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Dale's Web Pages

Childhood experiences of homosexual men

by Dale O'Leary; for NARTH


Saghir and Robins (1973) reported that a third of the homosexual men in their sample had manifested neither effeminacy nor aversion to sports in childhood. In 1980 Richard Friedman and Lenore Stern published the results of a study in which they tried to replicate the findings of Saghir and Robins:

We were impressed that so many of the non-patient homosexual men reported by Saghir and Robins did not describe an aversion to rough-and-tumble activities. . . We hypothesized that at least one-third of a group of masculine, socially well-adjusted homosexual men would describe normal participation in rough-and-tumble activities. (Friedman 1980)

Friedman and Stern studied 17 exclusively homosexual males with no history of effeminacy and 17 exclusively heterosexual males. The subjects also had no history of psychological problems, venereal disease or substance abuse. Friedman and Stern did not find the "normal" prehomosexual boys they were looking for. Instead they found that:

No prehomosexual youngster had any degree of experience with fighting or rough-and-tumble activities during the juvenile years. None engaged in even the modest juvenile sex-typed interactions described by the least aggressive heterosexual youngster.

... they were boys who, to their shame, were unable to develop behaviors that would make them acceptable to male peers....

Although we were well aware that prehomosexual youngsters tend to avoid aggressive activities, we were astonished at the universality of this finding in our study, and at its age specificity. ...

We emphasize that male-male aggressive competency during juvenile years is conceptualized by us with respect to homosexual development as being an extinguishing factor, not as a cause. ...

Successful attainment of a minimal degree of aggressivity increases the likelihood that a boy will obtain social supports with peers that further his development of masculine autonomy. (Friedman 1980)

In the study, two of the preheterosexual boys manifested behavior similar to the prehomosexual boys, however, in one of these cases, however, the mother had "persistently and energetically pushed her son toward heterosexuality." The other case Friedman attributes to human ability to resist environmental factors. (Friedman, 1980)

The unmasculinity in the prehomosexual boys was intense -- "chronic, persistent terror of fighting...fear approximated a panic reaction." This fear was the "organizing force in their minds" and lead to the "avoidance of any activity were fighting might occur." This in turn lead to a "painful loss of self-esteem and loneliness" and a "hunger for closeness with other boys." Thirteen of the 17 had negative feelings about their bodies. All expressed a fear of physical injury.

Friedman labeled this condition as juvenile unmasculinity, defined as "persistent, profound feeling of masculine inadequacy which leads to a negative valuing of self." (Friedman 1988, p.199)

Zucker and Bradley confirmed this finding. Their clinical experience suggested that while some boys present with all the clinical signs of GID, some boys when fall between the GID diagnosis and normal behavior. These boys:

do poorly in male peer groups, avoid rough-and-tumble play, are disinclined toward athletics and other conventionally masculine activities, and feel somewhat uncomfortable about being male; however, these boys do not wish to be girls and do not show an intense preoccupation with femininity. (Zucker 1995, p.50)

Thompson, et al., (1973) compared 127 homosexual men with 123 heterosexual controls. There were 46 items on the questionnaire, on 32 items homosexuals differed significantly heterosexuals. Starting with the item on which there was the highest level of difference, homosexuals answered the questions as follows:

a. played baseball never or sometimes

b. played competitive group games, never or sometimes

c. spent time with father very little

d. physical make as a child, frail clumsy or coordinated

e felt accepted by father mildly or no

f played with boys before adolescence sometimes

g. mother insisted on being center of child's attention often or always

Bieber's finding were similar to those in other studies: a third of the adult homosexuals had played predominantly with girls in childhood, but over 80% were not involved in normal boyhood play. (Bieber 1962, p.175)  

Homosexual Controls
number 106 100
Patient avoided physical fights 89%  55%
Patient participated in competitive group games 17% 63%
Parent played baseball 16% 62%
Patient was excessively fearful of physical injury in childhood 75% 46%
Patient was a "lone wolf" in childhood 60% 27%
Play activity before puberty was predominantly with girls 33% 10%

According to Bieber, whether the patients had been effeminate in childhood or not:

The histories of the patients revealed the following features in almost every instance: In childhood there was an avoidance of the usual ball games and other competitive activities with boys; they only played with girls or with boys much younger than themselves; they were restricted and overprotected by their mothers, particularly in aggressive games. Some mothers kept the child from all socialization with other children; in one case until the age of twelve. (Bieber 1962, p.213)

Bieber found a positive association between excessive fear of injury in childhood and the mothers' undue concern about physical injury and restrictions on play and social activities and the fathers who were hostile to the son. (Bieber 1962, p.174) Bieber also felt that the child's fears might be related to "fear and guilt about incestuous impulses" toward the mother. (Bieber 1962, p.181)

The remembrances of adult homosexual men and the observations of GID boys show a pattern of fear of injury, fear of rough-and-tumble play, non-participation in sports, being a loner, and dissatisfaction with one's body whether or not the boy was effeminate in behavior. The unmasculine boy is deprived of normal peer group activity and this lack leaves scars which effect adult behavior.

Fear of Injury

Bieber points out that: "The excessively fearful child overestimates the dangers of any situation, including play situations, in which potential injury is perceived."(Bieber 1962, p.181)

Zucker and Bradley noted that among GID boys:

There is usually a strong avoidance of boys as playmates. Some of the boys worry a great deal about bodily injury that they anticipate will occur during rough-and-tumble play. They appear to have trouble distinguishing between rough-and-tumble play and intent to hurt. (Zucker 1995, p. 19)

A mother of a GID son reports:

Competitive sports are frightening to him. Yet I've seen him out there with a big rubber ball like a basketball socking it against the garage door and then catching it on his own. When there's no other person involved, the fear is eliminated, but when the other person's involved, the unsureness -- whether they'll hurt him -- comes through. (Green 1974, p.165)

Fear of Rough-and-tumble play

According to the DSMIV (p.533), boys with GID "avoid rough-and tumble play and competitive sports."

Zucker and Bradley noted that GID boys "generally dislike intensely rough-and-tumble activity, competitive group sports, and aggression, all of which often cause them to experience marked anxiety... Some of them have a phobic-like reaction to aggressive language and refuse to swear."(Zucker 1995, p.22)

A 5-year-old boy with GID, "Max avoided rough-and-tumble activity and refused to participate in T-ball, a form of baseball for young children."(Zucker 1995, p.12)

The mother of a GID boy reports, "He doesn't like to rough-and-tumble. They tried in school to get him to play softball, touch football, basketball, and he just absolutely refuses... He does like to swim. That he does, and he does well, but as far as other sports, he just doesn't like them. (Green 1974, p.154) 

Non-participation in group sports

Organized team sports, such as baseball and soccer, have taken on the status of rites of passage into manhood. The movie Field of Dreams endows the rituals surrounding baseball with a mystical quality. The boy who doesn't participate in these activities is deprived of an important childhood experience.

Bieber noted how patients' anxieties and fears become focused on baseball as an area of masculine performance:

we have been particularly struck by the H[omosexual]-patients' attitude toward baseball. Two major themes have been delineated in their dreams: the fear of the "fast" ball, apprehensively anticipated as injuring their genitals (castration anxiety); the inability to bat; the bat splinters, collapses, or the ball is weakly hit (fear of lack of mastery, fear of humiliation, impotence.)(Bieber 1962, p.187)

Bieber records a case in which the patient recalled the only occasion when his father played with him. The father had been forced into the activity by the mother, and reacted by humiliating the son. Since then the son experienced anxiety whenever anyone suggested playing ball. (Bieber 1962, p.94) Bieber believes that "As a rule, difficulties in coordination or clumsiness, are the consequences of anxiety about effective motor performance."(Bieber 1962, p.187)

In Snortum's study of men being released from military service for homosexual behavior: 72% of the homosexuals (vs. 34% of controls) did not believe they were good athletes; 48% (vs. 9% of controls) had watched rather than participated in group games as a child; 52% (vs. 9% of controls) had rarely participated in competitive sports like baseball.

In an autobiographical section of his book Virtually Normal, homosexual writer and activist Andrew Sullivan, discussed how his first realization of his own homosexuality occurred in the context of his avoidance of soccer practice:

I loathed soccer, partly because I wasn't very good at it and partly because I felt I didn't quite belong in the communal milieu in which it unfolded. . . .that lucky afternoon, [I] found myself sequestered with the girls, who habitually spent the time period doing sewing, knitting and other appropriately feminine things. None of this, I remember, interested me much either; and I was happily engaged reading. Then a girl sitting next to me looked at me with a mixture of curiosity and disgust. "Why aren't you out with the boys playing football?" she asked. "Because I hate it," I replied. "Are you sure you're not really a girl under there?" she asked with the suspicion of a sneer. "Yeah, of course," I replied, stung and somewhat shaken. (Sullivan, p. 2)

Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons, specializes in the treatment of excessive anger through forgiveness. He has observed that:

The most common conflicts at different life stages that predispose individuals to homosexual attractions and behavior are loneliness and sadness, mistrust and fear, profound feelings of inadequacy and lack of self-acceptance, narcissism, excessive anger, sexual abuse in childhood, and a lack of balance in one's life coupled with overwhelming feelings of responsibility. (Fitzgibbons, p.308)

Fitzgibbons has observed that some of his clients are sad and angry because they lacked the hand/eye coordination necessary to win peer acceptance in childhood:

The most frequently seen cause of sadness in the past leading to homosexual attractions in males was the result of childhood and adolescent rejection by peers because of very limited athletic abilities. Many children who have poor eye-hand coordination are not good in the most popular sports and are on the receiving end of harsh and cruel criticism and rejection by their peers...The craving for acceptance and love from peers results in strong emotional attractions to those of the same sex. (Fitzgibbons, p.309)

In a culture where successful athletic performance is seen as a measure of masculinity, boys who are unable to perform have a very poor body image and poor sense of their masculinity. This is often accompanied by a hidden rage against their tormentors, which Fitzgibbons believes needs to be addressed by the therapist.

Friedman came to the conclusion that male-male aggressive competency leading to peer group acceptance in childhood "markedly diminished the likelihood that exclusive, enduring homosexual orientation will occur."(Friedman 1980) Newman conceptualized therapy as directed to eliminating behaviors which cause peer group rejection:

Experiences of being ostracized and ridiculed may play a more important role than has been recognized in the total abandonment of the male role at a later time. With treatment, behavioral change, and a new acceptance by his male peers, the child gains in self-worth, which seems to influence the long-term outcome. Treatment should be directed not at turning the feminine boy into an athlete or suppressing his aesthetic yearnings, but rather at developing his pride in being male. A happier childhood as well as primary prevention of an adult gender identity disorder are two related goals of treatment. (Newman, 1976)


According to Bieber, 60% of the homosexual patients (vs. 37% of the controls) were loners as children. Peer group reaction to a fearful or mother-attached boys accounted for some this, but Bieber also noted that the prehomosexual boys "may isolate themselves from their playmates because of felt inadequacy."(Bieber 1962, p.184)

A number of therapists have noted that GID boys were loners during childhood. One such case is Owen, age 10:

an isolated, rejected child without male friends. At times, he was permitted to play feminine games with his younger sister's friends, but even they often excluded him. He tended to be passive, was unenthusiastic about nearly everything (including activities laboriously devised to interest him), and responded very little to social rewards and punishments from any source. This turned-off style had long ago extinguished his father's interest in him, which was only partially rekindled during therapy. (Bates 1971)

In a study of 55 effeminate boys Zuger found that 36 were described by their mothers as loners:

The high frequency with which these boys were described as "loners" was probably the resultant factor of other behavioral characteristics, such as disinterest in boys' games and sports, preference for playing with girls at their games, and their tendency to be "bossy" with whomever they played. The inadequacy at boys games was often explained by their mothers as due to clumsiness. Dislike of gym class and athletics generally was present in almost all of the boys and became manifest very early. (Zuger 1984)

Childhood isolation can effect adult behavior, as homosexual activist Michelangelo Signorile in his book Life Outside points out: "As gay men, we often faced rejection as children and later as teenagers. We spend a lot of our lives trying to correct that past, trying to feel valuable."(Signorile, p.300) Signorile connects adult steroid use which is epidemic among some groups of adult homosexual men with childhood rejection:

in childhood many gay men realized that they do not quite fit in with the other boys and men. That difference, whether they were effeminate or not, often keeps them excluded from the typical kind of macho, heterosexual teenage camaraderies and bonding -- as a result, they were not allowed in the "in" crowd of boys. Many of us never quite heal from such exclusion, which is often bitter and painful. Once out in the gay world, we often become obsessed with never being excluded again by the popular crowd. Many of us carry this obsession to extremes. For many young gay men today, that obsession leads them to ingest or inject themselves with powerful and dangerous steroids. (Signorile, p.138)

Body Dissatisfaction

According to Bieber 47 of the 106 homosexual men in his study considered themselves as frail in childhood; however, only 2 had suffered a severe illness. Bieber concluded that:

This concept of frailty, then, is rarely based on reality. A self-concept of frailty may be developed through over-anxious parents, usually the mother, who communicate to the child their own preoccupations with health and safety; or a need for a fragile facade to conceal effectiveness, consciously or unconsciously associated with masculinity, inasmuch as an open presentation of masculine behavior provokes intense anxiety when the parents have been demasculinizing; or a displacement to the body image of a sense of impotence and vulnerability consequent to the disabilities associated with maladaptive personality development. (Bieber 1962, p.186)

In the Bieber study 38% of the homosexual men considered that their genitals were smaller than they desired.

Signorile reports how childhood body dissatisfaction can lead to adult abuse of steroids. Mark, the forty-year-old New Yorker who works for an AIDS agency, spoke of his dissatisfaction with his body:

I would see all of those guys with their muscles and I wanted to be one of them. It's kind of like when you're a kid in the school yard and the popular kids and the jocks exclude you because you're not cool enough. Especially if you're a gay boy, you were probably excluded from that crowd as a kid, and so when you grow older there is this nagging to be in the popular crowed, to not be excluded. (Signorile, p.168)

Some homosexual men become outstanding athletes as adults, which would seem to contradict these findings. Biographical information on these men, however, often reveals childhood experiences which follow the pattern discussed above. For example, Olympic gold medal winner Greg Louganis autobiography Breaking the Surface reveals a textbook case of chronic unmasculinity, a hostile father, and an over-protective mother. Dean Byrd, who has published a careful analysis of the book, points out that the "Greg Louganis Story is a classical case of male gender identity failure and all of its horrid consequences in the life of a boy. Greg was not treated badly because of his homosexuality. Rather, his homosexuality evolved from his bad treatment." Byrd points out that Greg remembers "his homosexual attractions and activities were attempts to meet legitimate needs for attention, approval, affection and masculine affirmation."(Byrd, 1997)


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Original Text from Dale's Disk — child5.rtf - April, 1999
Formatted to HTML 2000 10 23 — WHS