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Dale's Web Pages

Childhood experiences of homosexual men

by Dale O'Leary; for NARTH


Childhood experiences recalled

In 1962 members Society of Medical Psychoanalysts lead by Irving Bieber published the results of a comprehensive study of 106 male homosexuals and 100 heterosexuals controls, both groups drawn from the patients in psychoanalysis clinics. This was not a one shot questionnaire, but one of the most in depth and authoritative studies of its kind ever done. The study involved over seventy therapists, 10 years of work, multiple evaluations and follows-ups. The questionnaires were filled out by the analysts with information gained in hours of patient sessions. The report provided numerous case histories and sought in every case to answer the question: Why did this man become homosexual? The report also included a careful analysis of why some men in the control group with apparently similar backgrounds did not become homosexual. Since 27% of the homosexual men had in the course of analysis become heterosexual, the differences between the 27% and those who did not become heterosexual were also analyzed.

Bieber, et al., found a pattern of detached and/or hostile-detached fathers. They concluded that: "Profound interpersonal disturbance is unremitting in the homosexual father-son relationship. Not one of the fathers (of homosexual sons)... could be regarded as reasonably 'normal' parents'."(Bieber 1962, p.114)

For example, in one case a patient reported that he always felt uneasy with his father who was like a boarder in the house. The father not only did not touch his son, but did not permit the son to touch his possessions. The son was not even permitted to wear his father's discarded ties. The patient had a vivid memory how at age three and a half he was given a new tricycle, but was not tall enough to reach the pedals:

I got on to ride it, but I started to roll down the hill. My father was standing there--tall, still, dressed very correctly. He watched but did nothing to try to stop me. I was terrified. I went racing down the hill and fell off. My father just continued to stand there." (Bieber 1962, p.94)

Bieber found that the fathers of the homosexual patients were not just lazy or too-busy; these detached fathers exhibited severe male-rivalry problems which they took out on their sons. Not one of these detached fathers favored the patient over his brothers or sisters. Some of the relationships were totally barren, but in a larger number of cases the fathers actively rejected, minimized or otherwise crushed their sons' masculinity. These boys not only feared their fathers, they hated them for abandoning them to their mothers smothering influences.

Bieber found 13 cases where the fathers were not detached. In 6 of these the fathers spent time with the son, but also showed contempt for him or humiliated him. In 4 cases the fathers were hostile, and in 3 cases overprotective. In addition, none of these 13 had a normal relationship with their mothers. In not one case was the not-detached father also classified as warmly related. However even a negative father influence may make of difference since 7 of these 13 became heterosexual during therapy.

In one case reported by Bieber, the father was mildly affectionate, however:

. . .when the mother sent the boy to a girls' private day school the father did nothing to protect the patient against this decision. The boy had no male playmates. When the patient was about five years old, his father gave him a glove and a bat. The equipment was of excellent quality and had probably been chosen with care. When the gift was handed to the child, the father said, "Now you can play baseball." But he knew no other boys with whom he could play. (Bieber 1962, p. 101)

Given the careful analysis of each case, Bieber's oft quoted conclusion appears justified:

We have come to the conclusion that a constructive, supportive, warmly related father precludes the possibility of a homosexual son; he acts as a neutralizing protective agent should the mother make seductive or close-binding attempts." (Bieber 1962, p.311)

The men in Bieber's study had sought help because they were dissatisfied with their lives or unable to function. They were able to afford the cost of analysis. The select nature of the sample allowed critics to challenge the conclusions on the grounds that these findings could not be applied to all homosexuals.

However, a number of studies have confirmed the findings of Bieber. Bene (1965) found that male homosexuals were hostile toward their fathers and saw their fathers as weak. Chang and Block (1960) concluded that homosexual males were more likely than the controls to "disidentify with their fathers."

In part to test the Bieber conclusions, Apperson and McAdoo compared 23 non-patient homosexuals and 22 members of the US army. Their conclusion:

The results of this study strongly support the theoretical formations of Bieber et al., in considering homosexuality as primarily related to specific experiential factors. The importance of the relationship -- or lack of it --with the father is again emphasized with the homosexual S[ubject]s showing marked difference from the controls in perceiving the father more as critical, impatient, and rejecting, and less as the socializing agent. (Apperson, 1968)

Snortum, et al., conducted tests on 46 males being evaluated for separation from the military because of homosexual incidents and 89 controls. Their conclusion: "It appears that the family dynamics for homosexual patients described by Bieber, et al. were confirmed in toto." (Snortum, 1969)

Thompson, et al.,(1973) queried 127 white homosexual males and 123 matched heterosexual controls and found that the homosexuals were more likely to report that they spent very little time with their fathers. The authors concluded that weak and/or hostile fathers played a prominent role in the etiology of homosexuality.

A study by Stephan, et al., compared 88 activist male homosexuals with 105 male heterosexuals and found that: "On no variable did the homosexuals evaluate their fathers favorably." Stephan concluded:

The majority of the homosexuals did not appear to have positive male models to identify with as children, and as a consequences they may have identified with females. This process was probably facilitated by the fact that normative masculine role behavior was not encouraged strongly by either parent. (Stephan, 1973)

In a 1979 article Irving and Toby Bieber reported that in their evaluations of over 1,000 male homosexuals, they did not find one "whose father openly loved and respected him." (Bieber, 1979)

Other studies reported similar findings. Sherman (1985) found that homosexual sons "perceived their relationship with their fathers as distant, negative, and conflicted." Saghir and Robins conducted extensive interviews with 86 homosexual men and 35 single heterosexual controls, the results of which they published in a book length report Male and Female Homosexuality: A Comprehensive Investigation (1973).Men with a history of psychiatric problems or incarceration were eliminated from the sample. According to their report:

In over one-half of the homosexuals the parental home during their childhood is marked by intense discord and fighting. The role of the father at home seems to be conspicuous by its absence. In a surprising 84% of the homosexuals, the father is described as indifferent and uninvolved at home, particularly with the homosexual son, and in a similar proportion the homosexuals describe their childhood relationship with their fathers as unsatisfactory. (Saghir, p.152)

Only 13% of the homosexuals (vs 66% of the controls) reported identifying with their fathers in childhood and only 18% of the homosexual men felt that their overall relationship with their fathers in childhood was a satisfactory one in contrast to 82% of the heterosexuals. (Saghir, pp.144, 145) The personal comments by the homosexual respondents confirmed the negative father/son relationship:

There was no closeness between us... I don't remember any moves toward friendship.

He used to pick at me all the time. I did not meet up to the standards of the kids. He called me sissy, and girls' names. He would give my brother money but not me. He just ignored me.

My stepfather was very cruel... I despised him is mild thing to say and resented the fact that he married my mother. (Saghir, pp.146, 147)

Bell, Weinberg, and Hammersmith of the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research surveyed homosexual men and women and heterosexual controls. In their book Sexual Preferences: Its Development in Men and Women, they reported that homosexual men had "less favorable childhood and adolescent relationships" with their fathers," but did not see this factor alone as predicting a homosexual outcome. (Bell 1981, p.62)

Sipova and Brzek compared 27 transsexual men, 100 effeminate homosexual men and 70 noneffeminate men with 41 heterosexual controls. They found that "fathers of homosexuals and transsexuals were more hostile and less dominant than the fathers of the control group and hence less desirable identification models" and that "the average father of the effeminate homosexual is reported to be harsh and selfish." The study concluded that:

a boy who strongly identifies with a father and especially a father who has marked male characteristics, does not suffer from anxiety. Our control group has reported kind, caring and at the same time vigorous fathers endowed with authority. They appear to represent desirable identification models for their sons also in relation to women. It was found that our control group of heterosexual men strongly identified with their fathers... the development of selfesteem in boys is directly dependent on the degree to which the father was committed to their rearing and the strength of the emotional bond with him. The homosexuals and transsexuals in our study manifested selfesteem disorders. (Sipova, 1983)

Fisher and Greenberg reviewed 22 studies on the relationship between male homosexuals and their parents. They concluded:

With only a few exceptions, the male homosexual declares that father has been a negative influence in his life. He refers to him with such adjectives as cold, unfriendly, punishing, brutal, distant, detached. There is no a single even moderately well controlled study that we have been able to locate in which male homosexuals refer to father positively or affectionately. On the contrary, the consistently regard him as an antagonist. (Fisher, p.136)

Friedman who also reviewed the literature pointed out that while in Bieber's study 87% of the homosexual men reported an absent father or spending little or no time with their fathers, so did 60% of the heterosexuals.(Friedman, 1988) This suggests that, while it is highly unlikely that a boy will become homosexual if his father lovingly supports his son's masculine development, the lack of a positive father/son relationship does not of itself predestine a boy to become homosexual as an adult.

Therapists who work with boys with Gender Identity Disorder and are therefore able to observe the father/son relationship first hand rather than through the memories of the son report similar problems. Kenneth Zucker, who heads the Child and Adolescent Gender Identity Clinic in Ontario, Canada and his colleague Dr. Susan Bradley, authors of Gender Identity Disorder and Psychosexual Problems in Children and Adolescents, have observed that the fathers of GID boys are often plagued by feelings of inadequacy, and tend to withdraw from a needy son rather. (Zucker 1995, p.263)

Green found that 17 of the 38 boys in his study of feminine boys experienced an absence of their biological father for at least three consecutive months. (Green 1974, p.231)

Dr. Lawrence Newman, who has successfully treated effeminate boys, found that: "The fathers generally resent and avoid their feminine sons." (Newman, 1976)

Stoller found that when GID boys were referred to treatment, "the fathers usually failed to come in for evaluation interviews" and not one of the fathers was able to cooperate in the treatment.(Stoller, 1979, p.844) Wolfe (1990) reported high levels of substance abuse and depression on a structured clinic interview of 12 fathers of boys with GID.  


Therapists who are themselves homosexual also report father/son difficulties among their clients. Dr. Richard Isay, author of Being Homosexual: Gay Men and their Development, reports that "The majority of gay men, unlike heterosexual men who come for treatment, report that their fathers were distant during their childhood and that they lacked any attachment to them." According to Isay, some of his patients report that their fathers were too busy, while others complain that their fathers were victimized by their mother "who was always the boss in the family." Others reported abusive, unapproachable fathers.(Isay, p.32) Isay offers a different interpretation of father/son problem:

On the basis of my clinical work, I have come to believe that at ages three, four, five, and six some homosexual children assume opposite gender characteristics in order to attract and sustain the attention of the father. These are usually such attributes as sensitivity, gentleness, and a lack of interest in aggressive sports. Some homosexual children may also seem noticeably feminine in manner, dress, and behavior. These identifications in homosexual children appear to follow the manifestation of sexual orientation and the erotic attachment to the father and not to preceded them. (Isay, p.19)

Isay characterizes love as "a longing for a lost attachment" which in homosexual men takes the form of "a longing for the father." According to Isay, the unsatisfactory relationship between homosexual men and their fathers effects the homosexual man's adult relationships:

A gay man whose father rejected him, whether out of anxiety or because of his son's atypically, may find that his relations with other men are disturbed. He may be inhibited by a fear of rejection and by rage at the partner, who, he believes, will inevitably injure him emotionally. (Isay, p.22)

While the unsatisfactory relationships between homosexual men and their fathers are documented by every study, Isay criticizes analysts who accept their clients' perceptions of their fathers as true. He blames the detachment or hostility during the son's early years on the son's preexistent homosexuality.(Isay, p.34).

Moberly's described the disruption in the father/son relationship as a "defensive detachment" on the part of the son. Dr. Charles Silverstein, a homosexual therapist and advocate of homosexual promiscuity and nonexploitive intergenerational sexuality, holds that it is the sons who reject their fathers:

Another misconception is that fathers invariably reject their gay sons. In fact, it is often the gay son who has rejected the father. (Silverstein, p.24)

Silverstein imagines a scenario in which the boy's interests and behavior conflict with the father's image of masculinity:

Ultimately, the father feels rejected, believing that his son has abandoned him and turned to others (other to the mother) for support and training; he begins to fear the son and to fell alienated from him, then guilty for resenting his own child. What is revealing here is that the feelings of both father and son are identical; each feels the other as hostile, distant and unloving. (Silverstein, p.25)

Silverstein recognizes the impact such alienation causes, "What boys do want, however, is love; and they want approval and respect from their parents." Using terms which are very similar to Moberly's analysis of the reparative drive, Silverstein describes the forces which drive some homosexual relationships:

the boy wants to replace the poor relations between him and his father with another, more fully developed relationship, it is an indication of hope, and the goal is to make the boy feel more complete as a person. (Silverstein, p.27)

Silverstein also gives numerous examples of how the childhood father deficit negatively effects adult homosexual male relationships.

In 1978 homosexual activist Larry Kramer in the novel Faggots wrote about the excesses of homosexual life style in New York and Fire Island. While many homosexuals criticized Kramer for his unflattering view of homosexual behavior, most admitted that his novel accurately mirrored the activities and emotions of homosexual men in the years before the AIDS epidemic swept over their community. Kramer's description of the feelings of Fred Lemish, the novel's protagonist, about his father Lester, echo the material discovered in clinical studies. The father idolized the elder son, who played ball and rejected the younger, as his son recalls:

Yes, Lester Lemish, your totally poor record in Fatherhood included an inability to kiss and hug, keep bargains and promises, call and say Hello, inquire after studies and wellbeing, offer love, do anything but pull the Disappearing Act, with its constant curtain line. You Are Unwanted" I reject You Through and Through!, delivered unto Fred, and truly bringing the down the house....

So, Lester Lemish, ye who hated your son and whom your son hated right back, ye whom he blamed for making him go out and **** **** to find one of his own.

-- yes, Lester Lemish, Fred thinks IT WAS YOU who drove him thusly, thus wishing your ending in hell, not for making him a **** ******, because Fred has come, finally, to quite like that, but for thinking him a coward when in fact it was you who did not give him the image of a Man who could kiss and love and hold someone close, someone to look up to and emulate and be. (Kramer 1978, pp.48, 49)

Near the end of the novel there is a confrontation between a homosexual adult and his father at a wild homosexual party on Fire Island. The son screams at his father: "Hey, Pop! You never really loved me at all!" and the father replies, "Yes, I love you, yes I love, but it is now too late." Kramer records the impression the father's words make on the party goers:

But who has hear him say these famous words? The pop has said I love you to the son. The scene and dream of every son who's backed away beneath these sheltering trees. He's said he loves me. He's said he loves me. The sheltering veil now shelters. God has forbidden a fantasy might come true!. (Kramer 1978, p.289)

It should be noted, after the AIDS epidemic began Kramer wrote Report from the Holocaust, in which he rejected the idea the that "homosexuality is 'caused' by an over possessive mother and a rejecting or absent father." (Kramer 1981, p. 244) In this book Kramer's directs his considerable anger towards society, for failing devote sufficient resources to finding a cure of AIDS. 


According to Isay: "Important to and ubiquitous in the love life of adult gay men is the persistence of an early erotic attachment to the father and a need to defend against these feelings." (Isay, p.34) Silverstein reports that sexual fantasies about or desires for their fathers are common childhood experiences among homosexual men:

For a significant number of gay men, the father (whether real or phantom) is a potential sex object and perhaps their first fantasy lover. It is remarkable how rarely this has been stated either in psychological or gay liberation literature. Yet many gay men clearly remember their interest in the father's body and know that it was motivated by more than curiosity. Many wanted to touch their father's body; they wanted to suck their father's penis and have their father suck theirs. As boys they imagined having sexual intercourse with their fathers. Some tried it, much to dad's chagrin. But since fathers rarely allow themselves to be seduced by their sons, the fantasy survives into adulthood and contributes to the image of the phantom father. (Silverstein, p.26 - 27)

Silverstein reports on a number of homosexual men remember being sexually attracted to their fathers or trying to seduce their fathers. He also reports two cases of father/son incest. One patient reported that he and his father engaged in mutual masturbation "a couple hundred times." The boy remembers the experience as "very confusing" because "it was the only positive interaction we ever had." (Silverstein, p.48)

Silverstein considers the possibility that "sexual fantasies themselves are only a cover-up for the wish to be loved and cared for." (Silverstein, p.316) However, he then goes on to suggest that in some cases it might be "helpful" to act out such fantasies:

My impression is that if the sexual exploration were acted out with the father in a teaching role (if limited in time and free from possessiveness), it could be helpful to both father and son. (Silverstein, p.316)

In most cases the adults are shocked by the boys' sexual suggestions. According to Green, the stepfather of a 10-year-old boy gave the following report of the boy's behavior:

He's told me about occasions when he sees boys undressing and he'll just go ape about it. He'd come in and say, "Wow, they've got groovy bodies," and what he'd like to do ... Go out and play with the guy and have the guy play with him, and just lay down and be close to each other. To hear a ten-year-old boy say this! You want to take it as he's just joking, but you can't with him. . . He's even asked me to do it to him. He comes straight out and says, "Would you go to bed with me? (Green 1974, p.163)

The unmet need for father love effects adult relationships. One of Silverstein's clients reported:

I wanted a father image somebody older than myself, middle aged. Somebody that would have very strong feelings for me and make me feel like a child, pick me up and hold me. Let me sit in this lap, tell me everything is all right. (Silverstein, p. 83)


A number of researchers have looked into the possibility that absence of the father was a determining factor in the development of GID. The following chart summarizes the studies which considered this question (Zucker 1995, p.244 )

Father absence in samples of boys with gender identity disorder

Study and Date n Father Absent
Bates et al (1974) 29 37.9%
Green (1976) 58 24.1%
Zuger (1984) 52 23.1%
Coates (1985) 25 84.0%
Meyer & Dupkin (1985) 10 50.0%
Davenport (1986) 10 20.0%
Rekers & Swihart (1989) 49 55.1%
Wolfe (1990) 12 25.0%
Zucker & Bradley (1995) 167 30.5%

Green reported that in his study "About 20 percent of the boys were abandoned by their fathers before their fourth birthday and had no substitute father." At the same time Green expresses concern about the effect on boys of fathers who are physically present but psychologically absent.(Green 1974, p.222)

Bieber also addressed the question of fatherless boys:

A fatherless child is deprived of the important paternal contribution to normal development; however, only a few homosexual in our sample had been fatherless children. Relative absence of the father, necessitated by occupational demands or unusual exigencies, is not in itself pathogenic.(Bieber 1962, p.310)

In looking at parental influences, it is important to remember that timing may be a crucial element. According to Daniel Brown:

It is quite conceivable that there is a crucial period in the early years of a child for establishing the basic capacity for heterosexual adjustment. In this connection, evidence indicates that sex role differentiation and identity occur in most children between the ages of one and one-half and three, and that heterosexual stimulation and responsiveness develop between the third and sixth year of life. (Brown, 1963)

If the father were absent after the boy had developed a confident masculine identity, the effect of his absence on gender identity might be minimal (although father absence could have negative effects in other areas).


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Original Text from Dale's Disk — child2.rtf - April, 1999
Formatted to HTML 2000 10 23 — WHS