Efforts to tell children It Gets Better often focus on the gay, lesbian, and bisexual kids who are bullied at recess and at the dinner table. But a new study shows that straight kids are persecuted in childhood, too—when they're perceived to be gay. And sometimes, the abuse comes from their own parents.
The study, published in Pediatrics, charts the "clothing choice, activities, mannerisms, and interests" of over 16,000 young adults between the ages of 19 and 27, then compares their childhood habits to their self-reported histories of physical and sexual abuse. To find out how closely the study participants acted like archetypical girls and boys, they were asked to detail stuff like the "media characters" they "imitated or admired" as kids, the preferred "roles taken in pretend play," their "favorite toys and games," and their "feelings of femininity or masculinity." Then, they were asked to report the frequency with which adults in their families pushed, grabbed, shoved, spanked, kicked, punched, bruised, threatened, or sexually abused them.
The respondents who rated their childhoods the most gender nonconforming—boys who didn't act traditionally masculine, and girls who didn't do stereotypically feminine things—also reported elevated rates of "childhood sexual, physical, and psychological abuse" as well as PTSD. This type of abuse reverberates through adulthood—PTSD is correlated with increased "health risk behaviors" like unprotected sex and violent relationships, as well as reduced immune function, cardiovascular problems, and chronic pain. Most people with PTSD never receive treatment.
Some of the childhood abuse victims in the study were gay, but most of them were straight—nearly 60 percent of them identified as heterosexual, and another 25 percent of them identified as "mostly" hetero, compared to about 10 percent who identified as gay or lesbian. (Unfortunately, the study didn't also ask them if they identified as transgender).
Previous studies on gender identity and abuse focused squarely on "small samples of gay, lesbian, and bisexual adults recruited through gay and lesbian community venues." They hadn't looked into how homophobia affects kids who aren't gay, but are perceived—or feared—to be so. Homophobia is so pervasive that even the perception that a kid might be gay can inspire homophobic parents to "become more physically or psychologically abusive in an attempt to discourage their child’s gender nonconformity or same-sex orientation,"the study posits. Outside influence hurts, too. Some parents may abuse their children because they "think others will assume their child will be gay or lesbian."
This study shows that the boy who dresses up like a princess and the girl who idolizes Indiana Jones probably won't grow up to be gay. But if their parents abuse them for it, they may enter adulthood unhealthier for it—straight people saddled with the post-traumatic stress of not being straight enough.