of femininity and girls exhibiting some degree of masculinity, whether is it is terms of appearance, play preference, or other behavior. In terms of pop culture these children might be called sissies and tomboys. Extreme cases of CGN would be transgender children or children who inflect self-harm stemming from their gender identity issues. While rare, many media sources focus on extreme cases of CGN. The Boston Globe told of “Patrick,” who preferred dolls and trying on his mother’s clothes from the age of three. His mother tolerated his preferences and allowed free expression at home until she received a phone call from a school official that saying Patrick had made his classmates uncomfortable by insisting he was a girl. (2)

            Her situation is similar to those found throughout families with CGN children. Many parents, like Patrick’s mom, are forced to make difficult decisions on how to respond to CGN. In the past parents may have forced their children to act in a gender typical way, but, today, as a result of more liberal parenting styles, parents see more options. Patrick’s mom could try to reign in his feminine behavior, or alternatively, switch schools and allow Patrick to enter as a girl, as some parents have done.  A new, controversial option is to give CGN children hormone blockers at the first signs of puberty to indefinitely delay puberty. (1) Which response parents choose heavily depends on how the parents view CGN, whether they believe genetics or the environment causes CGN, or in other words whether they believe CGN is in or out of their control.

            Currently, it is unclear if genetics or the environment causes CGN; there is evidence to support both arguments. Dr. Kenneth Zucker, a psychologist, believes many of the CGN cases he sees are caused by “family noise,” or a home environment where the child finds it more favorable to act as the opposite gender. Zucker’s therapy approach of positively reinforcing the same sex gender identity has proven to be successful. After 25 years, none of his patients who began seeing him before age six has switched gender. (1) However, the existence of twins from the same household that have only one sibling displaying CGN suggests there is more to play than environment. These twins are raised in the same environment with predictably the same “family noise,” but have different responses in terms of CGN.

            Such twins raise an interesting question; if pair of identical twins with the same genetic material grow up in the same household, what causes only one to have CGN? Researchers believe the unique neonatal environment of each twin may be a factor. (3) Identical twins can have different womb experiences, as seen in differing birth weights, so, some type of stress upon one twin could lead to the development of CGN. Hormone exposure, in particular, may prove to be the biological root of CGN. (2) During fetal development, the female brain is the default. Subsequent exposure to male hormones leads to the male brain formation. Recent research suggests it is neonatal exposure to male hormones that leads to a male gender identity and sexual attraction to females, not the XY characteristic chromosomes of males. William Reiner, a psychologist, studies cases of old cases of castration, from when the standard medical procedure was to remove “severely inadequate penises” from baby boys and then raise them as girls. (2) Reiner found that most of these boys eventually transitioned back to being males and reported being attracted to females. Yet, he did find that some boys maintained their female identities and reported being attracted to males. He found this group of boys did not have receptors for male sex hormones even through they did have XY chromosomes. (2) In other words, these boys never received the male sex hormones that would lead to a male gender identity and sexual attraction to females. Likewise, CGN could develop from a lack of male hormone in boys and overload of male hormone in girls.

            Reiner’s study introduces an important aspect of CGN; it is often difficult to untangle CGN from homosexual or pre-homosexual sexual preference. J. Michael Bailey, a psychologist who studies CGN points out the “one of the best established correlates of sexual orientation is CGN.” (4) He points out that up to 3/4ths of boys who display CGN behavior as children will go on to be gay. Based on the articles I read, it seems like CGN and homosexuality could both stem from related, if not the same, neonatal hormone exposure. (5) In reading articles on homosexuality and CGN, I found there was some overlap in factors scientists studied, such as finger size and birth order, to research homosexuality and CGN. (5) In the future, I think neonatal hormone exposure and CGN will play major roles in how we understand the biological basis of homosexuality.


Thoughts for consideration:   

            As I was reading articles on CGN, I was struck by two ideas related to female gender and sexuality.  When I first read the article “A Boys Life” I noticed the hyper-feminine descriptions of the boys with CGN.  Realizing that these boys were girlier than I ever was, I briefly came to the conclusion that all of gender is a social construct and the boys were simply limited by society. While latter may be true, gender must exist because males and females have different brains. Based on the case studies of CGN boys, I think part of what drives them to feminine toys etc., is innately biologically. But at the same time, some of it, like the preference for pink, is societal. I think CGN children unconsciously recognize such societal gender cues and mimic them according to the gender they identify with.

            I also noticed the statistics regarding female sexuality were, in general, much more ambiguous than those regarding male sexuality (and as a result most of my sources and my paper focus of male sexuality.) For example, when scientists studied arousal patterns of women, they found women were aroused by straight, gay, and lesbian sex. This suggests that a women’s sexual arousal is separate from her sexual orientation or that the new pop culture idea that a women’s sexuality is fluid may be true. Understanding the biology of CGN and homosexuality could shed further light onto female sexuality.





1.)    A Boys Life, Atlantic Weekly Online,, acessed 13 April 2009


2.)    What Makes People Gay, The Boston Globe,, accessed 13 April 2009


3.)    The Science of Sexual Orientation, CBS News,, accessed 13 April 2009


4.)    J.Micheal Bailey Research, Northwestern University,, accessed 13 Aprill 2009


5.)    The Science of Gaydar, New York Magazine,, accessed 13 April 2009




Paul Grobstein's picture

Gender identity and sexual attraction

It sounds to me like "gender identity" and "sexual attraction" are actually two somewhat independent variables, no?
Anonymous's picture

gender identity vs. sexual attraction

gender identity and sexual attraction can be two separate variables in females. although in males, the two are somewhat intermingled concepts.

Antom's picture

"although in males, the two

"although in males, the two are somewhat intermingled concepts." but even not.... :D
See crossdressers, there is simply more social pressure in the man role. There used to be too pressure in the woman role in past though. We must rebel nonetheless, blunt progress is always an incomplete progress.

Jenn Burleton's picture

Transgender children & youth


Congratulations on the work you did in writing this paper and thank you for your interest in the lives of transgender children and youth.

One quick point regarding your use of Kenneth Zucker's research would be that his methods and follow-up validity have some serious issues with them. He is also a proponent of what verges on aversion therapy for children who are gender non-conforming, with a particularly focus on male bodied children who identify as female.

If you would like more info about these children and their families, please visit our website at

Thank you again!

Jenn Burleton
Executive Director
TransActive Education & Advocacy