Ed Sheeran thought he was gay as a child: We need to talk about why

David Oliver

A boy who insists on dancing around the house in a dress. A girl who only wants to toy around with toy cars.

In scenarios like these, children are breaking the mold of the traditional gender binary – something society hasn't quite caught up to yet. 

It's why singer Ed Sheeran's recent comments about his childhood interests rang true.

"I have a definite feminine side to the point where like when I was a kid, I thought I was gay," Sheeran said on Dutch podcast "Man Man Man." He added that his "feminine side" includes loving musical theater, pop music and Britney Spears.

Why does such thinking occur as early as prepubescent childhood? Because of adults and the expectations society sets, according to experts.

"If a parent has rigid ideas of gender expression, then a child might come to believe that liking a specific toy, book or color makes them gay," says Jeffrey Cohen, assistant professor of medical psychology at Columbia University.

But adults can halt these habits in their tracks if they act early and quickly.

"Encourage children to explore all toys and activities, in a way that doesn’t gender inanimate objects or concepts," Cohen adds.

What is gender creative parenting? We spoke to parents who let their kids explore gender freely

"I have a definite feminine side to the point where like when I was a kid I thought I was gay," Ed Sheeran said on Dutch podcast Man Man Man.

Jean-Marie Navetta, the director of learning and inclusion at PFLAG National, wasn't surprised Sheeran felt this way – but was surprised he felt comfortable sharing it on the record.

"What he expressed was something that probably a lot of people have thought, and I think probably that's one of the reasons we're still talking about this," Navetta says. "The reality of the situation is that we still have really strong codes around what qualifies you as straight/cisgender."

Part of this stems from tradition. "For the majority of people, their external anatomy and overall social behavior are able to fit well enough into the social category of 'male/masculine' or 'female/feminine' that they are considered 'normal,'" says a.t. Furuya, senior youth programs manager at GLSEN. "However, it is also a reality that there are people who don’t fit into either category, either because of their bodies or behavior or both."

Perceptions of gender are shifting slightly. A new GLAAD report found that 43% of non-LGBTQ people think gender is not exclusively male and female, up from 38% in 2020. But 45% admit they are confused by all the different terms to describe people in the LGBTQ community. 

Hmm:Exclusive: More Americans understand LGBTQ people, but visibility has 'double-edged sword', GLAAD report says

In another survey, more than half of respondents said they agree there is something beyond a traditional binary definition of gender (i.e. male or female). But 64% of this nationally representative group thought that a person's reproductive organs define their gender identity.

"While we're conscious of the fluidity of gender, that has yet to translate into really seeing the world differently, and seeing ourselves differently," Navetta says.

The data reflects this push-and-pull moment. "Often in peer cultures in America, boys call other boys gay for not behaving according to stereotypical male behavior," says Amy Schalet, associate professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. "So it is not surprising that a young man who likes things that are associated with girls may think he is gay or queer.  And the same is true for girls, though these days there is a more leeway for girls to take on behaviors like sports that were traditionally thought of as masculine."

Hope exists for a more equitable future. "We see people, both in day-to-day life and in the media, exploring more fluid rather than rigid gender identities and presentations of self," Schalet says. "In some schools, children are receiving gender and sexuality education that gives them more freedom to be themselves and break stereotypes. Unfortunately, those schools are in the minority."

Children of different races may also face more intense gender binary expectations than others, and experience both emotional and physical abuse. It's very important to Black men that others see them as masculine – more so than their white and Hispanic counterparts, according to a Pew Research Center study from 2019. Also, white, straight men generally get more leeway in terms of feminine expression.

Black, queer love stories on TV and in movies could help further break stereotypes.

"It's undeniable that (media representation has) had an effect in terms of giving people the opportunity to just be who they are and be proud of who they are," Aymar Jean Christian, an associate professor at Northwestern University, previously told USA TODAY.

In case you missed:How Lil Nas X, Lena Waithe and 'Sex Education' are championing Black, queer love stories

What parents, adults can do to curb strict gender binary stereotypes

It's up to parents and other adults to guide (and correct) what kids hear – and in turn how they act.

Stop gender policing and think about how you speak in front of your kids ... If your child makes a gendered joke, don't laugh with them. "That's really damaging because now you're endorsing that behavior," Navetta says. Don't punish your child but have a conversation. "You're laughing at it because you were taught messed up things, but we can unteach you that stuff. And the only way you get there is if they understand it, rather than you sort of barking at them," Navetta adds.

... and in your own life. Phrases like "man up" or "you throw like a girl" imply masculine means strong and feminine means weak.

Embrace your child, whether they identify as queer or not. "Encourage and celebrate your children's passions for things, for activities because when they are in those spaces, first of all, they find out it's OK," Navetta says. "But second, they're going to find their clan."

Be sure to clarify the difference between sexual orientation and favorite activities. "Your sexuality – who you are attracted to, who you would like to be close with physically and emotionally in a romantic and/or sexual way and how you identify yourself – is a part of who you are, separate from the activities you enjoy doing and the way you enjoy dressing or behaving in public," Schalet says.

Self-love is also key. "More importantly, we should be teaching our children self-acceptance, self-love, respect, boundaries and consent, regardless of whom they love," Furuya says.

Let's talk about (queer) sex:The importance of LGBTQ-inclusive sex education in schools

Be inclusive from the get-go. Consider which toys you're giving children – i.e., let kids of multiple genders play with all kinds of toys despite their "masculine" or "feminine" associations. Plus, a child doesn't need to be pubescent to learn about the LGBTQ community. "Conversations should be age-appropriate," Cohen says. "For instance, a toddler can do a rainbow finger painting of a pride flag. Parents can read inclusive books to children and children can practice saying their pronouns aloud."

Don't overcorrect if your child fits into the gender binary. "There is no shame in the binaries," Navetta says. "One of the biggest problems with this conversation (is) opposition seems to think that we're trying to erase gender entirely. No, we're trying to say there actually is a spectrum here and there's so much more we can talk about."

Above all: Check yourself again and again. "In spite of what we intellectually know, it does not always translate to behavior," she says.