Parenting, homosexuality and gender atypical behavior

Over the next several days, I am going to comment on lots of new research out of Finland. Here is a preliminary post with a result sure to be surprising to some.
First the reference and abstract:

Alanko K, Santtila P, Witting K, Varjonen M, Jern P, Johansson A, von der Pahlen B, Kenneth Sandnabba N., Psychiatric Symptoms and Same-Sex Sexual Attraction and Behavior in Light of Childhood Gender Atypical Behavior and Parental Relationships,
J Sex Res. 2009 Apr 2:1-11. [Epub ahead of print]
This study explores the relation between the level of current symptoms of depression and anxiety and recalled childhood gender atypical behavior (GAB), and quality of relationships with parents among men and women who reported same-sex sexual attraction or engaged in same-sex sexual behavior and men and women who did not. Matched pairs, 79 men (n = 158) and 148 women (n = 296), with equal levels of GAB were created of Finnish participants with either same-sex sexual attraction or behavior and participants without. The measures used were retrospective questionnaires. Ratings of maternal and paternal over-control and coldness differed as a function of same-sex sexual attraction or behavior. Childhood GAB was correlated with negative ratings of parental relationships. Both same-sex sexual attraction or behavior and a history of childhood GAB affected the reported levels of current depression and anxiety. Only gender typical participants with no same-sex sexual attraction or behavior reported significantly lower levels of symptoms. The findings suggest that childhood GAB is related to later distress both among hetero- and homosexual individuals. The elevated level of psychological distress among homosexual individuals, reported in several studies, might-to some extent-be caused by their generally higher levels of childhood GAB as opposed to a homosexual orientation per se.

The study investigated 3 hypotheses. They were:
1. Childhood GAB is related to a negative parent-child relationship.
2. Homosexual orientation is related to a negative parent-child relationship.
3. Childhood GAB, more than current sexual orientation, predicts the level of current psychiatric symptoms.
This study emerges from an ongoing research program at the Center of Excellence for Behavior Genetics, Department of Psychology, Abo Akademi University in Turku, Finland. I will have more to say about the entire study in later posts, I want to lead off with one of the more provocative findings of this paper.
Regarding their fathers, the authors found that gay males reported warmer relationships than straight males. The researchers stated,

A distant (cold) relationship with the father of gay men was expected on the basis of previous studies; however, in this study, gay men reported warmer paternal, as well as maternal, relationships than heterosexual men did.

There is more to report here but that one will get us started. I am tracking down the instrument used to assess relationship warmth which will demonstrate more clearly what the modest differences signify.
Overall, the study finds that GAB also relates to negative parenting and current distress whether the participants were gay or straight. The GAB factor may help unravel some of the findings of poorer mental health outcomes previously reported for gays and lesbians.

26 thoughts on “Parenting, homosexuality and gender atypical behavior”

  1. What on earth is an “atypical” father?
    Television destroys thinking minds.
    I think people who are used to seeing themselves on television often forget that just because they are surrounded by people like themselves doesn’t mean that they are the definition of existence.–that is they forget that they do not define what “normal” is.
    Most people on earth are neither White, suburban nor American. (This is from a fan of Ward Cleaver.)

  2. In China ( I think or maybe Japan) the diving team is first selected on the proportions of the divers’ body. Then he is instructed. Not every body is built the same way to master the same moves for excellence.

  3. If anybody has ever seen Tiger Wood’s old swing coach try to teach former NBA basketball player Charles Barkley, the man with the world’s worst golf swing, try to re-build his swing, I think they’d conclude, “Almost impossible!”

    My husband insists I modify what I said about poor Charles. Actually, he’s right. Charles’ swing has improved and his function has as well. (We don’t know how permanent is the change.) It’s still a thing un-gawdly to look upon, but it IS improved. However, Charles is an athlete, and he practiced 8 hours a day, day after day, week after week, under the careful scrutiny of one of the foremost teachers in golf to get new neuropathways built!

  4. @Warren,

    Specific to this topic, what are you wondering?

    re: gender atypicality
    1. Say a young child finds stimulation (translated: enjoys) engaging in play that is normally associated with the play of the opposite sex. He/She is building neural pathways. Will his/her enjoyment of this gender atypical play have any impact on his/her neural connections that might later be related to concepts of gender? Self-perception? Will this t have any bearing on one’s sexual attractions?
    To that last question, my gut and head answer “No” only because of my own experience, which, I realize, cannot be used to generalize, but we are always fighting our tendency to generalize from our own experiences, yet it is our own experience we use to help us ask questions.
    I was quite the tomgirl in my play activities as a young kid. The dolls my mother and particularly my older sister (who looooved dolls herself) tried to get me to play with held no interest for me although the dollhouse was good, and the miniature pots and pans and even the baby buggy held interest, but not the dolls! Not the dolls! Not combing the doll’s hair, not their outfits, nothing about the dolls. Then again, I specifically remember they didn’t let me play with the dolls when I wanted–ha, they tried to force them on me and even today, when I tell the story to my sister she doesn’t understand that I resented the pushing, even though I was a very obedient kid. My older brother’s world of games outside, sports, running, playing , jumping and his patient nurturing of me (“here, let me show you how to hold this ball, how to hold this bat, this is how you put backspin on the basketball so that you can make a free throw”) was a much more inviting world to a child who liked physical activity. Then too, my neighborhood was filled with only boys, not girls, my age. If I wanted playmates, they had to be boys. The few girls were much older and much younger.
    Of course, I was good at physical acitivities, blessed by good hand/ eye co-ordination, speed, and basic coordination. Kids like to participate in things at which they have early success.
    Does the gender atypical boy find he has no interest in activities usually termed “boys’ activities” or does he find early shame in a lack of ability or lack of success at such play? Is he more sensitive to criticism than other kids and so retreats? After all, if we all quit something after some childhood taunts, we’d not have attempted much of anything, but some kids are more sensitve to criticism than others and some kids don’t have parents who say, “Get on back out there.”

    Does the gender atypical kid simply not like gender-typical activities or does he/she discover natural talents in an area that is gender-atypical?

    In my case, I can see that both nature (I was physically co-ordinated) and nurture (my brother vs. my sister and the neighborhood pool of playmates) led me to mostly boys’ activities. Of course, my sister aside, it was considered okay for girls to do that. A boy that stayed in the house cooking might have been viewed differently.
    While I may have played with boys, I still had crushes on men at a very early age, I recall. I was in love with Superman, George Reeves, stared at his muscles, and dreamed of his picking me up to fly me away. I also had crushes on the Lone Ranger and Tonto and the Cisco Kid. (And, like every girl, I wanted a horse. LOL) When my brother and father watched boxing, I noticed the nice muscles of the boxers! I am always rather bemused when I read from some bloggers that they don’t really recall things sexual until a much later age. By 5/6, I certainly did.
    It’s hard for us to put aside our own childhood reactions and try to step inside someone else’s head and experiences.
    2. Do some kids find such social rewards (praise from peers, parents, inclusion in a group, etc.) when they do something that is gender-atypical that this accounts for their persistent interest in those areas ? Is that very important?A little important? Not at all important?
    I certainly received praise from my brother for my athletic prowess, yet disappointment from my sister when I didn’t enjoy the dolls. In every other way, I had a great relationship with her and ordinarily would have wanted to please her. It was just more fun to do the other stuff.
    3. Do gender atypical interests and involvement change socialization to the point that for some people self-perception becomes key to their sexual orientation? It didn’t in my case, but could it in some? Not in others?
    Does self-perception at a young age affect brain organization?
    4. Do some gender atypical kids, particularly boys ( who I think it’s fair to say, pay a higher social, thus psychological cost for their atypicality) find themselves unwelcomed into the world of other boys and so retreat to a world that is safer, more welcoming, more comforting to them, and if so, does that have anything at all to do with later sexual attractions?
    5. Once neural pathways are established, how hard are they to “undo”? If anybody has ever seen Tiger Wood’s old swing coach try to teach former NBA basketball player Charles Barkley, the man with the world’s worst golf swing, try to re-build his swing, I think they’d conclude, “Almost impossible!”

  5. @Warren

    Specific to this topic, what are you wondering?

    Well, generally speaking, I can’t seem to separate this topic (gender atypicality or our perceptions about how we are treated by others) from any other topic that deals with human behavior, learning, and the brain.
    More specifically, I was just responding to Evan’s point about how he wished these researchers had studied the amygdalae.
    Here is something else I am wondering : if we could, just how early in one’s life (one month old? one year old? etc.) and how frequently would we have to image brains in order to pinpoint anything that might help us understand what comes first, the chicken or the egg? I am wondering if imaging alone would tell us much about cause and effect. I don’t know enough to know that answer and I was wondering if anything new had been discovered in answering this.
    Also, I was thinking about this article: this from

    The first functional scanning paper by Kinnunen et al. (10), which described differences in the hypothalamus in relation to sexual orientation, received little scientific or public attention, although the results may have had clinical relevance. The hypothalamus of HoM, it turned out, was not as responsive to a classic antidepressant (fluoxetine) as that of HeM, which points to a difference in the activity of the serotonergic system.

    So, it’s the old chicken and egg thing: if true that HoM didn’t react the same way to fluoxetine as HeM did, and if this does indicate a difference in the serotonin production or uptake, the question arises, “Are the neurons responsible for production of serotonin (or the synapses and dendrites responsible for transmission) not functioning the same in HoM and HeM and that explains the different behavior or are inutero or neonatal brain structures simply inherently different between the two and that is why neurotransmitter production or functioning is different?”
    Structure produces function? Function modifies structure?
    I’d also like to know if there has ever been a really good study that has measured at what age kids begin to exhibit gender atypicality. I know that in early toddlerhood, parents notice, of course, what toys their children like to play with, but I’d bet that some pediatricians who’ve practiced for decades might have knowledge, insights that would help.
    For example, I’d like to know if these pediatricians notice anything in the movements, the motor skills of kids who turn out to be very gender atypical in childhood. I wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to do such a study, but I keep thinking about how just conversation among family physicians, just anecdotes told by one physician to another at medical conventions finally led researchers to look into why blood pressure medicine that was effective for most of their patients was not working for their African-American patients. Years passed before the Rx companies and the researchers had the feedback from doctors that these HBP medications weren’t doing the job for a subpopulation.
    I simply mean that sometimes researchers might be ignoring people who might give them insights, in this case pediatricians who see a child very early in life and for the next few developing years.

  6. @carole: Good question and one which is being researched regarding a number of behaviors. Loss of function, say via stroke, can be overcome via recruitment of neighboring neutrons. I don’t think the area grows but new routes are formed. With new behaviors, this seems possible.
    Specific to this topic, what are you wondering?

  7. Maybe this is a more specific way of asking my question.
    We know that neural pathways are built by participating in new behaviors, then strengthened by repeated use. That is why most of us have a pretty bad golf swing–the bad one has been ingrained! Unlearning is really hard except for kids, suggesting they can learn and unlearn much more easily than adults, whether it’s a new language or a new golf swing.
    So, when a new task or behavior is learned, while we know new connections have been made, do we know if specifically if the size of that area of the brain has been impacted by the new behavior?

  8. @Evan,
    1. LOL. I understood your “lame” useage, but understood Warren’s reaction too. The slang usage is the most common these days in our part of the world, especially when one is around young people all day, although a “lame excuse” “lame leg/arm” is still common usage as well.
    2. You said,

    If they had more money, they should have checked for brain differences too. I bet they would have found that those who were more distressed had bigger amygdalae and that somehow that correlated with childhood atypicality.

    Can you tell me if there is anything new in the way of neurological studies that sheds light on what we know about brain plasticity/differing structures?
    That is, are there any recent findings that shed light on whether it’s the brain structures themselves and their biochemical reactions that cause different behavior or if the different behavior modifies the structures ?

  9. Drowssap,
    I think the researchers wanted to see if children’s problems had anything to do with the relationships with their parents. People from the same research center studied some time ago whether parenting can make a difference in the mental well-being of atypical children. It takes more studies to be sure about what makes gender-atypical children distressed – their atypicality or how other people treat them.
    If they had more money, they should have checked for brain differences too. I bet they would have found that those who were more distressed had bigger amygdalae and that somehow that correlated with childhood atypicality.

  10. carole and Warren,

    1??/le?m/ Show Spelled Pronunciation [leym] Show IPA adjective, lam?er, lam?est, verb, lamed, lam?ing, noun
    1. crippled or physically disabled, esp. in the foot or leg so as to limp or walk with difficulty.
    2. impaired or disabled through defect or injury: a lame arm.
    3. weak; inadequate; unsatisfactory; clumsy: a lame excuse.
    4. Slang. out of touch with modern fads or trends; unsophisticated. Unabridged
    Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2009.

    I used the term in the 3rd sense. There was no slang connotation implied in my comment. If it’s too negative, then I can replace it with meek / submissive.

  11. This study found that gender atypical behavior during childhood correlated with depression and anxiety in adulthood.
    Did we need a study to confirm this?
    Gender atypical behavior is important only in a general sense. Children who have “trouble” are more likely to develop into adults who have “trouble”. On average that will always be true.

  12. Warrren,
    Maybe it’s because I know Evan isn’t American or maybe it’s because the Preakness just was run, and with horses I think of “lame”=unable to walk or be active, but at least this one time I didn’t think of ” lame” in its slang usage.
    On the other hand, I haven’t been in the classroom for about three years now so perhaps not being around a 150 teenagers a day has changed my language habits and my way of thinking! LOL. Come to think of it, I do think this last reason is the most reasonable explanation of my interpretation of his use of the word.

  13. @carole & Evan:
    Just wondering. I have no problem with the concept but in my college influenced world, lame doesn’t mean anything good.
    The meek, after all, shall inherit the earth.
    I will have more up directly about what cold and overcontrolled mean.

  14. @Timothy Kincaid,
    Yeah, if you mean physical violence. But fathers who abuse their own children sexually are most probably among the lame ones. The Austrian guy, Fritzl, was one of them, a guy who couldn’t deal with adults. More factors involved, though, not just lameness (sexual abuse…).

  15. In the first comment, I wanted to say that a father who was atypical can develop self-hate for his feminine traits, due to social pressures to conform to gender stereotypes, and as a result reject his son for atypicality.
    I imagine that some of them might use the argument that their sons don’t resemble them, but their mothers. Many times the fathers themselves might look a lot like their mothers, in terms of temperament and other traits. I’m speculating, but I could be right.
    Other atypical fathers might have a different attitude, feel OK with themselves and be buddies with their atypical sons. Two different attitudes, one negative and the other one positive, might not change much in what they both have in common.

  16. At the risk of derailing…
    If lame means less aggressive, I think almost all children of abusive fathers would hope and dream for a “lame” one.

  17. Karen
    Yes, one does have to consider both deliberate bias in recollection as well as the reality that even when we are trying to be strictly honest about our history, our recollections are flavored by our current perceptions.
    However, let’s not rush to assume that gay folk will deliberately lie to skew the findings. I think that your ‘average’ gay guy isn’t even aware that reparative therapists think they had a bad relationship with their father. They’ve never heard of Joe Nicolosi and are too busy earning a living, making a home, and watching American Idol (or the Finnish equivalent). But this goes back to the question: are study participants ever representative or are they only representative of the type of people to volunteer for studies?
    I guess the difficulty is in knowing whether studies are comprised of average folk being honest or are skewed in some manner.

  18. Regarding Evan’s use of “lame”.
    I interpreted “lame” as meaning unassertive to the point of not taking action and that being unassertive might be viewed by some children grown into adults as non-judgemental. Non-judgemental would, by some then, be seen as a positive.
    This judgement would depend, in part, on cultural mores as well as on individual expectations.

  19. At first, I read Evan’s comment and thought, “Makes sense.” But then…
    What’s very difficult for me is this: I know only a bit about Finnish “personality,” if I can be allowed to use that word for a moment to describe what others have termed the “Finnish personality.” I am sure most of you know that researchers have been interested for a very long time in what’s thought to be more than a tendency toward depression in those people of such a northern clime. Literature abounds with comments of both a serious and a comico-serious nature about the “national personality of Finland.” However, each time people try to pin this behavior on the environment, they are stymied by the fact that people of the same basic parts of the globe don’t seem to demonstrate the same characteristics.
    I first became aware of this in a 60 Minuteses piece done about 20 years ago. I believe it was Morley Safer who was the correspondent. The piece concentrated on the seeming lack of affect and the perceived perpetual gloom that seems to envelop Finlanders. There was conjecture that the lack of sunlight for long periods (seasonal affective disorder) might be the reason. Since then, I believe there have been studies, but I don’t think anyone has figured it out to anyone’s satisfaction. I had a Finnish-American colleague who, in answer to my queries about this said, “Yeah, I guess we are different.”
    Therefore, while I feel I might be able to comment on such results were these Americans subjects, I feel totally unable to surmise much from this since I don’t have knowledge of Finnish traditions in, say, childrearing. I’ve no knowledge of how Finnish moms and dads interact with their children. What kind of behavior is considered “close”? What is considered “distant”? I don’t know. What is “warm”? What is “cold”? I don’t know.
    To the degree that this was a comparative study and that there are those who didn’t show distress, I do realize the study says SOMETHING. While I am sure there is something to be gleaned, as one unfamiliar with those Finnish traditions of how the mother/dad/saughter/son relationships play out on their cultural stage, I am unequipped to interpret.

  20. Issues surrounding self-report cut both ways. If the study supports your perspective then self-report is good; if not, then it isn’t.
    I have written the study author to ask a couple of questions regarding the instrument used. I can tell you that it was a part of a long list of other items which would have disguised the intent of the entire study. In other words, it would not have been easily obvious what the researchers were going for and to whom the participants were to be compared.

  21. Karen,
    I see that too in self reporting. If you know the questions are designed to attack your parents or pinpoint your abberations – you skew the test by answering with directed answsers.

  22. I wonder how accurate these self-reports are on issues about parental relationships due to the backlash against stereotypes. That is, most people in the gay community know that others are trying to peg them as gay due to a breakdown in parental relationships. And, so when they see a blatant question on a survey about having a “cold father”–I would imagine that many would not want to acknowledge that because they know where that question is leading. I have seen this happen with some of my gay friends–friends who I know well who have had fairly screwed up childhoods–but in public will say they had great relationships with their parents in order to refute the accusation that they are gay due to environmental factors. Studies like this are going to have to be a little more savvy in how they ask ask questions on this if they want honest answers.

  23. It’s simple. Both father and son are lame and they get along well, unless the father’s attitude to his own lameness makes him reject the atypical boy. I mean, assuming that genes for aggressiveness or for hormones are significantly inheritable.
    The straight men who report cold relations with their fathers are not so affected by them. It’s OK to be cold when neither care so much.

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