from Clinical/Therapeutic Issues
Summary by Robert L. Vazzo, M.M.F.T.
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Psychiatric Symptoms and Same-Sex Attraction and Behavior in Light of Childhood Gender Atypical Behavior and Parental Relationships
Katarina Alanko, Pekka Santtila, Katarina Witting, Markus Varjonen, Patrik Jern, Ada Johansson, Bettina von der Pahlen, and N. Kenneth Sandnabba
Center of Excellence for Behavior Genetics, Department of Psychology, Abo Akademi University
Robert L. Vazzo, MMFT
The study produced many noteworthy results. First, as a group, homosexual participants reported more gender atypical behavior in childhood than the heterosexual participants. Furthermore, the authors found that women reported significantly more gender atypical behaviors as children than the men did.
Concerning the first hypothesis, the researchers found that participants (both heterosexual and homosexual) with a history of GAB reported more negative parenting than those participants without a history of GAB. This negativity focused on such qualities as coldness and overcontrol, and the difference in the area of overcontrol (as it relates to fathers) was greater for men than for women.
Results of the study also confirmed the authors' second hypothesis. The data showed that participants' negative descriptions about their mothers' overcontrolling behavior was related to a homosexual orientation. Homosexually oriented men and women in the study reported their mothers as more overcontrolling than did heterosexual participants. Surprisingly, however, heterosexual men described their fathers and mothers as slightly colder than did the homosexual men. On the contrary, lesbian women described both their fathers and mothers as colder than the heterosexual women did. These results support the popular belief that homosexual women and men have had serious relational problems with their parents.
One of the most noteworthy findings of the study addresses the issue of whether psychiatric symptoms are a function of GAB and/or homosexuality. The authors found that both GAB and homosexuality are severally and jointly significantly related to the level of psychiatric symptoms, with childhood GAB being a better predictor than sexual orientation on the current level of psychological distress. To support this finding, the authors note that heterosexually oriented men with a history of GAB had almost the same level of psychological distress as homosexually oriented men with a history of GAB, and that the heterosexual participants without a history of GAB had a significantly lower level of psychological distress. Finally, the authors found that the effects of GAB and sexual orientation were not additive, that is, the two situations do not result in greater psychological symptoms among men or women.
Initially, the authors offer the explanation that children who have exhibited gender atypical behavior have suffered due to their parents' reactions to their behaviors rather than to other parental factors. They focus more on boys because Finnish parents have less severe reactions when girls behave gender atypically than when boys do, as the parents believe that girls will grow out of the behaviors. The authors equate parental negative reactions to homophobia, and they imply that homophobia, both in the household and in society at large, has caused participants' current psychological distress. They assert that "gender typical and atypical men reported more differences in the paternal relationship than women did, possibly reflecting the fathers' homophobic reactions to the gender atypical boy" (p. 500).
A more complete and plausible explanation from both a psychodynamic and family systems perspective is that the children's gender atypical behavior is a defense mechanism designed to protect them from the anxiety that they experience as the result of difficulties in the parental relationship. Likewise, parents who reject a child's gender atypical behavior may also reject other aspects of the child's behavior that displeases them, thus compounding the child's attachment difficulties. The authors finally admit that "the possibility that negative parenting could cause some children to behave in a gender atypical manner cannot be disregarded" (p. 501). They suggest further study to examine the relationship between GAB and parenting. Such research is welcome in an era in which many researchers attribute nearly all psychological distress present among homosexually oriented individuals to the construct of homophobia.