Gay Men and Their Mothers: Is There a Special Closeness?
My mother, and my (gay) self.
Posted Aug 23, 2011
Perhaps it is not surprising that mothers and their gay sons often describe their relationships as close. Compared to fathers, mothers typically have an advantage whereby they usually interact more with their children. However, being gay might be a factor that makes some mothers and sons even closer. This was found to be true for many of the mothers and sons I interviewed for the study described in the book: Coming Out, Coming Home: Helping Families Adjust to a Gay or Lesbian Child (www.comingoutcominghome.com).
As stated by M.C. (25):
My mother and I can best be described as having a friendship as well as a family relationship. We get along very well. We share a lot of the same interests. We play Scrabble together...We watch political shows together, like Hardball. We like going on vacations. We share some of the same tastes in food-some disagreements here and there, but we joke around. She was very caring and still is a very caring mother. I would say it is almost like a friendship between us.
His mother, Charlotte, a legal secretary, would agree:
M. C. and I have been especially close ... an extremely close bond.
This next mother recalled:
Jack is definitely my closest [of three sons]. You know, we just always had a special bond. I could just relate to him better than the other two.
Her son Jack concurred:
Well, my relationship with my mother has always been the strongest and the best relationship probably with anyone in my family, so it was always wonderful. I could tell her anything and felt comfortable doing that. I always felt like, from a very young age she respected me very much for who I was. And so, in turn, I think I gave her a certain amount of respect that my brothers may not have been able to.
Nevertheless, this closeness could have a downside, at least temporarily, as many mothers initially blame themselves and these close relationships for their sons' homosexuality. Perhaps carrying a burden of guilt is part of being a mother. Research suggests that feeling guilty is an inevitable component of mothering. Mothers feel to blame when something goes wrong with their children, even if the cause is clearly not their fault. As a matter of fact, mothers often find themselves feeling guilty when nothing goes wrong! So, perhaps it is not completely surprising that once they learned their sons were gay, some of the mothers I interviewed felt that they had done something to damage them. As quoted by this mother:
I remember I would talk to friends and they would say something about their children and I would think, "I am just not as good as you. I messed up as a parent. I did this to my son." And again, I didn't do anything to him. But I was feeling pretty responsible . . . and my whole thing is that when I tell people they are going to say, "That is because he was your whole world for two years. That was all you cared about.." I was a little hopeless ... I felt that I made lots of mistakes and I wasn't sure what they were. I thought crazy things like ... I stayed home for twelve years raising my kids and I thought I mothered him too much. But that is crazy. But I thought, "It is all my fault. I did that to him."
And as summed up by this next mother:
The fact is that I am the mother and I was told growing up that men become gay because their mothers are too mothering. I even heard that later after I found out about my son, and I felt bad but it was like," OK, how can you love your child too much?"
For a long time, the psychiatric profession blamed overly close maternal relationships for causing the "disease" of male homosexuality. Even though research since the 1950's has debunked it, this theory persists in people's minds and rears its ugly head for mothers when they initially learn their sons are gay.
Fortunately, for many mothers of gay son—with time and education, they learn that the idea that they had somehow made their son gay is dead wrong This was true of the mothers in my study who also came to see the benefits having a gay son as will be described later in this post.
Homosexuality to Blame for Close Relationships with Mother?
My research, clinical and personal experiences suggest that there is indeed a causal link between male homosexuality and a close maternal relationship but flows in the opposite direction than what was previously thought. In other words, having a close relationship with your mother doesn't make you gay—being gay makes you closer to your mother.
The young gay males in this study recalled sharing interests in common with their mothers, such as fashion and cooking, and were also sensitive to their feelings. Perhaps these mother-son connections in my study were fueled by the boys' need for extra security because they felt like pariahs outside their homes. Whatever its cause, this feeling of commonality and connection to mothers is a unique (and fortunate!) aspect of the parent-child relationship in some gay families.
As stated by Tariq, a 19-year-old African American gay man:
I think personally it [being gay] made me a more emotional person, more sensitive, more in touch with both the male and female sides of myself, but allowing me to even acknowledge that other side made me closer to my mother. I was OK with braiding her hair, OK with sewing, OK with cooking-not trying to be very macho. Yes, definitely, it made me closer to her.
And Jon, aged 24:
I wasn't interested in football or going out and playing, that's true. I was more interested in being with my mother and just being secluded in the home. I was definitely never interested in sports, and I just basically was staying with my mother, you know, just being secluded in the house.
Once mothers in this study got over their feelings of guilt and got used to the idea that their sons were gay, they were able to recognize the benefits of having a gay son. Often these benefits had to do with sharing interests and a certain sensitivity as indicated by the following quotes from three mothers:
We can talk about product for our faces. He's more into my face and my wrinkles than I certainly could ever have time for. He's very, very caring. He's planning a little vacation for me now and he's just genuine. He tells me, "You know, you've got to lose some weight, Mom. This is what you've got to do." But I have good conversations with him, you know, so that's a real plus. (Cindy, 45)
He has always been a sensitive man. He likes the kind of music I like. Some of those things we share. He likes the kind of movies I like ... he likes a good love story ... we can sit and cry together. That is good stuff. (Maria, 40)
Because gay people are gay! That is why gay people are called "gay!" There is a wonderful spirit ... And this is not a broad generalization ... a lot of them are theater kids too. They are sharp and sometimes because of the hard times they have had they are very kind and understanding. Noah is very kind and very understanding and so is his partner Rick. (Cynthia, 50)
Though it seems like a cloying cliché to say so, it is hard to imagine anything more soothing than a mother's love, particularly for a group of people who experience stigma and at times feel like outcasts. Closeness between mothers and their gay sons is a stereotype and like all stereotypes, sometimes they ring true.
When the Closeness Isn't There
However, we get into hot water when we allow stereotypes to get in the way of understanding the uniqueness of individuals and their circumstances—so it is important to remember that not all mothers and gay sons are close. Sadly, some mothers simply cannot adjust to their sons' homosexuality, due to their guilt, religious concerns, or inability to "let go" and accept the ways they live their lives. For others, there is ongoing mother-son conflict that is aggravated by the coming out process. Some of the young men in my study felt lonely and wounded as a result of the distance and rejection they experienced in this critical relationship. Sometimes, as a result of maternal distancing, fathers would take up the slack and become closer to their sons, and this could be very healing. However, all too often these young men experienced a profound sense of loss and alienation as they were left alone to emotionally fend for themselves.
For sure, gay men, their mothers and those who assist them need to explore and understand these vital relationships. Furthermore, as mothers and sons negotiate the difficult emotions that are part of the coming out process, it is important that they recognize that strengthened, closer relationships are a potential light at the end of the tunnel.