When Kids Are Straight Until Proven Otherwise

Many gay preteens know early on that they are somehow different, but lack the parental and social support that heterosexuals take for granted.

Desmond Napoles
Desmond Napoles (Brendan McDermid / Reuters)

The 12-year-old drag star Desmond Napoles is one of a growing number of kids who have embraced an LGBTQ identity at an early age. He has already come out as gay. Recent postings on his Instagram feed, which has 181,000 followers, feature him posing in a purple wig with red lips pursed, or in a rainbow dress at Brooklyn Pride. He recently appeared in an ad for Converse’s 2019 Pride collection. “He is spreading the message that it is okay for kids to drag,” his mother, Wendy Napoles, told Gay Star News. And to “explore their identity and express themselves, without shame, without hiding.”

Her son may be precocious, but most queer kids remember feeling different very early in their lives. The clichés of this childhood contrariety are well known: Gay boys, sometimes adopting an effeminate gait and an ironic manner, shy away from raucous play with their gender peers; lesbian girls, throwing on baggy clothes and hard hats, are ever ready for a physical fray. These are stereotypes, but queer kids often tip their hand. Years later, a family photo surfaces—of a boy holding a doll, say, as his brothers roughhouse nearby—that, in retrospect, makes the story seem obvious. These unwittingly campy childhood photos also communicate a reality generally overlooked in society: Budding queer identities have nonsexual elements that often form long before puberty, signaling what lies ahead.

Nevertheless, seeing preteens involved in drag shows—an age-old staple of LGBTQ culture, often performed in gay clubs—makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Critics have accused Desmond’s mother of allowing her son’s sexualization and exploitation. After another preteen boy performed drag in Ohio, state Republicans proposed legislation barring these performances, linking them, without evidence, to child trafficking.

Over time, American society has been steadily making peace with gay adults, gay marriages, even gay political candidates. Yet it still broadly pretends that people are straight until, at some point after age 18, they proclaim themselves otherwise. Parents and schools have long recognized the need to accommodate nascent heterosexuality in wholesome ways—for instance, by organizing school dances and providing basic education about how the reproductive system works. Queerness, in contrast, is widely understood to be inherently and only sexual; by this logic, all things LGBTQ should be relegated to adult spaces, preventing children’s premature sexualization. This explains why the backlash to preteen drag performers like Desmond has been so fierce—and why so many queer kids, with their difference manifesting as awkwardness, are forced to tread the rough waters of adolescence with no social support.

When I was 7 or 8 years old, the mother of a classmate visited my Manhattan school, offering to paint the girls’ fingernails. Despite loving the New York Jets and being, in many ways, a traditionally masculine boy, I wanted my nails adorned similarly, not understanding or caring that this adornment was a female-only privilege. And while both the teacher and this parent cautioned me against it, telling me something like “This is for girls,” I was stubborn. Eventually, they agreed to paint my nails, but only with a clear coat––probably to prevent my being mocked. This well-meaning effort failed, and the derision from my fellow students sent the clear message that certain feminine behaviors were to be avoided. Still, my vague gender nonconformity continued through childhood: I certainly tried on somebody’s high heels at some point; I clamored for female family members’ jewelry, wondering how their necklaces and bracelets would look on me; I was absolutely obsessed with my mother’s engagement ring.

“Should I have known you were gay based on that?” she asked me not long ago, half-jokingly. To which science replies: Probably.

Numerous studies have shown that children who eventually come out as gay, lesbian, or bisexual—scientists call them pre-homosexual, or pre-GLB kids—demonstrate more childhood gender nonconformity in their speech, body language, and choice of activity than their pre-straight contemporaries do. These reports have also produced evidence of a “dosage effect”: The more gender nonconformity someone shows in childhood, the more likely they will identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual as an adult.

“The link between childhood gender conformity/nonconformity and adult sexual orientation is one of the strongest relationships between a childhood trait and an adult ‘phenotype’ that’s been demonstrated in all of psychology,” Richard Lippa, a psychology professor at California State University at Fullerton, told me via email. While the link is not foolproof––not all tomboys will be lesbians; not all boys in dresses will be gay––Lippa says it is “quite strong.” (The scientific calculus for transgender people, he says, is “more complex.”)

Kids—especially pre-GLB kids—need room to explore their own identities. Yet because society presumes queerness to be inherently sexual, adults think that a preteen who plays up his gender nonconformity could not possibly be doing so voluntarily. Critics instead see adults in and aligned with the LGBTQ community as sexualizing children by exposing them to what a National Review writer calls a “deeply and perversely erotic subculture.” Conservative media have accused Wendy Napoles of endangering her son. After news reports indicated that Desmond’s performances had caught a convicted pedophile’s eye (as if it’s a young boy’s fault that pedophiles exist), some people called child protective services on her. But the people who have deemed drag too risqué for preteens have yet to support alternative ways in which queer kids like Desmond can publicly express themselves without fear.

This adult disquiet allows for the continued neglecting of nascent queerness, leaving pre-GLB kids to be mocked, rather than affirmed, fostering another generation of queer people who carry scars into adulthood. “Growing up gay, it seems, is bad for you in many of the same ways as growing up in extreme poverty,” Michael Hobbes wrote in a much-discussed 2017 HuffPost article. A 2015 study showed that gay people as adults produce less cortisol, the hormone that regulates stress—–“their systems were activated, so constantly, in adolescence that they ended up sluggish as grownups”––than their straight counterparts. A 2014 study similarly showed that “stressful life events” inflict more damage on gay kids’ nervous systems than on their straight peers’ nervous systems.

Growing up LGBTQ is isolating, a reality pointedly depicted by a 2016 Saturday Night Live sketch titled “Wells for Boys.” The sketch, which was written by two gay comics and struck a chord among LGBTQ people, shows a young boy grappling with feeling different from others, and ultimately being gifted a faux–Fisher Price wishing well in which to confide. As most boys in the sketch traipse around playfully—and one, holding a football, calls the well “weird”—the sketch’s protagonist remains quietly alone and off to the side, examining the “contradictions of his being.” He’s demonstrably different from the other rambunctious boys: He’s sensitive, quiet, and yearning to grow up and be understood. “Some boys live unexamined lives. But this one’s heart is full of questions,” the voice-over says. “Some kids like to play; others just sort of wait for adulthood.”

To that script we might add: Some kids are straight; other kids are gay.

But pre-GLB kids, even if they’re not as forthright in their nonconformity as Desmond is, should not be forced to wait for adulthood to receive society's permission to be themselves. Instead, they need age-appropriate safe spaces—so they don’t have to co-opt more mature queer arenas—in which they can come to grips with their otherness. Queer kids know they’re different, even before most have the words to say so; for their sake, we need to listen a bit more closely.