Gay Men and Their Fathers: Hurt and Healing
Fathers and gay sons: A complicated, vitally important relationship.
Posted September 13, 2010 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
Fathers in many families are mysterious, distant, intimidating figures—even more so for boys with homosexual attractions. They are the family torchbearers of manliness, and, as males young and old know, homosexuality is considered the dreaded opposite of masculinity. According to Michael Kimmel, a sociologist and expert on male sex roles, men demonstrate their masculinity by repudiating all that is feminine and demonstrating an ever-ready willingness to engage in sexual intercourse with women whenever the opportunity arises-in a nutshell, to prove they are not gay. To be gay is to be powerless, weak, unable to break free from Mommy, and these characteristics are incompatible with real manliness.
Initially, the assertion that homophobia plays center stage in men's masculine self-concept may seem rather extreme. However, go to places where men and boys congregate such as schoolyards, sports fields, fraternity houses, and locker rooms in this country and you will hear taunts such as "You're a sissy!" "That's so gay." "Hey c*cksucker!" or "Wow, you really got f*cked in the *ss on that play!" Sex between males is seen as an act of violence and domination rather than an expression of love, affection, or mutual pleasure, and this mocking, whether it is done playfully or with hostile intent, is meant to degrade a man by deriding his manliness. A boy growing into a gay man will get the message loud and clear that he is weak, dirty, and, perhaps worst of all, less than a man. Thus it is no wonder that the boys in the study for my book: Coming Out, Coming Home: Helping Families Adjust to a Gay or Lesbian Child, recalled being so reactive and fearful of the responses of their fathers—the very people who were expecting them to receive and carry the torch of masculinity.
As this 18-year-old young man recalled:
My father has always been very physical. He liked competitive sports and he played football. He was always pushing me to be on the football team or to do this or that. The kind of things I had absolutely no interest in doing at all, and I don't know how tied up that is in sexuality, but I certainly felt like I had something I needed to keep hidden from him.
Rico, a 22-year-old Latino man who worked in a bookstore, described how his father's derision, perhaps fueled by suspicion, made him fearful:
He would call gay people names and stuff. Just saying that he didn't agree with it and thought it was wrong and all that stuff. . . . Yes, and he didn't want me to become that . . . One time I had just dyed my hair. I was eighteen, nineteen. I dyed it red. And he said: "Don't be a girl, you fag!" or something like that.
Rico, whose parents were long-divorced, perceived these admonitions as a threat, which is why at the time of his interview he had yet to come out to his father.
When Jay was asked if his emerging sexual orientation played any role in his relationship with his father, he replied:
Yes. I think I was taking out my frustrations with all of the straight jocks at school ... that he was this mister normal guy that had the normal family, the normal house and the normal job and normal, normal, normal. And I don't know ... he was an easy target, too, because he wasn't always here and when he was here I could attack him.
For sons, paternal disapproval is a particularly bitter pill to swallow. Perhaps, deep down, they yearn for their fathers' love and approval, but fear disappointing them by not being the man they expected them to be. They realize if they are being chided in the outside world for not being real men that this will reflect poorly on their dads, who will be angry and disappointed once they come out. For this study, among the 65 families interviewed, only 17 fathers agreed to participate and unfortunately, none of the fathers of the boys who reported feeling taunted or pressured by them consented to an interview, so I could not get their perspectives. However, like Jay, it is perhaps too tempting to make fathers an easy target, particularly in the absence of their voices. We must remember that fathers and sons live in the same world—one that teaches boys that homosexuality is incompatible with real masculinity and, by association, full male adulthood. Fathers too were raised to not only look down upon homosexuality, but to fear it in themselves. The fathers of these male respondents may have perceived that they failed at one of their most important tasks: passing masculinity onto their sons. Thus having a gay son might feel particularly shameful for a father, as he may believe it is an indictment of his own masculinity.
Moreover, it is perhaps humiliating for a father to have a son who engages in sex acts that are considered by many to be so disgusting and degrading that their very mention is used by men to insult each other. When a father in this study initially found out his son was gay, he repeated, over and over, "Do you know what two men do to each other? Is that what you want to do?" Add to this shame and disappointment men's tendency to be stoic about problems to avoid appearing incompetent or weak and one gets a sense why many fathers, like those of the boys previously quoted, did not want to discuss such a topic with a stranger—a gay stranger, no less.
Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that father-son antagonism could be particularly wounding for a gay man. Richard Isay, a psychoanalyst who specializes in work with gay men believes that gay males undergo a reverse-Oedipal complex whereby, as young boys, they become subconsciously sexually attracted to their fathers (rather than their mothers). When the boy is a toddler, the father anxiously senses the subliminal sexual charge in their relationship and, because he is socialized to be repelled and afraid of homosexuality, he consequently disengages from his son. Oedipal issues aside, a developing gay boy may demonstrate some traditionally feminine gestures or interests that foreshadow an adult homosexual orientation, which may in turn make his father uncomfortable and want to distance.
Sadly, father-son disengagement or strain may have particularly pernicious consequences for gay men's adult lives and relationships. Because a boy's relationship with his father is his first, most important relationship with a man, it is the primary arena where he learns not only how to interact in close contact with other men but also whether he is lovable in their eyes. If this primary relationship is characterized by fear, distance, and hostility during childhood, as it is for many gay men, this will no doubt interfere with his ability to form and maintain intimate, committed relationships with male partners in his future.
But Healing Is Possible
For gay sons of all ages, but especially those who are struggling to establish, fix, or strengthen their current same-sex relationships, it might be a good idea to look toward their past relationships with their fathers for insights and answers. What were the relationships like before they came out? Afterwards? What did they learn about their self-worth from their fathers? What did they learn about their worth in the eyes of other men? Do the type of men they are drawn to have any precedent in their relationships with our fathers? For example, some of us like the strong silent types because that's what our dads were like while others go for these types because that's what we wished our dads were like. Either way, I have found in my clinical work with gay men that much useful information can be gained by examining past, and even present father-son interactions to determine what patterns are being repeated and/or reacted to in their current relationships. Armed with this insight, gay men can then make more informed choices about how to interact with the men in their lives.
Fathers who love their gay sons need to understand the unique role they play in their son's self-esteem and future relationships. Certainly all fathers need to show that they love their sons and daughters, but fathers of gay sons need to find ways to surmount the barrier of homophobia and socially scripted queasiness about gay sex to show their sons that they are indeed lovable and deserve the love of a good man. Although I rarely recommend fiction to my clients or students, I urge all fathers of gay sons to follow the television series Glee to study the relationship between the gay character Kurt Hummel and his dad, Burt. Watch this very macho father reach across the great divide of sex-role expectations to maintain a relationship with his wonderfully "flamboyant" gay son built on unconditional love. And also know, Dad, that there are many, many of us gay men out there watching that relationship too—with tears of gratitude, envy, and longing.
If you are interested in meeting Dr. LaSala and are in the NYC area, come to Barnes and Noble Booksellers at 82nd St.and Broadway this Wednesday, Sept. 15 at 7 p.m. Find more information here.