Saturday, May 3, 2014

Man Up

I wrote a little bit yesterday about the problem of Christian media surrounding homosexuality tending to support the psychological theories which suggest that parents are responsible for making their kids gay. I've since learned that the producers of the The Third Way actually weren't going out of their way to present that narrative – it's much more that they found it hard to find people who were willing to be interviewed for the project, and most of the people who were willing were either reparative therapists, or were folks for whom the standard narrative fit. Fair enough. People who honestly had bad experiences with their families of origin should have the right to tell those stories, and if they're the only ones who stand up, they're the only ones who stand up.
That said, there are two strong reasons why I don't think we can exculpate Christian culture for its role in perpetuating these stereotypes.

The first has to do with the role of Christian culture in promoting gender stereotypes, and in particular for its role in sustaining effemeniphobia: a generalized revulsion towards “feminine” behaviours in men. The standard psychological explanation for homosexuality put forward by reparative therapists is that male homosexuality is explained largely through the lens of a “distant father” and a “smothering” or “overinvolved” mother. Lesbianism, on the other hand, proves a much slipperier fish. Causes of lesbianism could be anything from an overbearing angry or violent father who wounds his daughter's ability to trust men, to a weak and underinvolved father who fails to help his daughter respect masculinity, to a father who is too involved in his daughter's life and therefore role-models masculine behaviours. Or, it could be a mother who is distant. Or a mother who is too involved and shelters her daughter from masculine influences. Or a mother who is insufficiently feminine and doesn't teach her daughter how to wear lipstick and shop for bras. Or... Basically, if you combine all of the theories, the upshot is that having human parents may cause lesbianism.

So why a relatively streamlined narrative for men, but for women, a plethora of narratives so vague and varied that it has absolutely no explanatory power whatsoever?

One likely explanation is that reparative therapy makes the assumption that correlation = causation.

Reparative therapists see many gay men who have poor relationships with their fathers, and because they observe this pattern they assume that this poor relationship is the cause of homosexuality. This is problematic. Even if we assume that the clinicians are seeing a pattern that can be generalized to non-clinical populations, we still have to ask: is it more reasonable to assume that distant fathers cause their sons to be gay, or that fathers are more likely to distance themselves from gay sons? Given that a) there is a significant population of gay men who have perfectly normal relationships with their fathers, and that b) there is an absolutely huge population of straight men who have terrible relationships with their fathers, there's definitely good grounds for asking the question.

There are also pretty solid grounds for answering it in favour of fathers distancing themselves from sons who are perceived to be “effeminate” or “queer” -- especially if we take into account the fact that reparative therapists are working primarily with a population of gay men who are unhappy about their sexuality. Here, a pretty straightforward narrative emerges: a man who is homophobic and/or committed to a restrictive ideal of masculinity has a son who displays signs in early childhood of being gay. The father either rejects the son, or tries to force him to comply with gender stereotypes in the hopes that this will “fix” the problem. This causes a rift between the father and the son, and causes the son to feel insecure about his sexuality and his masculinity. He senses that his father rejected him for being gay and consequently feels a lot of shame and depression, possibly including a sense that he has not only been rejected by his earthly father but also by God.

This narrative is concordant with both points A and B above. It makes sense of the fact that an experience of paternal rejection seems to be much more common among men who seek orientation change, men who join spiritual support groups, and men who are highly resistant to seeing themselves as gay vs. average gay men. It explains why the “distant father” motif seems to be much more common among older gay men whose fathers grew up in a world where it would have been shameful for their son to be a “sissy” or a “fag,” than it is among gay men of my generation, whose fathers are more likely to feel an obligation to be supportive. And it also explains why we don't see a similar pattern among women, who have generally been subjected to far less severe homophobia, and who are often allowed a greater expression of gender-diversity than their male counterparts.


  1. This is genius.


  2. Wouldn't these criticisms be true of virtually all psychological theories of causation? They all rely upon the memories of individuals. They all rely upon the clinician or researcher making connections between what the individual says, what other individuals in like situations say, and what we know about human nature. Is it so unlikely that similar conditions would have similar causes or at least similar clusters of causes? Are we all so very unique? And yes we are also different. Thus it is not so very strange that some people who have an experience (absent neglectful father) respond differently from others who have the same experience. Some women who are raped can never stand to be touched by a male again; others enter into very happy marriages. It is not difficult to poke holes in theories especially those regarding human behavior: it may be difficult to make all the distinctions necessary to fully explain causation. Still, I think it unwise to reject explanations and patterns that seem to satisfy to some significant extent those who have lived through the realities.


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