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From Buggery To Huggery: Richard Cohen Has A Plan For Your Family

Cohen's latest book offers advice for parents of gay children. But should parents buy what he's selling?

Jim Burroway

November 8, 2007

Gay Children, Straight Parents: A Plan for Family Healing, by Richard Cohen (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007

Richard Cohen is the executive director of the International Healing Foundation, an ex-gay counseling practice based in the Washington, D.C. area. He is also a self-described “psychotherapist, coach and educator” on sexual reorientation therapy. A self-identified “former homosexual” himself, Cohen has been active in the ex-gay community, serving as president of PFOX (Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays). He has also appeared in a number of anti-gay documentaries which proclaim that “change is possible.”

In 2000, Cohen wrote Coming Out Straight, where he outlined a program for “treating” homosexuality with the promise of making gay people straight. In Coming Out Straight, which featured a foreword by conservative radio talk show host Laura Schlessinger, Cohen explains his theories about the origins of homosexuality in great detail and describes his methods for treatment. As is typical for proponents of sexual reorientation therapy, a quick reading of that book revealed Cohen as being of the old homosexuality-as-a-disorder school — he refers to homosexuality as SSA, or “Same Sex Attraction,” an affliction he believes is caused primarily by an incomplete bond between the SSA-afflicted child and his or her same-sex parent, along with a few other experiential factors during childhood.

It’s important to understand this theory because it serves as the basis for the particular controversial therapies that he advocates for gays and lesbians. According to Cohen, the first stage of a child’s development occurs during the first eighteen months of life, the child should form a secure attachment with the mother. If this doesn’t happen, then it lays the groundwork for future attachment issues. The child becomes despondent, insecure and overly sensitive. According to Cohen, these characteristics describe virtually all future gays and lesbians.

During stage two (the so-called “terrible two’s”), the child is supposed to separate himself from his mother and established his individuality. Cohen says that this is why the word “no!” is so important for the child at this stage. “Good boys” however, may not make this leap — and since Cohen believes that “good boys” often turn out gay, this is a problem. Another problem comes in if the father is distant, which Cohen believes prevents the boy from identifying with his masculine father. That sets up what Cohen calls a “gender misidentification.”

For girls, the situation is a little different. Here, problems arise if the girl is a little too independent from her mother. Cohen believes that this interferes with the mother/daughter bond, which sets the girl down the path to lesbianism. So if “good boys” make for future gay men, it’s the “bad girls” who are more likely to become future lesbians.

While these theories are both unproven and untestable, they nevertheless lead directly to two very controversial types of treatment that Cohen advocates. The first one is what’s called “Bioenergetics,” which is based on the theory that memories and emotions are stored up in your muscles. To release those emotions, the client is asked to beat a pillow with a tennis racquet and scream “Mom! Mom! Mom!” (or whoever the client feels injured by). The second and more controversial technique involves “Holding” or “Touch” therapy. Here, the client is held closely by the same-gendered therapist while the therapist repeats affirming statements to the client. This is supposed to heal the missing father/son or mother/daughter bond that presumably wasn’t forged during childhood.

Cohen’s very public advocacy of “Touch” therapy — including televised demonstrations — has caused no end of embarrassment for the ex-gay movement. The first round of embarrassment occurred in May of 2006, when Cohen demonstrated his “Holding Therapy” before a national audience on CNN. That was shortly followed by an appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” where he tried to demonstrate his techniques on retired boxer George Foreman. Then in March 2007, Cohen demonstrated his “Holding Therapy” on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. That appearance proved to be the last straw for Exodus.

Cohen’s clinical practices soon proved to be too much for the American Counseling Association, which expelled him for life in 2003 for ethical violations. But that didn’t seem to diminish his standing in the ex-gay movement. (It may have enhanced his reputation in some quarters.) It wasn’t until he began appearing on television in 2006 with live demonstrations of his unconventional “Holding” therapy that he became something of an embarrassment to many ex-gay proponents.

Now it’s November of 2007, and Richard Cohen has embarked on a campaign to repair his image with the publication of his latest book, Gay Children, Straight Parents: A Plan for Family Healing, by the mainstream Christian publisher InterVarsity Press. While Coming Out Straight was mainly targeted to those who wanted to change their sexual orientation, this book is intended for parents who have just learned their child is gay. Unlike his previous effort, Gay Children, Straight Parents doesn’t offer a recipe for changing their child’s sexual orientation (although he promises the possibility throughout the book). Instead, Cohen offers a twelve-step program intended to help parents who have just learned that their child is gay and don’t know what to do.

Whether parents will find his advice helpful depends on their views on homosexuality. It’s will also depend on how well their B.S. detector is calibrated. Let’s explore each of Cohen’s twelve steps:

Step 1. Take Care of Yourself. This particular step starts off very strong, as Cohen offers the “five stages of grieving” from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ book, On Death and Dying (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance) as a blueprint for how parents should get through the initial shock. It’s good that he so highly recommends Kübler-Ross’ book, since many parents really do undergo something of a grieving process when they first learn that their child is gay. But that very short introductory piece of advice is quickly swamped by Cohen’s own non-scientific views about homosexuality, views which are largely based on several stereotypes. (“Most children who develop SSA are highly sensitive and easily hurt,” for example.)

Like many in the ex-gay movement, Cohen believes that homosexuality “relates to unhealed emotional wounds and needs for love that remained unmet” — needs which, according to Cohen, were unmet by parents themselves. Not a good point to remind parents of in a step which encourages them to “Take Care of Yourself.” Without any apparent sense of irony however, he quickly urges parents to “stop self-accusation,” a tightrope that he is consistently forced to walk throughout the book (and one that he frequently falls off of). While Cohen asks parents to refrain from blaming themselves, he nevertheless suggests that they write out a list of the things they feel guilty about and prepare for a process of forgiveness.

To help parents through this step, Cohen suggests that parents get involved with PFOX, JONAH and Exodus International. He also is careful to make a quick mention of some teleconferencing classes that he offers through his International Healing Foundation — at $450 for nine sessions, with more teleconferencing classes available at a similar cost after those are finished.

Step 2. Do Your Own Work. In a nutshell, this step is all about parents focusing on their own failings and taking steps to correct them. These failings can be problems in their relationships with their spouse or emotional problems within themselves. Generally, I’d have to say that the advice in this chapter can be somewhat helpful for those parents who actually need it. The problem is however that Cohen’s theories of what supposedly causes homosexuality naturally assumes a priori that this advice is required. Remember, if homosexuality is all about unmet needs in childhood, then it naturally follows that parents have some work to do in order to overcome whatever went wrong in the first place. And if parents really want to help their child “overcome SSA”, they will need to put their own house in order. “When [the child] see restored unity and affection between dad and mom, they will feel more secure and at peace,” Cohen concludes.

We’re only on step two, and already it’s easy to see two heavy burdens Cohen has placed on the shoulders of grieving parents. First, he reminds them again that he believes their child’s homosexuality is the result of their poor relationship with him or her and each other. And second, he contends that the situation won’t change unless these parents get their act together. This pressure can be an enormous strain on family relationships all around. Much later in the book, Cohen tells of one mother who was frustrated with her recalcitrant husband, exclaiming, “If he [their son] gets AIDS and dies, I will hold you partially responsible!” Their son, by the way, is still gay. No word on whether his parents’ marriage survived Cohen’s program.

Step 3. Experience God’s Love. Here, Cohen suggests some “more effective prayers” than just “Dear Lord, please take away my child’s SSA.” Those prayers include:

“God, please reveal to us the reasons our child experiences same-sex attractions.”

“God, why has this issue come into our family? For what greater purpose?”

“God, please give me the strength and love to make it through today.”

“God, please show me how I can help my child heal. Reveal to me ways I can best love him/her.”

I found it sad that many of these prayers treated homosexuality as a pestilence, a consequence of some waywardness or shortcoming on the part of the parents. These prayers suggest that God’s retribution on the parents’ shortcomings resulted in their child’s homosexuality. They also reinforce the parents’ burden of responsibility for the child’s “healing.” Cohen specifically singles out fathers under a special heading, “Father’s prayer of Blessing for Children,” saying, “The father’s patriarchal responsibility is to pass on God’s blessing to each of his children (both male and female).” He also recommends that parents draw other prayer partners into their efforts, utilizing the “See it, Say it, Sense it” formulation that is familiar to some of the more charismatic elements of Christianity.

Step 4. Investigate the Causes of SSA. Again, Cohen advises parents to undergo even more self-flagellation in order to learn why their child turned out gay:

It is important to understand why your child or loved one experiences SSA. You may ask yourself: “What did I do wrong?” “What did we do wrong?” “Who did this to our child?” Rarely is one thing alone responsible for SSA; it is the result of a combination of variables.

To guide parents in developing a checklist of failures, Cohen helpfully offers ten suggestions. Fortunately, not everything is the parent’s fault:

  1. Heredity. Not what you think. Here, he’s talking about “inherited wounds, unresolved family issues, misinterpretations, a predilection for rejection.”
  2. Temperament. “Hypersensitivity, high maintenance, artistic nature, gender nonconforming behaviors.” Here Cohen offers the parents a chance to relieve themselves of some of the blame and shift it to their child.
  3. Hetero-emotional wounds. Here Cohen talks about the child’s “enmeshment” with the opposite-sex parents, while being distant from the same-sex parent. This is one of the traditional Freudian “causes” of homosexuality that remains very popular in the ex-gay movement.
  4. Homo-emotional wounds. This refers to the presumably poor relationship the child experiences with the same-sex parent. Remember this one when we get to Step 8, because the remedy for this is particularly disturbing.
  5. Sibling wounds/family dynamics. Put-downs, abusive treatment, name calling. More of the “what did we do wrong” sort of factors.
  6. Body image wounds. Late bloomers, physical disability or illness, girls who are athletically gifted or boys who are athletically challenged, tall, short, thin, fat — in Cohen’s view, homosexuality is intrinsically linked to inadequacy of some sort. Find the thing that’s inadequate in your child, and you have an answer.
  7. Sexual abuse. This one’s a favorite among ex-gay proponents, the idea that gays “recruit” other into the “lifestyle” through sexual abuse. But unlike Focus On the Family’s Melissa Fryrear (she insists she has never met a lesbian or gay man who hasn’t been abused), Cohen isn’t quite so adamant: “Warning: please don’t assume that your child was sexually abused if she or he struggles with SSA.” At least here, Cohen shows far more responsibility than does Focus On the Family — a rare occurrence indeed. Don’t worry, it doesn’t last long…
  8. Homo-social wounds. Name-calling, rejection on the playground, mocking, that sort of thing. Now this one made me a bit angry. He’s perfectly willing to talk about name-calling and teasing, but he’s completely silent when it comes to bullying and physical violence. Given the very real physical dangers that children face — and especially given the ex-gay movement’s efforts at blocking anti-bullying measures in the schools — Cohen’s refusal to acknowledge this is especially callous and irresponsible. While nobody has ever offered any evidence that name-calling or violence can somehow make someone gay, it is nevertheless a galling sin of omission on his part to pretend there is no violence.
  9. Cultural wounds. Since Cohen believes it is “trendy to be ‘gay’ or ‘bi’,” he holds the media, schools, politicians and the Internet responsible for “enrolling young, impressionable and vulnerable children into a lifestyle that will ultimately betray them.” It’s another variation on the recruitment theme: if the gays don’t get you, television will. Cohen believes that our culture has turned “gay” into a false identity and he literally cries out, “There is no such thing as ‘gay’; there are only hurt children looking for love.” (Emphasis in the original.)
  10. Other factors. Because apparently it’s not easy to come up with a tidy ten-item list. Here, he throws in “Divorce, death of a parent, adoption, religion, race,” — Did he say race? By golly, he did! — “... rejection by opposite sex peers.” Yes, he even suggests that if a boy asks a girl out on a date and she declines, it might send him into a spiral “gender identity confusion.”

Again, Cohen offers his $450 teleconferencing class to help parents through this process.

Step 5. Utilize Effective Communication Skills. This is probably the most legitimately useful chapter in the entire book. At ten pages, it also ranks as among the shortest. Here, Cohen goes over the basics of effective communications (make eye contact, observe body language/tone/words, let silence have its place, see things from their point of view) and generally encourages parents to keep the lines of communications open with their child. This is precisely the kind of advice parents in this situation can find beneficial. (And by the way, so can their gay children even though they aren’t Cohen’s intended audience with this particular book.)

Step 6. Make Things Right Between You and Your SSA Child. Now that parents have taken an inventory of all the things that went wrong (see the long list in step 4), it’s time to express regret. And in case parents have forgotten what may have gone wrong, Cohen goes into much greater detail the two stages of a child’s development we talked about earlier, which focuses heavily on the failure of the same-gender parent to form an emotional bond with his or her child. To help heal this broken bond, Cohen encourages parents to make an “affirmation recording” for their child — a “tape or CD for your SSA child to help heal a sense of low self-worth.” Because according to Cohen, low self-esteem is a necessarily universal characteristic for all gays and lesbians.

Step 7. Discover Your Child’s Love Language. Here, Cohen repeats material from Gary Chapman’s book The Five Love Languages. I won’t go into it here, but Cohen describes the goal this way:

The term “love language” refers to the way we experience love as expressed by another person. Everyone has a primary and secondary love language. By investigating our children’s love language, we can better understand their character and ways to support their growth.

Unfortunately, Cohen returns to some of his theories of homosexuality which are likely to interfere with parents’ attempts to learn their child’s “love language”:

In males, SSA denotes a lack of masculine identity. No matter what their physical appearance may be, deep inside is an insecure little boy. This is where same-sex parents can make a huge difference. Dad, if possible go to the gym with your son and work out together. Mom, take your daughter clothes shopping. Spend a day at the salon or spa and affirm her beauty and femininity. SSA children need to internalize their same-sex parent’s love an acceptance.

Step 8. Same-Sex Parent, Display Appropriate Physical Affection. Here is where Cohen’s book turns positively creepy.

Remember the inventory that parents were urged to take in step 4, particularly the relationship between the child and the same-gendered parent. And remember also that Cohen delved more deeply into this theory again in Step 6, which holds that the child’s homosexuality is the direct result of the failure of the father to bond with his son or the mother with her daughter. And because of that:

Many men who experience SSA are literally starving for affection. So it is very important for fathers to initiate some form of physical touch and to say, “I love you.”

Cohen’s solution?

One way to make this change in your relationship with your son is to create new rituals. Hug him each time you greet him and hug him again before he leaves your home. Kiss him on he cheek and say, “I love you, [use his first name or whatever nickname he prefers].” Hold him in your arms. There are photos on page 207-8 of Coming Out Straight that shows a man holding a son and a woman holding a daughter. Even though it may seem out of the question or ridiculous to hold your grown-up son, it may be just what he needs.

Yes, that’s right. Cohen recommends that fathers hold their grown sons like this, from page 207 of Coming Out Straight:

And mothers should hold their daughters like this, from page 208:

It seems strange to me that Cohen is so shy about reprinting these photos from Gay Children, Straight Parents. This technique is certainly controversial, and maybe he has become aware of its creep-factor. But if Cohen is reluctant to plant this image in his reader’s mind this time, he’s nevertheless an enthusiastic supporter of this technique:

Although my son doesn’t suffer with SSA, he and I are healing our relationship. At one Father-Son Healing Seminar we sponsor yearly, he told me that all he wanted as a boy was for me to hold him in my arms. I asked him, “Would you like me to do that now?” He said, “Yes.” During the seminar, as I embraced him, I was very aware of the peaceful feeling that came over him. We continue to be affectionate with one another.

Step 9. Opposite-Sex Parent, Take Two Steps Back. Here, Cohen encourages mothers to step back from their sons a bit and push their husbands to become more involved with their sons. (He also encourages the opposite roles for fathers and mothers in the case of lesbian daughters). Meanwhile, he repeats his advice to mothers to “affirm your child’s gender identity.”

Those five simple words, “affirm your child’s gender identity,” gets the to heart of what is incredibly wrong with Cohen’s understanding of homosexuality. Gay men and women are rarely “confused” about their gender identity. Despite the images of campy men and butch lesbians, homosexuality doesn’t happen because a man thinks he’s a woman or wants to be a woman. Gay men, by and large, are content to be men, identify themselves as men, and are, well, men. Even effeminate men are pretty sure they’re men. And the same is true for women. It’s therapists like Cohen who are confused about what they’re witnessing. And as long as they remain confused about this essential point, they are likely to remain ineffective and marginal in their efforts to “change” anyone’s sexual orientation beyond the superficialities of role-playing within the narrowly prescribed gender roles Cohen talks about throughout his book.

Step 10. Create a Welcoming Environment in Your Home, Place of Worship and Community. Cohen encourages parents to try to find a way for their gay sons and daughters to feel welcome. This step is rather thin, offering very little tangible advice except to talk to others about their sons and daughter’s “struggles.” On the face of it, it would seem that this step would be beneficial for parents and their children, but the advice offered is so suffused with Cohen’s jaundiced views on homosexuality that it’s not likely to provide much tangible benefit. Which is a shame, since welcoming environments are so critically important.

Step 11. Boyfriends, Girlfriends, Ceremonies, and Sleepovers This short, four-page chapter is generally pretty good. But it is very short. (Recognize a pattern here? The shorter the chapter, the more helpful it may actually be.) Cohen encourages parents to welcome the boyfriends or girlfriends and develop a relationship with them. He’s by and large neutral on many of the issues parents face in dealing with the day-to-day realities of their child’s homosexuality. For example, he supports parents who decide to attend their son or daughter’s commitment ceremony, and he voices alternate support for those who feel they can’t attend for religious reasons. And on the question of whether to allow the same-sex partners of gay sons or daughters to share sleeping quarters in the parent’s home, his only advice is to be consistent with the rules governing unmarried opposite-sex partners of sons and daughters.

Step 12. Find Mentors and Mentor Others. Cohen suggests that the parents alone may not be able to “restore the parent-child relationship.” This is especially true where single parents are involved, or where one parent is unwilling to get with the program. This is where finding others to serve as mentors come in:

Three areas will need to be addressed in the process of mentoring:

1. Break down the walls of detachment. The mentor will need to be persistent and win the adult child’s heart.

2. Develop healthy patterns in same-sex relationships, learning to be a woman among women or a man among men.

3. Experience healthy touch. Again, many with SSA are touch-deprived

Again with the touching.

When a gay child comes out to his or her parents, it is typically an extremely emotional time for both the child and the parent. Good resources can provide an enormous help in times like this. And fortunately there are a lot of good books out there. Betty Fairchild and Nancy Hayward’s Now That You Know is one such resource. Another good book would be Carolyn Griffin and Marian Wirth’s Beyond Acceptance: Parents of Lesbians & Gays Talk About Their Experiences, which includes many stories from parents themselves. These and others can be a great help to parents who are struggling to come to terms with their children's sexuality.

Cohen’s Gay Children, Straight Parents on the other hand represents a major step backwards. Not only are his theories on homosexuality far outside the mainstream of the most current social science research, but his proposed methods for dealing with it are downright laughable — literally. Parents should certainly hug their children, but I think the usual, straightforward, conventional hugs are quite sufficient. I think most parents know what I’m talking about. They don’t need Cohen’s book to show them the way.

And if they do feel they need Cohen’s book, then they have far more problems than Cohen is prepared to address.