From Tomboys to Lesbians

Joseph Nicolosi, Linda A. Nicolosi

For as long as she could remember, “Jessica” had hidden her intense crushes on female teachers behind a rough, sarcastic personality. Each day, after elementary school, when she was not playing sports with the boys, she retreated to her room to live in a fantasy world - an imaginary place in which she was a strong, heroic protector who “took care” of her favourite teacher or a little neighbour girl. Now and then she even wrote out her fantasies into dramatic stories, which she hid in a drawer in her bedroom.
By the time she reached junior high school, Jessica was using the name Jess and was wearing boys‘ jeans, flannel shirts, and cross-training shoes. She carefully hid her developing female body under thick layers of dark-colored fabric. Jessica was an excellent athlete, so her concentration on softball and lacrosse made sense to everyone. What did not make sense, however, was her angry repudiation of skirts and dresses, the way she refused to allow her hair to grow past her ears, and how she would not so much as listen to suggestions about wearing makeup or perfume or women‘s underwear. She identified herself with the labels of “lesbian” and “dyke” that she often heard used as slurs on the junior high school campus.

Jessica was contemptuous of her mother, whom she saw as weak, and their relationship was essentially nonexistent. The only thing the two shared, it seemed, was a mutual distrust. Her mother was so overwhelmed by the demands of keeping up the house (and often stayed in bed with bouts of depression) that she could give little time to her gender-confused daughter. She was a delicate, feminine woman, often sickly, who thought Jessica was just a “rebellious and incurable tomboy.” On the other hand, the girl idolized her often-absent father.

Jessica began therapy, and I found her to be a sincere young woman with a genuine desire, just beneath her defensive exterior, to understand her conflicting feelings about accepting her gender. After a period of time, she told me that for many years she had been sexually molested by her uncle. The mother adamantly denied the repeated sexual abuse, which the woman‘s own brother had apparently committed since before the girl‘s fifth year. “He‘d never do such a thing!” she insisted. “Jessica is just making up stories to get attention. You can never trust the stories she tells you.”

The major conflict at the root of lesbianism, I believe, is the girl‘s unconscious rejection of her feminine identity. Women who become lesbians have usually decided, on an unconscious level, that being female is either undesirable or unsafe. Sometimes this is because the girl experienced early sexual molestation by a male. Other times (the more common scenario) it is because her mother appeared to the girl as either a negative or a weak identification object. The narcissistic and controlling mother who forces the girl into a rigid, stereotyped behavior (providing her daughter with a negative object of identification) and the depressed, abused, or inadequate mother who provides a weak object of feminine identification are the two most common scenarios observed among mothers of lesbians. For some lesbians, probably a small minority, biological factors have set the stage for a gender-conflicted identity.

One former lesbian client, now married with children, describes the unequal distribution of power that was a defining issue within her family and a factor in her unconscious refusal to identify with femininity:
“I always thought of my mother as weak, while my dad was strong and had a charismatic personality. I still remember thinking, when I was very young, ‘I am not going to grow up to be Iike Mom.’ I also remember deciding that I was going to behave and even look Iike my brothers and my dad. My brothers had lots of friends and played sports, and my Dad was the guy in charge, the one who had a job, the one who had a life. He was smart and kind of sarcastic and always seemed to have all the answers. My Mom stayed home, and she just idolized him.
My mother and I never seemed to have much to say to each other. She never really understood me, and looking back, I guess I never tried to understand her, either.”

Jane Boyer, an ex-Iesbian, also tells us about her own early family life, which she says was dominated by an abusive father. As the oldest of four children, Jane fell into the role of taking care of her siblings, including her depressed and withdrawn mother. She developed a strong aversion for her mother‘s role as the passive victim:
“We saw my mother get beat up quite a bit from my dad. There was a lot of domestic violence. Because I was the oldest of four, I basically took on the role of taking care of my mother because she not only was alcoholic, but she felt very helpless.

My mother took a very passive role, and there were times that she would be drunk and crying with an icebag over her face. Her face would be all bloody with black eyes, and she‘d be saying, ‘I don‘t know if I should leave him,’ and on and on.”
Then, as early as the age of five, Jane found herself admiring the strong, masculine women she met - the exact opposite of the abused women in her family whom she had resolved she would never emulate. In later life, she came to understand that her mother had probably done the best she could with the overwhelming problems she faced. But just the same, Jane said, “I know that there were many, many times that I just hated what I saw in her. Even her sisters were a lot like that. They were kind of passive and weak, and didn‘t have a whole lot of backbone.”

So what Jane (unconsciously) decided as a child was: lf this is what it means to be a woman, I don‘t want to be one. As she explained, “Women, to me, symbolized weakness... as I got older, when I did get involved with other women, these women were very butch, very dyke and very tough.”
Whenever her parents argued, she sided with her dad - a phenomenon that Freud called “identification with the aggressor.” This is a primitive psychological survival mechanism that is the equivalent of saying, “If someone hurts me, I‘ll be like he is so I won‘t get hurt. I‘ll be the one in charge.” As she explains: “My father used to say degrading things about women all the time. My father truly hated women. They were sex objects. He used to call women the ‘c’ word and the ‘b’ word.” As Jane explains, “He [Dad] was powerful, he was in control. She was weak, she was powerless. I didn‘t want to have anything to do with that.”

Jane later married and adopted a child, but she continued to find herself romantically attracted to “butch” women, with whom she was vulnerable to developing a strong emotional dependency. One night, just for a lark, a friend encouraged her to go along with her to a lesbian bar, and Jane soon found herself caught up in a lifestyle that would nearly break up her marriage. She found herself continually drawn to the “very strong, very tough” woman of the type that were everything her mother had not been. “When we were together,” she said of herself and her lovers, “[people] would always look at us as a man and woman.”
At one point, driven by alcoholism and severe depression, Jane consulted a psychotherapist to see if there was a way she could reconcile her family live, her strong religious faith, her marriage, and her same-sex attractions. “I had been told that I was [born this way], so I thought gosh, if I was born this way, then I have to leave my husband, and I have to hurt my kids. ... Because people were telling me that if I went back to my husband, I would never find peace.”
The therapist - herself a lesbian, told Jane that to be true to herself, she should live out her lesbianism. Jane said,

“But when I finally left there, I was convinced that she was not at peace. She was talking about men, saying things like, And just because they have a penis...! She went on and on - just a lot of unresolved issues with men ... a lot of anger towards men and a lot of unresolved issues with her mom, too. A lot of hurt. ...
So I walked out of that appointment thinking, She‘s not at peace. She is living her brokenness, that’s what she is doing. She has not recognized anything.”

It was through her religious faith that Jane ultimately came to the life-changing conviction that “lesbian love is a counterfeit, and we are far too easily pleased with the counterfeit.”1 Jane decided that rather than “living out her brokenness,” she would leave her lesbian lover and work toward change, rededicating herself to her marriage.

The Wounded Female Psyche

Male homosexuality tends to follow a relatively predictable developmental pattern. But lesbianism is less predictable and more likely to alternate, during the woman’s lifetime, with periods of heterosexuality. Many lesbians believe their sexuality is a choice they made as an outgrowth of their feminist political interests. Still, I believe the most common pathway to lesbianism is a life situation that creates a deeply ambivalent attitude toward femininity, conveying the internal message “It’s not safe or desirable to be a woman.”
This wounded female psyche may be why so many lesbians are champions of feminist political causes. Psychotherapist Diane Eller-Boyko, a married ex-lesbian, observes:

“Our culture especially honors the masculine - strength, dominance, achievement, striving. That creates in many women a neurotic split from their authentic natures. The woman represses the inner hurt and pain, and starts to identify with the masculine. It is out of the unhealed places of the wounded feminine psyche that she becomes aggressive and loud. Many women today are depressed, shut down, and overfunctioning.
Lesbianism quite naturally allies itself with feminism. In the lesbian community you hear, ‘You don’t need a man, you can do it on your own.’ Or, ‘What good are men? They only want one thing. Who needs them?’ This, combined with a rebellious attitude toward the idea of receptivity, is part of Iesbianism.
Yet receptivity is the very core of the feminine. Rather than championing a war against men, we must bring back the life-giving spirit of the feminine.”

Unknowingly, many mothers convey an unattractive image of femininity to their daughters. As Eller-Boyko explains:

“Mothers who cannot honor the feminine in their own natures become unavailable, dull, depressed, angry, compulsive - living by neurotic rituals which they use in order to fill the empty core of their being. Their daughters are wounded by this. And so the daughters carry on this wound to the feminine spirit for yet another generation.”

Such a young woman may seek a deeper connection with the feminine through an intense same-sex relationship. Women naturally seek creativity, tranquillity, a feeling of centeredness. But, Eller-Boyko says, when a gender-deprived woman gets close to another woman, “Lesbian feelings may surface because she thought it felt kind of sexual. That emotional, rich experience becomes sexualized. But it’s not so much about sexuality.”
What feels so good about a lesbian relationship is that a woman gets “filled up” and connected with what she has lost touch with - her own femininity:
“The connection with another woman takes her into her own inner life, into that part of herself where she starts to experience her own feminine nature. ... But when a woman has rejected her own femininity, she pays a price. Because in seeking to unite with other women, she is trying to unite with herself - and this type of union will not, ultimately, heal the psyche. With another woman, she will have only the illusion of wholeness. The ‘Shadow’ - representing those real developmental needs that were never met - will continue to haunt her.”2

One Family Dynamic in Lesbianism: The Narcissistic Family System

Psychoanalyst Elaine Siegel, Ph.D., is a former supervising analyst at the New York Center for Psychoanalytic Training and the author of Female Homosexuality: Choice Without Volition.3 Siegel says her lesbian patients fit a surprisingly predictable pattern: they grew up in narcissistic family systems that “tried to force their emerging identities into rigid, idealized forms of behavior alien to them.”
Having been molded and manipulated by their parents’ expectations, she says, these women experienced a “severe arrest in ego development.” In rejecting their mothers as identification objects, these women also rejected the femininity their mothers represented. Siegel said her lesbian patients had been unable to successfully complete the separation and individuation phase during which the child establishes a separate, secure, and individual sense of self.
Despite having sometimes outwardly well-adjusted personalities, they were “unable to identify with either parent,” and in a psychodynamic sense, they never “owned” their own female anatomies. Not all her patients had been blatantly tomboyish, but all showed some signs of gender conflict. Within the tensions of a narcissistic family system, in which the child is expected to meet the parents’ expectations and never learns who she is as a separate individual, many of these women had long struggled with uncertainty and confusion in carving out their own personal identities.4
While Siegel is aware that this family model does not explain all forms of lesbianism, she is nevertheless struck by the commonality she found among the patients in her own practice. She has blunt words to describe the mothers of the lesbian women she saw in her practice:

“The little girl who turns to homosexuality never has a chance to create herself. She is a creation of her mother, whose self-Iove she was meant to enhance. ...
Mothers seemed to use their children as sometimes desperately needed, sometimes desperately repudiated extensions of themselves. ...
When these little girls tried to turn to their fathers, they did not fare much better. Preoccupied with their business deals, the men sporadically paid attention to their daughters, overstimulated them, and then appeared to forget that they were around.
...These fathers, when they took the time to react at all, responded to the daughters as persons who had to be made over in their own, masculine image.”

Siegel describes the mothers of her lesbian clients as generally immature, emotionally fragile, and aloof from the needs of their daughters. They did not treat their daughters as whole and separate persons but rather as narcissistic extensions of themselves, and as such, their daughters were expected to fulfill the mothers’ own needs. As a result, these girls never developed a stable sense of either self or gender.
In childhood, Siegel’s lesbian clients provided the following indicators of gender conflict:
“None of them as little girls, were interested in playing with their dolls or in the usual games of family, and they had a marked aversion toward normative feminine clothing.
A very strong indication for concern is a girl’s rejection of urinating while sitting, or insisting upon standing while urinating. Other causes of serious concern is her assertion that she has or will grow a penis, or, in older girls, that she does not want to grow breasts or menstruate.”5
In adulthood Siegel’s lesbian clients, who had been unable to identify with their mothers, sought to repair their defective body images by seeking an intimate partner who was similar to themselves. Because they were unable to integrate their sexual organs into their body image, these women also developed a profound denial of gender differences (“Women can do everything that men can do.” “Who needs a man?”). This attitude is often carried over into a political position of radical feminism and of resentment toward men in power.

In my own practice with men, I have found this same sort of phenomenon - a denial of the male body in my male homosexual clients. Indeed, Siegel and I are in agreement that a primary therapeutic task is the need for both lesbians and homosexual men to “claim” their female or male bodies, from which they have become emotionally detached, as part of their fundamental sense of self.

The Aftermath: Gender Narcissism

“Gender narcissism,” says psychoanalyst Gerald Schoenewolf, is a condition in which a person “takes one’s own body as an object of desire.” Schoenewolf sees this as the fundamental syndrome characterizing the homosexual condition: “Gender narcissism develops in reaction to feelings of inferiority about one’s gender, and might be defined as excessive love or concern for one’s gender, one’s genitals, or one’s gender identity, and an aversion to the opposite sex.6

We often see gay men and lesbians joining forces on the political front to protest against patriarchy. The lesbian who feels wounded in her feminine spirit - unsafe in claiming her feminine nature - will be powerfully drawn to a political movement that buttresses “woman power” and condemns patriarchy. She joins forces with the gay man, who shares her anger because he has been wounded by his male peers and has long felt on the outs in masculine company, particularly in relation to straight males in power. So the gay-Iesbian political alliance in support of feminist goals is not surprising:
“A number of both female and male homosexual [patients] had politicized their feelings about homosexuality. Not only their gender was idealized, but also homosexuality as well. Homosexuals, they held, were more sensitive, more humane, more refined, and more moral than heterosexuals. ‘If straights were as peace-Ioving as gays, the world would be a better place,’ was an often expressed sentiment.”7

More on Family Dynamics

As Siegel has pointed out, a narcissistic mother who interferes with her daughter’s separation and individuation can propel the girl in the direction of lesbianism. But still another pathway to lesbianism is the experience of severe hurt by a male, which communicates the same internal message: “It is unsafe to be a female.” As psychiatrist Richard Fitzgibbons explains:
“A number of women who become involved in same-sex relationships had fathers who were emotionally insensitive, alcoholic, or abusive. Such women, as a result of painful childhood and teenage experiences, have good reason to fear being vulnerable to men. ...
Women who have been sexually abused or raped as children or adolescents may find it difficult or almost impossible to trust men. They may, therefore, turn to a woman for affection and to fulfill their sexual desires.”8

Dr. Charles Socarides agrees that the girl who feels lesbian attractions harbors a sense of gender inadequacy: “In my practice, I have found that lesbians had deep feelings of inferiority as little girls. Anything that parents can do to make their kids feel proud of their identity - as young men, as young women, will help the [treatment] process.”9

Rejection of One’s Own Gender

Little clinical attention has been paid to the tomboy phenomenon in girls because there are far fewer gender-disturbed girls than boys. And boyish girls do not attract the same degree of concern as “sissy boys”. Girls are allowed much more latitude in contemporary culture for a wide range of gender nonconformity, while effeminate boys have been (and continue to be) rejected or marginalized. Therefore, the girl must display more extreme cross-gender behavior than the boy before parents seek out professional help for her.
Another issue is that tomboyish behavior in girls is, in reality, often a passing phase, while sissyish or effeminate behavior in boys usually is not.10 Many girls will normally engage in, or even prefer, masculine activities during their childhood years, while still maintaining a basic feminine identity. Later, these girls will increasingly expand their feminine interests as they approach the adolescent years.11 So, as Dr. Selma Fraiberg says in her classic book on children, “It is only when the personality of a girl is dominated by masculine tendencies, and femininity is repudiated, that we need to feel some concern for the future development” of the child.12
For a small percentage of girls, tomboyish behavior and rejection of their femininity continues through adolescence. Such girls are more likely to become transsexual or lesbian.13 Strong rivalry with brothers and other boys, especially in the physical-athletic sphere, is another indication that there may be lasting gender adjustment difficulties.
Dr. George Rekers describes a case of a tomboyish girl referred to treatment:

“Becky was referred for psychological treatment at the age of seven years, eleven months, by a psychiatric nurse specialist who had assessed her at the request of the girl’s mother. Becky had two younger sisters, age 2 and 6 years old. The girl’s father was absent from the home due to divorce.
For as long as the mother could remember, Becky had been dressing exclusively in boys‘ pants, and she often wore cowboy boots. At the same time, she consistently rejected any feminine clothing such as dresses and she had no interest in female jewelry.
Becky’s only use of female cosmetic articles that her mother could recall involved drawing a mustache and/or a beard on her face several times. Becky appeared ‘masculine’ in her gestures, mannerisms, and gait. It was reported that she would occasionally masturbate in public and rub her body up against other girls in her peer group. She frequently projected her voice very low so she would sound Iike a ‘man’.
She repeatedly expressed her desire to be a boy, and she adopted male roles in her play. She definitely preferred the company of boy playmates and did not interact very well with other girls. 
Her behavior was described as excessively aggressive. 
She had a very poor relationship with her 6-year-old sister who displayed a typical preference for feminine play activities.”14

Dr. Elaine Siegel reported that her lesbian patients never played the usual girlhood games, such as dressing up dolls and playing house, but rather substituted active games and sports more typical of boyhood. She describes the treatment of three of her clients who were experiencing gender confusion. While these children knew their biological sex - that is, they understood intellectually that they were male or female - they had no understanding about what being a boy or girl would mean within the context of their own lives. In fact, she says, many of her female clients emphatically turned away from their feminine natures with an attitude of what Siegel calls “omnipotent triumph” - an in-your-face rejection of their femininity.

The Roles of Mothers and Fathers

Dr. Robert Stoller, a pioneer researcher in gender-identity problems in children of both sexes, says that if one wishes to promote the gender identity of a girl, there should be a warm mother-daughter intimacy, along with a father who does not promote identification of the daughter with himself. Indeed, a healthy relationship with Mom provides the most important foundation for the incorporation of femininity and heterosexuality,
In Stoller’s study of a group of very masculine females, he generally found too little emotional closeness with the mother and too much relationship with the father.15 In some cases, the father was disappointed at having a daughter and treated her as if she were a son, resulting in the “forced choice” to abandon her feminine aspirations to gain her father’s love.

Severe Depression in the Mother

Studies of severely gender-disturbed girls often uncover a traumatic interruption in the early mother-daughter bond. This appears to be due, in most cases, to a severe depression in the mother. The father - taking over in the child rearing where the mother has withdrawn, sees his daughter as a “buddy,” encouraging her to behave like he does and to share in his masculine interests. With little influence by the mother, such girls often become masculinized by the age of three or four.

A history of severe maternal depression was prominent in the histories of twenty-six GID girls whose histories were reported by Zucker and Bradley. Nearly 77 percent of the mothers had histories of depression, and all had been depressed during their daughters’ infant or toddler years, during the sensitive gender-identity developmental period. Here we see the phenomenon of the mother as a weak or negative identification object. These researchers offer a detailed picture:
“The girls had difficulty in forming an emotional connection to their mothers. In some instances, it seemed to us that a girl either failed to identify with her mother, or disidentified from her mother because she perceived her mother as weak, incompetent, or helpless. In fact, many of the mothers devalued their own efficacy and regarded the female gender role with disdain. ... In a smaller number of cases, it seemed that the daughter’s ‘significant medical illness’ or difficult temperament during infancy had impaired her relationship with her mother.”16

The mother who has been abused by men will likely convey the message that it is risky to be a woman:
“Six of the mothers had a history of severe and chronic sexual abuse of an incestuous nature. The femininity of these mothers had always been clouded by this experience, which rendered them quite wary about men and masculinity, and created substantial dysfunction in their sexual lives.
In terms of psychosocial transmission, the message to the daughters seemed to be that being female was unsafe. The mothers had a great deal of difficulty in instilling in their daughters a sense of pride and confidence about being female.”17

The Father’s Role

The proper role of the father in developing his daughter’s feminine identity is to reflect his daughter’s gender-differentness from himself with respect and appreciation. At the same time, he provides love and positive regard so that the girl will feel worthy of another man’s love. In contrast, the father who is absent or aloof will hinder the girl’s ability to accurately perceive men and will distort her idea of what she rightly deserves and should expect from a relationship with a man.

We also sometimes see the well-known psychological phenomenon, mentioned earlier, of “identification with the aggressor.” When the father or older brothers victimize the family, and when the mother feels acutely put down by her husband and cannot stand up for herself, the daughter may make the unconscious decision that it is unsafe to claim her feminine identity and thus place herself in a similar position of vulnerability. Instead, to avoid overwhelming anxiety, the girl refuses to identify with the helplessness of her mother and defensively identifies with the same masculinity she fears.

Not surprisingly, many explicitly gender-disturbed girls are, as Zucker and Bradley note, “preoccupied with power, aggression and protection fantasies.”18As adults, such women may become involved in sadomasochistic and “domination” or “leather” sexual activities. These activities act out an unconscious approach-avoidance conflict regarding issues of gender. The girl who has been unable to make a satisfactory identification with a same-sex love object (the mother) will harbor repressed rage against the very thing she loves because, on the one hand, she desires it but, on the other, she has been hurt by it.
Sadomasochism is, in fact, somewhat common within the lesbian community. As one lesbian-activist psychotherapist has observed:

“I can‘t remember the exact moment when I started to notice that many of our lesbian publications, erotica anthologies, conferences and books were referring to sado-masochism in an approving or erotically positive way.
Suddenly, it seemed, s/m has become mainstreamed, even celebrated, particularly among younger lesbians. The whips, chains and master-slave role-plays don‘t seem to shock us as they once did. ...
Instead of challenging s/m, so many lesbians are now embracing it as glamorous and hip, a way to be ‘sex positive’ and ‘in-your-face-queer’.”19

The author of the above observations, it should be noted, is disturbed by the growing popularity of s/m within the lesbian community - not because it violates any moral norm of decency, she makes a point to assure the reader, but because s/m threatens the lesbian community’s political objectives. She is concerned that the practice “reflects and perpetuates oppressive attitudes toward women, minorities and economically disadvantaged people in our society.”20

The Specter of Sexual Abuse

A girl’s poor relationship with her mother and unhealthy interaction with her father are certainly key issues in her gender confusion. But reports of experienced ex-gay counselors and ministry leaders also consistently support the observation of a higher than average frequency of childhood sexual abuse by a male. Ex-gay ministry leaders Anita Worthen and Bob Davies have found that in the histories of lesbians they have known or counseled, sexual abuse is one of the striking common denominators:
“In women, abuse can lead to a deep fear and even hatred of men if the perpetrator is a male. Men are no Ionger ‘safe’. The woman’s deep need to connect with another individual leads her right into close relationships with other women, often women who have been wounded in similar ways. This sets the stage for lesbian bonding to occur.”21

The trauma of sexual violation can have enormous repercussions in a young woman’s life. From the girl’s perspective, her femininity somehow provokes sexual abuse; consequently, in self-defense, the girl must relinquish the vulnerable, feminine part of herself. Typically, this rejection of her feminine identity is an unconscious choice.

Lesbian Relationships and Emotional Dependency

Lesbian partnerships can, some ex-gay ministries observe, take on a quality of “relational idolatry.” Unlike the characteristically open relationships of gay men, the bond of two women tends to involve an intense enmeshment. Psychotherapist Andria Sigler-Smalz, a former lesbian who is now married, describes the nature of such relationships:

“Female relationships lean toward social exclusivity rather than inclusivity, and it is not unusual for a lesbian couple to increasingly reduce contact with family members and previous friends. This gradual withdrawal serves to insure control, and protects against separateness and perceived threats to their fragile bond. ...

The propelling drive in the lesbian relationship is the woman‘s same-sex emotional and nurturing deficits, and these deficits are generally not sexualized to the same degree as seen in male homosexuality. For the female homosexual, ‘emotional attraction’ plays a more critical role than does sexual attraction. ...
Within these relationships there appears to be a capacity for particularly strong attachment. However, a closer look reveals behaviors that indicate a fragile relational bond ridden with fear and anxiety. ... For example, we see fears of abandonment and/or engulfment, struggles involving power (or powerlessness) and control, and desires to merge with another person to obtain a sense of security and significance.
While lesbian partnerships generally are of longer duration than male relationships, they tend to be fraught with emotional intensity and held together by the ‘glue’ of jealousy, over-possessiveness and various manipulative behaviors.
During the course of the relationship, the ‘highs’ are very high, and the times of conflict extreme. Excessive time together, frequent telephoning, disproportionate card or gift-giving, hastily moving in together or merging finances, are some of the ways separateness is defended against. In such relationships, we see the counterfeit of healthy attachment - that is, emotional dependency and over-enmeshment. ... There is often a desperate quality to the emotional attraction in women that struggle with lesbianism.”22

Generally speaking, females discover their sexual orientation later in life than do males. This may be due to several factors - particularly, because girls tend to be less sexually active than boys, and because a lesbian identity usually emerges gradually and from within the context of deep emotional attachments, rather than as a result of sexual experimentation. Boys, on the other hand, are more likely to become aware of their homosexuality through brief, experimental sexual encounters.23


Gender conflict in girls is not always outwardly observable in the form of “butch” behavior and masculinity. Some lesbians, in fact, are quite feminine. Yet masculinization in some girls can be extreme.
An example of an adolescent girl with extreme gender confusion is “Cindy.” Her rejection of gender identity led not only to lesbianism but also to an even more dramatic rejection - that of her own body.
Cindy was fourteen years old and lived with her mother in a rural community. Her mother had never been married but lived with a few boyfriends on and off over the years. Cindy had no memory of her father and had experienced little affection from any adult male figure.
When Cindy first appeared at my office, she was wearing a distinctly masculine and oversized shirt, faded blue jeans, and boots. She sat with legs apart and elbows on her knees. Her voice inflection and way of communicating were quite manly, as were her gestures and mannerisms. At times I had to remind myself that she really was a girl.

Cindy told me with pride that no one had ever been able get her to wear a dress. She said that she had felt like - and wanted to be a boy all of her life. A recent TV program about female-to-male sex-change surgery had fascinated her, and now she was just “waiting it out at home” until she could move out and have the same surgery done.
Cindy stated that she had a deep emotional attachment to another girl and that it was sexual. She was not gay - she was just a guy who, like any other guy, wants his girlfriend. This did not sound so much like rebellion or desire to shock as an emphatic and uncompromising statement of personal conviction.
While Cindy seemed intelligent, her grades were poor. One particular problem at school was that she insisted on using the boy’s bathroom. Her social interactions were largely limited to other boys at school. At every opportunity she reminded people her name was not Cindy but Rick, a name she had taken in honor of a male rock star she admired. She was disgusted by anything feminine, including her own physical maturation as a woman, and she would wear a lumberjacket to hide her breasts, which she said she hated.
The vast majority of her peers at school rejected Cindy. Her few male friends were the rebels, the radical fringe, the dropouts and dopers. Not surprisingly, she suffered frequent depressive episodes accompanied by suicidal thoughts. She repeatedly stated that she must live as a male, or else she would kill herself.

This is a remarkable and instructive case, but Cindy’s story is very extreme. In such a case the therapist’s task is to sort out the mix of biological and psychological factors that cause the client’s difficulty and to determine whether the client is willing to work toward claiming her feminine nature, in which case reorientation therapy can proceed. Many such severely conflicted clients seek out a therapist who will support them through sex-change surgery, which we do not support. Mutilation of the body, we believe, provides no long-term answers.

Unfulfilled Nurturance Needs

Some lesbians do not suffer so much from unfulfilled basic identification needs as from unfulfilled longings for nurturance. These women retain an unconscious need to repair a fragile mother-daughter bond. For them, the issue is a deficit of same-sex nurturance. Therapist (and ex-Iesbian) Diane Eller-Boyko explains this unfulfilled longing, which she calls her “own personal story”:

“A client will ... tell me - in words more or less Iike this - ‘Connecting with another woman felt Iike an ancient Ionging fulfilled. A homecoming’.  When I hear this, I know that something of the feminine is missing within her. The feminine ideal - creative, expressive, intuitive, receptive, empathic, connected to matter and spirit, has somehow been lost. In falling in love with another woman, she is really seeking to connect with herself.
Looking at lesbianism developmentally, I would suggest that she is seeking to unite with the archetypal ‘good mother’.”24

As Eller-Boyko explains, many lesbian women who seek change do not persist in therapy. For them, giving up the emotional connection of a lesbian relationship seems too threatening - much like a death. She notes:

“We can say to a teenage boy, ‘OK, you can get your emotional needs met but it doesn’t have to become sexual.’ A girl, on the other hand, may perceive that the therapist is asking her to give up a relationship upon which she feels deeply dependent and needy. She very likely feels as if she can’t live without her love interest or ‘significant other.’
A lesbian may say, ‘When I‘m involved sexually, it‘s the only time I feel I‘m loved and cared for.’ Particularly for the girl who has been sexually molested, same-sex behavior offers a sense of control in the relationship with the other person. Such girls view their lesbian sexuality as a way to gain mastery of a threatening situation. It is the only time they feel ‘safe’ with their sexuality.”

Checklist of Questions About Daughters

The following is a list of questions for parents who suspect that their daughter may be gender-confused. Reflect on the following questions, then discuss them with your spouse and, if possible, with a qualified therapist. This list will not fit all prelesbian girls, since the roots of lesbianism are more complex than those for male homosexuality, but they do provide an important starting point:

  1. Is your daughter markedly gender-atypical?
  2. Does she reject her sexual anatomy?
  3. Does she go to her mother with questions? Does she ask her mother to do things with her? Does she show Mom her toys, games, and activities, or does she prefer to go to Dad? Does she have a warm, comfortable relationship with Mom? Does she enjoy doing “girl things” with her mother?
  4. To what extent does your daughter interact and relate comfortably with other girls?
  5. Does your daughter adamantly reject the possibility that she will grow up to be married and have children someday?
  6. How early and how often have you observed any of the following behaviors?
    - Dressing like a boy and refusing any girls’ clothes.
    - Opposite-sex gestures and mannerisms, including voice inflection.
    - Preferring opposite-sex toys and activities.
    - Rejecting or having no interest in girls and their games.
    - Insistence on using a boy’s name.
  7. Does her father encourage the girl in developing her femininity?

Autobiography of Chastity Bono

Entertainers Sonny and Cher divorced when their daughter Chastity was four years old. As Chastity tells us in her autobiography, Family Outing, she found herself emotionally stuck between a distant, disapproving mother who was prone to unpredictable angry outbursts, and a generally unavailable father. At the same time, she was estranged from her female peers. Chastity, who today self-identifies as a lesbian, explains how her parents enmeshed her in their marital disputes as a way of getting back at each other:

“In a way, I think I was the son my father never had. ... When my father encouraged my tomboyishness, my mother would get annoyed. I think in some ways they acted out their frustration with each other through me: my father would aggravate my mother by encouraging my boyish behavior, and my mother became more uncomfortable with me because she saw me mimicking my father.”25

Cher was upset by her daughter’s masculine clothing and lack of female friends and tried, without success, to persuade Chastity to wear a skirt to school. In fact, at one point Chastity “vowed never to wear anything girIie again.” Clearly, the markers for future lesbianism were in place at this time.

When the Girl Is Brought to Therapy

When a girl has been found to be involved in a lesbian relationship, the parents will probably be focused on stopping their daughter’s sexual behavior. But the girl herself is primarily concerned about her own feelings of loneliness, alienation, rejection, and poor self-esteem. A skilful therapist can offer concern for the girl’s feelings.

Feeling misunderstood at home is often a major source of unhappiness. The father will need to assess his involvement in his daughter’s life. This will probably require a more supportive, less intrusive role for him. The mother, at the same time, will need to share her emotional self and her vulnerabilities with her daughter, and build a relationship of greater mutuality.
Lesbianism, as we have said, follows developmental patterns that are not always identifiable in childhood. But we can begin by asking the mother to reflect along the following lines:

  • What is my relationship with my husband like?
  • How do I feel about my daughter‘s femininity?
  • How do I encourage, support, and reflect the expression of my daughter’s developing womanhood?
  • What is my attitude toward my daughter’s relationship with her father?
  • Do I feel threatened by my husband’s attention to my daughter?
  • Do my husband and daughter seem to have a special relationship that stirs negative or uneasy feelings in me?
  • Do I feel envious or competitive regarding my daughter’s relationship with her dad?
  • Do my husband and daughter make me feel left out?
  • Would it be helpful for me to talk to a qualified professional psychotherapist about these issues specifically and about our family relationships in general?

Concerned parents should give immediate and serious evaluation to a gender-confused girl’s relationship with her mother. This, of course, is true if the girl displays outright symptoms of gender disturbance, but it is also true if her gender nonconformity is less explicit and is accompanied by a hostile or conflicted relationship with the mother.

Lesbianism “by Default”

Some women seem to develop normally as girls, and in fact function well heterosexually and marry, but then, to the complete surprise of their entire family, fall into a lesbian relationship in adulthood. Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons explains that the emotionally fragile woman with unfulfilled nurturance needs may turn to a lesbian relationship out of disappointment and loneliness or after she has become disillusioned by a bad marriage or a divorce.26 Such women may vacillate between lesbian and heterosexual relationships several times throughout their lives.
The public romances of lesbian entertainer Ellen DeGeneres and her partner, and of singer Melissa Etheridge and her partner, both illustrate the fluidity of sexual attraction in some women. Each of these women had a partner who was once heterosexual, who then identified herself as lesbian for several years, and who later went back to living a heterosexual lifestyle. Such fluidity is more common among women than men.

Tasks in the Healing Process

Psychotherapist Diane Eller-Boyko explains the process of therapy for an adult client. Describing her own healing pathway out of lesbianism as well, Eller-Boyko says she works toward building a gradual reconnection with the client’s own feminine nature. Client and therapist will be looking at the blocks in the client’s psychological development that started an “erosion and devaluation of the feminine spirit.” 
Eller-Boyko further explains, “Instead of looking for another woman, I’m trying to connect her with that reservoir within herself. ... Only when she has been nourished by that deep connection, can a woman move on to connect with the masculine.”27

As we have said, many factors lead to a lesbian or homosexual outcome, so parents should not take the attitude that all the responsibility for their daughter’s lesbianism falls on their shoulders. Your daughter’s sexual identity was also shaped by peer influences, her own temperament, the choices she herself made, perhaps an experience of sexual abuse, and sometimes biological factors that have influenced her gender nonconformity.
Cultural influences, as well, reinforce your daughter’s developing attitudes. The culture we now live in does not reinforce a healthy appreciation for growing more deeply into one’s gender. In the next chapter [of the book, A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality], we’ll take a closer look at the cultural politics of homosexuality and how this may have magnified your child’s gender conflict.


1 Linda Ames Nicolosi, “One Woman’s Struggle: Interview with Jane Boyer”, NARTH Bulletin, August 1999, p. 3.

2 Linda Ames Nicolosi, “Interview: Diane Eller-Boyko”, NARTH Bulletin, April 1998, p.3.

3 Elaine Siegel, “Female Homosexuality, Choice Without Volition: A Psychoanalytic Study” (Hillsdale, N.J.: Analytic, 1988).

4 Linda Ames Nicolosi, “Elaine Siegel on Lesbianism”, NARTH Bulletin, December 1996, p.3.

5 Siegel, “Female Homosexuality”, p. 537.

6 Gerald Schoenewolf, “Gender Narcissism and Its Manifestations”, NARTH Collected Papers, 1996 <>.

7 Ibid.

8 Richard Fitzgibbons, “The Origins of Same-Sex Attraction Disorder”, in Homosexuality and American Public Life, ed. Christopher Wolfe (Dallas: Spence, 1999), pp.85-97.

9 C. Socarides, “Homosexuality: A Freedom too Far” (Phoenix: Adam Margrave, 1995), p.279.

10 G.A. Rekers and S. Mead, “Early Intervention for Female Sexual Identity Disturbance: Self-Monitoring of Play Behavior”, Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 7 (1979): 405-23.

11 M. Saghir and E. Robins, “Male and Female Homosexuality” (Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1973).

12 Selma Fraiberg, “The Magic Years: Understanding and Handling the Problems of Early Childhood” (New York: Scribner, 1959), pp.231-32.

13 Saghir and Robins, “Male and Female Homosexuality”.

14 Rekers and Mead, “Early Intervention”, pp. 405-23.

15 Robert Stoller, “The Sense of Femaleness”, Psychoanalytic Quarterly 37 (1968): 42-55.

16 Kenneth Zucker and Susan Bradley, “Gender Identity Disorder and Psychosexual Problems in Children and Adolescents” (New York: Guilford, 1995), p.252.

17 Ibid., p.253.

18 Ibid.

19 Carol Brockmon, “A Feminist View of Sado-Masochism in the Nineties”, In the Family 3, no. 4 (1998): 11.

20 Ibid.

21 Anita Worthen and Bob Davies, “Someone I Love Is Gay” (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1996), p. 83. See pages 82-94 for a chapter on sexual abuse.

22 Andria Sigler-Smalz, “Understanding the Lesbian Client”, NARTH Bulletin, April 2001, p.12.

23 A. P. Bell, N. S. Weinberg, and S.K. Hammersmith, “Sexual Preference: Its Development in Men and Women” (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981).

24 Linda Nicolosi, “Interview: Diane Eller-Boyko”, p.3.

25 Chastity Bono, “Family Outing” (New York: Little, Brown, 1999), p.7.

26 Richard Fitzgibbons, “The Origins and Therapy of Same-Sex Attraction Disorder”, NARTH Bulletin, December 2000, p.3.

27 Linda Nicolosi, “Interview: Diane Eller-Boyko”, p. 3.


Nicolosi, Joseph und Linda Ames Nicolosi, Was ist Lesbianismus? / From Tomboys to Lesbians, aus: A Parent`s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality, S. 147-165, used by permission of InterVarsity Press, Copyright: 2002, Joseph Nicolosi and Linda Ames Nicolosi.