Fathers, sons and homosexuality
The causes of homosexuality continue to both fascinate and divide people. Recently, in London, a conservative group of Anglicans, called the Anglican Mainstream hosted a conference to discuss the causes of homosexuality and promote change from gay to straight. Featured at the conference was American psychologist, Joseph Nicolosi. Dr. Nicolosi stirred much controversy when he said, without research support, that most of his clients show some degree of change in their sexual orientation.
Nicolosi's views regarding causes of homosexuality are also controversial. In response to a question about the existence of a gay gene, Nicolosi said:
In other words, that fact remains that if you traumatize a child in a particular way you will create a homosexual condition. If you do not traumatize a child, he will be heterosexual. If you do not traumatize a child in a particular way, he will be heterosexual. The nature of that trauma is an early attachment break during the bonding phase with the father.
In a popular book written with his wife, A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexuality, Nicolosi pegs the "crucial period" for bonding between father and son at "between one and a half to three years." Elsewhere, Nicolosi argues that fathers of homosexual sons are unavailable, detached and/or hostile. To fathers in London, he advised, "If you don't hug your sons, some other man will," suggesting that male homosexual attraction is a search for a father's love.
The father-deficit theory is considered outdated by mainstream sexuality researchers, but is popular among conservative Christians. This evangelical acceptance has always puzzled me because Nicolosi's statements regarding the origins of homosexuality can be discounted not only by research but by common experience. His theory is contradicted in at least two ways. The first way should be quite obvious to Nicolosi's audiences: there are many men who experienced poor fathering not only during the first six years of life but throughout childhood and are nonetheless, exclusively heterosexual.
Since many in Nicolosi's audiences are either unhappy with their homosexual attractions or do not know many secure gay people, the second problem might not be so clear. In contrast to Nicolosi's depictions of the typical family of gay males, many such men experienced loving, close relationships with their fathers throughout childhood with no break in attachment. Listen to one such father who spoke to me recently about his gay son.
When my son was 18 months to 3 years old (and on into childhood), we enjoyed a wonderfully close relationship. We explored the world behind the YMCA and called it travelling, looking for creatures in nooks and crannies. When it would snow, we bundled up and follow the same path. We hunted for snakes together in the creek, built a swamp world for various amphibians and generally loved each others' company. Wherever I was, there was my son; as my wife would say, we were like "Peel and Stick."
As he got older our relationship changed, but in a way that it should change. It matured into a friendship as father and son. After our son came out to us, our relationship did not change.
Does this sound like an uninvolved, detached father? This man's son concurs with his dad's assessment of the relationship. They were and are close, with no breaks during the period Nicolosi theorizes should cause homosexuality.
Devout Christians, the family attended conferences put on by conservative Christians who believed parental deficits were responsible for homosexuality. The answers they heard were very much like what Dr. Nicolosi promotes. These parents also took their son to a reparative therapist (i.e., counselor who holds to Nicolosi's theory) who evaluated the potential for sexual orientation change. The father reported that it wasn't helpful.
Not understanding the nature of his condition, we did take our son to a counselor. After several weeks of "therapy," our counselor told our son that he didn't know what to do. None of the stereotypes fit. Our son told his counselor that he had a wonderful and close relationship with his father and mom.
Although the parents maintain the traditional Christian, non-affirming view of homosexual behavior, parents and son have maintained their relationship. What they all do much less often now is become preoccupied over causes and self-blame. The father sees a bigger picture.
Dr. Nicolosi gets it wrong to reduce the thorns in our sides/lives to a human event where we have but one chance to get it right. Does that sound like the relationship we have with our heavenly Father? God has allowed all of us to experience thorns, some painfully obvious, others less so. No doubt the thorns God allows are refining our character and leading us back to Him.
In fact, sexual orientation is quite complex. Most likely, multiple pre-and post-natal factors are involved in different ways for different people. One size does not fit all. What this means for Christian groups, however, is the stuff of controversy. For some, it means that homosexuality should be affirmed and Scripture reframed. For others, it does not lead to a change of orthodoxy, but rather to greater humility regarding the need for spiritual support to live a different and often difficult calling. What is not needed is adoption of simple, but misleading, answers.
Warren Throckmorton, PhD is Associate Professor of Psychology and Fellow for Psychology and Public Policy at Grove City College (PA). He can be contacted through his blog at www.wthrockmorton.com.