Menvielle's program publishes a guide to help parents distinguish between, say, boys who are merely curious about Mommy's high heels and those who are bound for the Yellow Brick Road. Behavior associated with gender nonconformity is usually first noticed in children between the ages of 2 and 4. Boys may show an interest in women's clothing, avoid rough-and-tumble play, or actually express the desire to be girls or claim they really are girls. "The key is a pattern over time," Menvielle says. "But what happens sometimes is parents see their son pretending to have long hair and they immediately jump to conclusions."
The fact is, parentsdads especially, even those who cry at weddings and like to make souffléstake pride when their kids follow culturally ingrained gender roles. When the kids don't, things feel weird. As Ron, a 37-year-old postdoctoral student at UCLA with two sons under 5, says, "It really makes me happy to see my 4-year-old decked out in Texas Longhorns gear. But I gotta tell you, when my wife took him to a 'fairy hunt' recently and he came home talking about all the fairies he saw, I was more than a little uncomfortable." And that's coming from a man who worked at an art gallery for four years and has never voted Republican.
It may sound like liberal-dad hypocrisy, but guys like Ron say it's their hyperawareness of gay culture that makes them so fear the idea of their kids being homosexual in the first place. "You see the news; you see movies like Brokeback Mountain and Boys Don't Cry," Ron says. "You think, It would be a hell of a lot easier if my kid turned out not to be gay."
But so what if he did? "I think parents overestimate the miserable life their children will have if they're gay," says Ritch C. Savin-Williams, the director of Cornell's Sex & Gender Lab. "We've seen incredible, progressive changes in terms of gender and sexual diversity in the last 20 years. I think what parents are really worried about is that having a gay child will somehow reflect poorly on their parenting."
Having collected coming-out stories for nearly two decades, Savin-Williams has made one especially interesting discovery: Parents who say they're open to the idea of homosexuality are often the most difficult for a child to come out to. "Perhaps they make a distinction between your kid and mine," he says. "It's nice for other people's children to be gay or to have gay friends, but one's own child is a different story. Indeed, some of the young people say religiously conservative parents respond the best, because of the value of family. But it's the progressive, holier-than-thou parents who often can't cope."
In the end, whether you embrace the "Go ahead and wear glitter, son" attitude or sigh to yourself when your 6-year-old boy braids Barbie's hair, it probably matters more to you and your sense of who you are than it does to your kid. In his book The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy, Robert Leleux writes about his mother's over-the-top enthusiasm for his boyhood interest in show tunes, boas, and Barbra Streisand movies. "To my mother, the idea of having a gay son seemed Cecil Beaton-y and glamorous," Leleux says. "And guess what? I became the gayest kid in America."