Ask Ari

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #104, Winter 2004.

Dear Ari,

My partner and I are considering
having a woman carry our child through surrogacy. We?re not biased as to whether we have a boy or a girl, just as long as
the baby is healthy. What are your thoughts about having opposite gender role models in the child?s life? We?re aware of some studies that reflect that the children of gay and lesbian parents do very well socially, but we feel that our child, whether it be a boy or a girl, should get to know the ?culture? of the opposite sex. Is having our sisters and our own moms in the child?s life enough, or should we seek out another individual to be in his or her life?


Dear Robert,

Most psychological theories of gender identity development have their roots in Freudian-based psychoanalytic theory. Freud postulated that infants have a ?psychic bisexuality? and that gender identity development?whether a child matures as a boy or girl?depends on socializing influences. Gender identity emerges when children identify with their same-sex parent. According to this theory, ?healthy? gender development means cleansing oneself of the ?other? gender; male and female identities essentially develop in repression of a natural bisexuality.

Freudian theory also states that since the mother is the first love object for both boys and girls, boys must, in order to grow a healthy male identity, learn to separate from their mothers and identify with their fathers. Girls must learn to become like their mothers and desire their fathers; this process will then culminate in a normative heterosexual identity. The process of gender identity development is intended to teach children that boys and girls are different from one another and that gender identity is inflexible and unchanging. It also teaches that opposites attract. The outcome of ?normal gender identity? development is heterosexual attraction and joining of opposites. In this view, both homosexuality and transgender expression are developmental arrests caused by faulty early parenting, particularly mothering.

For GLBT people, it?s evident that this theory has numerous problems, not the least of which is that heterosexuality is assumed to be the only normal and healthy outcome. Another assumption embedded in this theory is that women are the ?natural? primary parent (or even that there is but one primary parent). According to Freudian theory, girls don?t need to separate from their primary caregivers (i.e., mothers) the way boys do, which many have suggested should increase the potential for girls to develop attractions to women. Freud himself admitted this was a flaw in his theories.

In Freudian theory, the penis is a focal point regarding gender identity development. For boys, it?s a symbol of their masculinity and they fear castration; girls are, of course, envious and desire a phallus, which they express as heterosexual desire.

Perhaps this is more about Freud than anyone wanted to know, but I think it?s important for us to realize where our root ideas come from regarding our children?s healthy development. I hope everyone reading this realizes that homosexuality and bisexuality are not developmental arrests, and that boys and girls (as well as men and women) are alike in more ways than we are different from one another. I?m not sure we want to support a model that defines our gender expressions as ?opposite.? I also hope that we realize that cross-gender behavior isn?t caused by faulty parenting, but is a natural human variation. Genitals are, of course, important, but perhaps not in the way Freud suggested. Remember, Freud?s theory was just that?a theory?and the research findings show that the children of GLBT parents are developmentally bell-curve normal regarding their gender identity, despite their lack of opposite-sex parents.

The influences on developing gender identity are multi-variant. Of course, it?s good to expose your child to women?s culture. It?s great to have grandmothers, sisters, and aunts in both boys? and girls? lives. If you have close female friends, that?s wonderful. If not, it?s fine to seek out more diverse friendships. I would also imagine that it?s good for children to see gender-variant people in their lives. However, you can?t scout the world for role models. Just allowing your social circles to broaden, gender-wise, as well as racially and ethnically, is good for all our families.

Parenting children makes all of us question the kinds of adult friends and family members we have in our lives, as well as our gender expectations for our children. However, don?t ever question whether you can be good parents to your children (boys or girls) without opposite gender role models. Within our communities, we represent many ways of modeling gender for our children. It may appease the researchers and the homophobes how ?genderly normal? our kids are, but it disappoints me a bit. I had hoped that the non-conventional gender flexibility in GLBT families would be more influential and that it would help to break down our Victorian legacy of separate spheres.

Arlene Istar Lev, CSW-R, CASAC, is a
therapist specializing in working with LGBT
families at Choices Counseling and Consulting ( in Albany, New York. She?s a mom, educator, activist, and the author of two books, Transgender Emergence: Therapeutic Guidelines for Working with Gender-Variant People and their Families (2003, Haworth Press), and How Queer: LGBT Parenting (forthcoming, Penguin Press).