When sociologist Tristan Bridges read a New York Times story about how often parents ask Google if their kids are geniuses — 2.5 times more often if their kids are male — he had another question: How often do parents ask Google if their kids are gay? A lot, as it turns out. Bridges discovered that parents were Googling “Is my son gay?” 28 times more often than “Is my son a genius?”, accounting for thousands of searches a month (including variants). And questions about the sexuality of sons and signs of having a gay kid were far more common than parallel search queries about daughters.
Bridges, who studies gender identity and coauthored the book Exploring Masculinities: Identity, Inequality, Continuity and Change, was surprised by his findings but he probably shouldn’t have been. Research consistently correlates gender expression to sexual orientation. When boys crossdress, play with dolls, and socialized with more girls than boys, they are more likely to grow up to be gay or trans, according to a review of scientific studies. Given that, it seems like it would be reasonable to think that there might be behavioral signs of homosexuality observable in children.
But it’s not quite that simple. Any findings on the subject invariably come with the caveat that this data represents averages and isn’t ultimately applicable on the individual level. The problem with the premise of “prehomosexuality,” an outdated field of inquiry popular in the 1980s and 1990s, isn’t that correlations are impossible to understand. It’s that applying broadly drawn conclusions to specific children doesn’t work and can be harmful.
Essentially, the attempt to figure out if young kids are gay is a stereotype-fueled fool’s errand at best and a stigmatizing act of insecurity at worst.
It is probably not a coincidence that the top search ranking for “Is My Son Gay?” is a bigoted Focus on the Family post about mourning. While some progressive parents might be curious about their effeminate sons, it seems likely (given that rankings are affected by clickthrough rates for stories) that genuinely anxious parents are turning to search engines for help. That’s partially why experts warn that there’s one sign of homosexuality parents should look out for. It’s when a kid says, “I’m gay.”
Still, parents have clearly not stopped Googling this question behind closed doors. After Bridges first started looking at search volumes for “Is my son gay?” in 2016, fellow sociologist Mónica Caudillo and doctoral candidate and Emma Mishel noted that the same gender gap apparent in searches about children’s sexuality was also noticeable in regards to searches about adults. People had more questions about husbands, dads, uncles, and grandfathers than about wives, mothers, aunts, or grandmothers. People even typed “Is he gay?” — a fairly bizarre search — into Google more commonly than “Is she gay?”
Now, researchers are teaming up for a massive follow-up study designed to draw conclusions about what these Google searches say about the traditional masculinity standards boys and men have to live up to — and the social consequences they face when they don’t. Although the research has yet to be published and released to the public, researchers close to the project say the deep-dive into data on all U.S. Google searches dating back to 2007 (when Google had more than 50 percent of the American search engine market), paints a picture.
“We find that people ask Google whether their sons are gay about twice as commonly as whether their daughters are gay or lesbian,” Mishel told Fatherly. (To put it in perspective, the search volume for “Is my daughter gay/lesbian?” is more comparable to the search volume for “Is my dog gay?” than it is to the searches about sons.) They also find that people ask Google “Is my husband gay?” more than two times more than “Is my husband abusive?” or “Is my husband happy?”
“To really understand the patterns in Google search behavior we discovered, you need to understand the ways three interrelated theories of gender and sexual inequality overlap and work together,” Caudillo explains.
First, there is a strong link between masculinity and heterosexuality in American culture that is enforced through what sociologist C.J. Pascoe, refers to as “fag discourse” — a specific form of gender policing where boys are teased for being gay when they don’t exhibit masculine qualities during their youth. It makes sense then that parents place a stronger emphasis on their their sons exhibiting stereotypically gendered traits than their daughters.
But why is masculine conformity so strongly policed? Femininity has also been devalued historically. Women earn lower wages in fields that require care-taking and nurturing qualities, such as teaching and counseling. To be feminine is, in short, to be undervalued. While women can participate in “women’s work” without judgment, men face harsh social penalties for doing the same.
There’s also evidence that men’s heterosexuality is much more easily questioned than women. Most women can have the freedom to maintain a heterosexual identity even if they’ve had same-sex sexual encounters. On the other hand, men can be labeled as gay or bisexual base on a single experience even if they don’t identify that way. Caudillo and colleagues suspect that all of this results in people being curious and even concerned about the sexuality of the boys and men in their lives. Men’s sexuality, understood in this context, warrants more questions.
Of course, there are limitations to their study, which has not gone through peer review. Due to the unique type of data being analyzed, researchers don’t really know much about the people on the other end of these Google searches. They can’t tell if dads are Googling this any more than moms. They can’t tell if conservatives are googling this more often than progressives. However, there are advantages to this type of data.
“While people might, for instance, hesitate before checking “yes” on a survey asking whether they have ever questioned their children’s sexualities before, they might not have the same hesitancy in regards to asking Google questions,” Bridges says.
All three researchers agree that the results do not mean that these parents are homophobic, but that people are generally more influenced by unforgiving masculinity norms than they realize. Stigma is real. “Societies structured by gender and sexual inequality is where we might expect to find these gendered discrepancies in Google search data,” Bridges explains. But will people find answers to the problems of gender inequality or policing on the internet? Probably not. Searches are more likely to turn up information that reinforces prejudices.
The question people should be searching, Bridges adds, might be “How can I support my gay son?” Searching for resources makes more sense than searching for absolutes.