Lesbian and Gay Parenting Questions & Answers Column With Arlene Istar LevDear Ari

A column by Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev

Freud and Gender Identity

Posted By on September 11, 2010

Dear Ari:

My partner and I are considering having a woman carry our child through surrogacy.We are 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 are 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?
—Robert

Dear Robert:

Most psychological theories of gender identity development have their roots in Freudian based psychoanalytic theory. Freud postulated that infants had a “psychic bisexuality” and that gender identity development, whether a child matured as a boy or girl, depended on socializing influences. Gender identity emerges when children identify with their same-sex parent. According to this theory, “healthy” gender development means cleansing one’s self of the “other” gender and that 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, in order to grow a healthy male identity, boys must 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 the 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 LGBT people, it is very 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 one primary parent).  According to Freudian theory, girls do not need to separate from their primary care givers (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 is 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 is important for us to realize where our root ideas come from regarding our children’s healthy development.  I hope that 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 am not sure that we want to support a model that defines our gender expressions as “opposite.” I also hope that we realize that cross-gender behavior is not caused by faulty parenting, but is a natural human variation. Genitals are, of course, important but perhaps not in the way that Freud suggested. Remember, Freud’s theory was just that—a theory—and the research findings show that the children of LGBT 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 is 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 is 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 of 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 LGBT families would be more influential and that it would help to break down our Victorian legacy of separate spheres.