Part 2: “Love Won Out” — Parents Struggle With “No Exceptions”
February 22nd, 2007
Note: In this essay, I will try to talk about the theories of homosexuality that were presented at Love Won Out. For the time being, I will avoid a detailed critique of these theories. That may come later time. Instead, I want to delve a little deeper into the theme I began in Part One of this series by looking at Love Won Out through the eyes and ears of the parents of gay sons and daughters who attended.
As I describe my conversations with Love Won Out participants, I have changed several important details in order to protect the anonymity of those I talked to. The individuals who talked to me have a right to expect that their stories not be made individually recognizable. Nevertheless, the situations I describe are fully accurate in their substance.
I had a lot of preconceived ideas about Love Won Out ex-gay conferences before I finally attended one in Phoenix on February 10. Some of the awful things I thought I would see, I didn’t. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to find some good things to report on, which I promise to tell you about later. There were some moment of thoughtfulness and encouragement which, to me as a gay activist, were surprising.
But there were other things that I didn’t expect to encounter that shook me to my core. And before I can move on to anything, I have to get this out of the way. This is a long essay, but it’s the most important one that I will write about Love Won Out. So, please, I ask for your indulgence on this.
The parents who attended Love Won Out seemed to have a lot of questions. Based on what I heard in the Q&A sessions and in casual conversations, most of these questions revolved around two specific themes: 1) “Why is my child gay?” and 2) “What can I do about it?” The Love Won Out organizers made sure there was plenty of information on hand to answer these questions. This essay will focus on the first question.
The first session of the day was conducted by Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, president of the National Association for Research and Treatment of Homosexuality (NARTH). He was there to provide a non-religious and scientific argument that homosexuality is “a developmental problem.” In his address, entitled “The Condition of Male Homosexuality”, he provided his theory of how gay men come into being, a theory based entirely on family dynamics.
Dr. Nicolosi began his talk this way:
Homosexuality is not a sexual problem, it’s a gender identity problem. And this is the foundation of our understanding. Gender identity is one’s sense of oneself as male or female. Homosexuality is not about sex. And homosexual apologists will say it’s only about sex. But rather, we understand homosexuality to be about a person’s sense of himself, about his relationships, about his past hurts, about childhood wounds, self-image, personal shame, and his belief in his ability to establish and sustain relational intimacy.
Homosexual behavior is always — my wife says when you speak publicly you never speak in absolutes, always and never — I’m telling you homosexuality, homosexual impulse is always prompted by an inner sense of emptiness. It’s not about sex.
He’s barely three minutes into his talk, and already he’s laid out several defining qualities of homosexuality from which he emphatically allows no exceptions. And yet, I knew from my own experience that clearly there were exceptions. He said that “homosexual apologists will say it’s only about sex”, but I had to wonder which “homosexual apologists” he was referring to. While I’m sure somebody somewhere has probably said such a ridiculous thing, I had never heard it. Everyone I’ve heard of speaks it as being about his or her personal sense of self and his relationships. More specifically, it’s about affection, love, and a particular way of caring for and relating with one another.
And when Dr. Nicolosi follows that absolute with another, that the “homosexual impulse is always prompted by an inner sense of emptiness”, I’m afraid this leaves a lot of room for doubt. When I see one absolute being absolutely false, I can’t place too terribly much faith in any other absolutes which immediately follow. I guess he should listen to his wife more often.
But that was my reaction. For the parents who attended, the reaction was very different. He was the expert after all, a man whose psychotherapy clinic in Encino “specialized in the treatment of men with unwanted homosexuality” for more than fifteen years. And because he has treated so many men and speaks with such confidence of his clinical experience, the audience hung onto his every word. He couldn’t have been more convincing if he had channeled Freud himself and spoken with an Austrian accent.
Dr. Nicolosi described the “pre-homosexual” child’s development in terms familiar to anyone who has read classic Freudian theory. He began with the first eighteen months of a child’s life, during the “androgynous phase,” in which the child is unaware of differences in gender. During this phase, he is naturally closely bonded with his mother. Then, at about the age of eighteen months to three years of age, the child enters what Nicolosi called the “Gender Identity Phase.” Here, the child acquires language, and with that a greater awareness of the world around him, which includes differences between male and female. At this stage, the child, who already has a close with his mother, is now supposed to recognize that he is a boy and that Dad is a boy, and that Dad is supposed to become the masculine role model for the little boy. When this “dis-identifying” with the mother and the identification with the father takes place, a heterosexual man is the guaranteed result.
But if his father is cold, rejecting, weak, or physically or emotionally unavailable, or conversely, if his mother is overprotective, domineering, or shows disdain for the father, that boy may not detach from his mother and identify with his father. If that happens, if the boy doesn’t identify with his father, he’ll experience what is called a “narcissistic hurt.” And this leads to all sorts of things:
And that’s why we see narcissism in the male homosexual. Narcissism is a preoccupation with oneself. It’s a high sensitivity to being hurt, being rejected, sensitized to people not liking me. It’s a defensive posture, what we call a shame posture. This boy was shamed for his masculine strivings, and so he abandons his masculine strivings.
…And that narcissistic injury produces an adult, a homosexually-oriented adult, who is cautious, fearful, easily hurt, easily slighted, easily offended, self-protective — that is what we call the shame posture. If men get to see me they’re not going to like me. There’s something inferior about me.
All of this is because the father did not bond with his boy. Either that or the mother wouldn’t let him. I began to wonder how the parents in the audience were taking all of this. I didn’t have to wonder very long, because that’s when Dr. Nicolosi let loose with this broadside.
We advise fathers, if you don’t hug your sons, some other man will.
With that, a very painful groan rose from the audience. This was probably the second-most effective line delivered that day (I’ll get to the most effective one in just a little bit). I looked around and saw heads shaking, couples looking at each other, and a general sense of horror filled the room. My cheeks flushed as I wondered how many of those groans came from fathers and mothers themselves who made up a sizeable chunk of the audience.
Nicolosi threw in several more absolutes as he went along. And with each absolute that he conveyed with such clinical certainty, his credibility seemed to grow with this audience. In the end, it would be the absolutes that everyone would remember:
If there is an older brother, Freud said a hundred years ago, if a homosexual has an older brother, it’s a feared, hostile relationship. I have never seen an exception to that. I have never met a client who is dealing with homosexuality who had a salient older brother.
The guy with a homosexual problem does not trust men. When he begins to trust men, his homosexuality disappears.
His cold, clinical descriptions of homosexuality, while alien to much of what I know to be true in my life, seemed to resonate with everyone else in that audience. After all, it matched everything else they had heard from their pastors and moral leaders. What’s more, it matched some of the more personal memories that every parent has about raising their children. What father cannot say he wished he could have spent more quality time with his son? What mother could say she was never overprotective or overly assertive? This is the story of every parent.
As I sat there listening to his lecture, I was reminded of that old joke about person A saying something terrible about person B, when person B speaks up and says, “Hey you do realize I’m in the room, don’t you?” These parents were right there as Nicolosi talked about how their failures produced a “Gender Identity Deficit” in their son, and that drove their son to be hugged by another man.
Later that morning, Melissa Fryrear, a gender issues analyst at Focus on the Family and a regional representative for Exodus International, spoke on the causes of female homosexuality. It’s odd that she would present a talk that was intended to be the female counterpart to Nicolosi’s clinical descriptions of male homosexuality. I say it’s odd because she doesn’t have a degree in psychology or the social sciences. Her degree is in Divinity. But nobody in the audience seemed to mind or even notice. Her credentials as an expert were accepted just as readily as Nicolosi’s, and because her talk was considerably warmer and more sympathetic to the parents, they seemed to take her messages more to heart, according on conversations that I had afterwards.
Her presentation was also somewhat more chaotic than Dr. Nicolosi’s “Maybe because women, we tend to be complex sometimes,” she explained. But her Freudian explanation for lesbianism was similar to Nicolosi’s, except here it was the mother who was cold and distant, while the father was stern, frightening, or even abusive. Unless, of course, the mother was exceptionally close and had a “best friends” relationship with her daughter and the father was distant. Fryrear’s mix of causes for female homosexuality was a Mulligan’s Stew of many different factors: lesbian chic, fashion, peer pressure, feminism, sexual abuse — the list was very long and occasionally contradictory.
But in very stark contrast to Dr. Nicolosi’s talk, Fryrear’s was much more sensitive to not blaming the parents for their child’s homosexuality. She peppered her talk with reassurances like this:
And I want to visit specifically with Moms and Dads, that if you have a daughter who is struggling with lesbianism, that you’re not to blame for her particular struggle. … Those of you that have children, and have especially more than one child, you know that your children are unique and their perception of the world and how they take the world in, their perception of themselves and you and the family dynamics. You know as parents that one thing you cannot control in your child’s life is his or her perception.
I don’t know what’s worse, parents blaming themselves or blaming their child’s “perceptions”. I later heard both, and it appeared that the parents who internalized the message about perceptions had a calmer sense of “what happened.” They didn’t appear as personally burdened as those who hadn’t internalized the message. In that context at least, her reassurances were a blessing. But as long as these parents are encouraged by self-described experts to look for something that “went wrong,” they will — either in themselves or in their child. There was a lot of that going on throughout the day, an activity that I can’t imagine to be very productive or healthy. I also can’t imagine it contributing very much towards family reconciliation.
But if parents found some comfort in the idea that it wasn’t all their fault, that comfort was rocked by another “cause” of homosexuality that Melissa Fryrear spoke about. Remember when I mentioned Nicolosi’s second-most effective sound-bite of the day? Melissa Fryrear came up with the grand prize:
I can draw anecdotally from having been a part of an Exodus member ministry for almost a decade, and in those years having met hundreds of women with this struggle, I never met one woman who had not been sexually violated or sexually threatened in her life. I never met one woman. And I never met one man either, that had not been sexually violated or sexually seduced in his life. [Emphasis mine.]
The audience sat in stunned silence as Fryrear, her voice shaking, went on to talk about sexual abuse in greater detail. She later described her own sexual abuse as a child, and her talk had just followed a testimony by Mike Haley in which he described having sex with another older man beginning at the age of eleven. As far as this audience knew, there were no exceptions. This went a long way toward reinforcing Nicolosi’s admonition, “if you don’t hug your sons, some other man will.”
So this is the point where I have to stop describing all of the so-called “causes” of homosexuality. Enough is enough. And I’ll save the examination of the social science literature for another day. There’s something much more important here that I need to get out of the way — and off my chest.
I said earlier that parents’ questions could be grouped into two themes: Why, and what do I do? I’ve described just a few of the lectures and breakout sessions which focused on the “why”, on what when wrong in the child’s life and what (and sometimes who) was to blame for that child’s homosexuality. The conference speakers were very clear: there is no biological basis for homosexuality whatsoever. Instead, they offered as a variable this uncontrollable built-in quality in the child called “temperament”, a “temperament” which helped to form the child’s “perceptions.”
This “temperament, when explained in more detail, sounded suspiciously like some sort of an in-born quality or trait that was somehow intrinsic to the child. And even though this can have a biological or an otherwise in-born basis, the conference speakers were clear in repeatedly conveying another absolute: there was no biological basis for homosexuality. (There was one exception. Mike Haley, during a Q&A breakout session attended by about a fifth of the participants, allowed that there may be a combination of biology in the form of “temperament” and developmental forces coming together. But he was otherwise dismissive of biology playing a role.)
So that pretty much left the fathers and mothers at the center of all of these discussions of “what went wrong.” While I heard some parents blame themselves, at least a few were able to “blame” their child’s “false perceptions” of them as a bad mother or a bad father.
But when Melissa Fryrear spoke so forcefully that she had never met a lesbian or a gay man who did not have some sort of experience with sexual abuse, that message would become a much-repeated refrain in conversations later that day.
It’s not fair to say that the parents and relatives were rife with suspicions, but I was surprised at the number of suspicions that did come up — and the circumstantial nature of the “evidence” which prompted many of them. I heard ex-boyfriends and babysitters suddenly come under suspicion where there had been none before. It seemed as if many of these relatives, taking Melissa Fryrear at her word, turned several possibilities over in their minds — dismissing some, but holding others for future consideration.
Sometimes, these suspicions got the better of them. Before that day, it had never even occurred to one mother that her son might have been molested. Now after Fryrear’s talk, she was momentarily certain of it. “There’s no other explanation!” she exclaimed. But as she thought about it, she remembered that she had no reason to suspect this, and that the only “evidence” she had was Fryrear’s statement. She was finally able to calm herself down after those around her reassured her that it probably didn’t happen.
Besides, she already had so many other reasons to think about for her son being gay. Yet I couldn’t help but feel that this mother’s burden was unnecessarily heavier now. Her long list of things she heard experts describe that “went wrong” in her son’s life — a list that she already blamed herself for as a mother — was now longer because of a hideous crime for which there is no reason to suspect to have happened in the first place.
Child sexual abuse, as we well know, is an all-too-tragic reality in our society. Those who have gone through it know the pain and terrible toll that it exacts on the child, especially in his or her ability to trust another human being. And every parent of a violated son or daughter goes through a period of tremendous guilt and shame over their “failure” to protect their little boy or girl. I cannot even begin to imagine the anguish that these parents must feel.
But I saw at least one parent at Love Won Out feel that same anguish for the first time. And afterwards, I felt as if I was carrying a lead weight around in the pit of my stomach for the rest of the day. I wondered what sort of conversations would be taking place the next time these parents talked to their sons and daughters (those who were on speaking terms, anyway, as most of them were.)
And I wondered whether these parents would even believe their children when they deny having been molested. After all, they had heard the “experts” describe gays and lesbians as having been universally abused. And according to these “experts”, this made them “cautious, fearful, easily hurt, easily slighted, easily offended, self-protective” and incapable of being honest with their feelings. This is a terrible setup for dialogue and familial reconciliation.
And I also wondered how many coaches, teachers, boy scout leaders, and neighbors fell under an unwarranted cloud of suspicion, all because Melissa Fryrear said she never met a lesbian or a gay man who had not been abused or threatened. There was tremendous cruelty in the “nevers” and the “always” that were thrown around with such ease at the conference. It’s a cruelty that these parents didn’t deserve. And what’s more, this cruelty is without merit. I will talk more about that in a later post.
Prologue: Why I Went To “Love Won Out”
Part 1: What’s Love Got To Do With It?
Part 2: Parents Struggle With “No Exceptions”
Part 3: A Whole New Dialect
Part 4: It Depends On How The Meaning of the Word “Change” Changes
Part 5: A Candid Explanation For “Change”