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Childhood experiences of homosexual men

by Dale O'Leary; for NARTH


Bieber's study of homosexual male patients found that in many cases the detached, hostile father was matched by a mother who was "close-binding and intimate with her son." About 70% of the mothers of Bieber's patients met this criteria. The analysts also reported their patients' mothers were more restrictive of active play, over-anxious concerning health, more afraid of injury, and more overprotective than the controls' mothers.

The case histories presented by Bieber reveal psychologically destructive mother/son relationships. In one case the mother kept her son in bed most of the time between age four and seven because of a minor intestinal condition. Her daily ritual was to rub her son's back, pat and kiss his buttocks. The boy became terrified when he reacted to this inappropriate behavior by becoming visibly sexually aroused. In addition the patient reported that his mother sabotaged his relationships with his father and his peers: "It was as if she demanded that I give her all my attention. She criticized my friends and did it so nicely that it hurt more." (Bieber 1962, p.59)

According to Bieber:

By the time the H[omosexual]-son has reached the preadolescent period, he has suffered a diffuse personality disorder. Maternal over-anxiety about health and injury, restriction of activities normative for the son's age and potential, interference with assertive behavior, demasculinizing attitudes, and interference with sexuality -- interpenetrating with paternal rejection, hostility, and lack of support -- produce an excessively fearful child, pathologically dependent upon his mother and beset by feelings of inadequacy, impotence, and self-contempt. He is reluctant to participate in boyhood activities thought to be physically injurious -- usually grossly overestimated. His peer group responds with humiliating name-calling and often with physical attack which timidity tends to invite among children... Thus he is deprived of important empathic interaction which peer groups provide. (Bieber 1962, p.316)

Not all the homosexuals patients in the Bieber's study had mothers who were "close-binding and overly intimate." In eight cases the mothers, while covertly seductive, were openly hostile, contemptuous, critical, and belittling. According to Bieber, these men's homosexuality appeared less entrenched; six of the eight were bisexual in behavior and five became heterosexual after treatment. In seven other cases, the patients' mothers, while appearing affectionate, were basically cold toward their sons. In addition, the mother's seductiveness effected the boy's sexual behavior, in a number of cases producing "precocious and sometimes compulsive sexuality--masturbation and sex play with other children."

Bieber found that the mothers of their homosexual patients were women who did not get along with other women and did not favor their daughters (if there were girls in the family). The mother of a homosexual often singled out one of her sons, preferring this son to his brothers and even to her husband. She habitually appeared nude or partially clad in front of the son. She allowed him to share her bed, sometimes banishing the father. This kind of attention created a child who was fearful, dependent, and isolated from his age-mates.

Bieber also sought to understand why nine of the 32 controls who had backgrounds and childhood experiences which were similar to those of homosexual patients did not become homosexual. Investigation revealed that seven of the nine suffered homosexual fantasies and impulses, but had not engaged in homosexual behaviors. What appeared to make the difference was that in each case, the boy had been exposed at some point to a positive male role model.

Psychologist Dr. Kurt Konietzko describes the mothers of homosexuals as standing in the way of their son's heterosexual development, but making it easy for them to act out homosexually. In spite of her love for her son may be unable to help him, because according to Dr. Konietzko, "If she really faces his problem, she'll have to face her own. Maybe she is afraid of maleness, and in order to keep her son lovable has kept him a dependent little boy."(Karlen, p.568)

The mother's genuine concern for her son's distress may have a negative effect. An adult patient in psychotherapy for homosexuality recalled:

Whenever I felt rejected by my friends, my mother tried to console me. But she just didn't help. She was never a guy so nothing she could say could ever make me feel better. She'd say, "Oh, you don't want to play with those bad boys anyway." It would have been great if my father could have talked to me.(Nicolosi, unpublished)

Other researchers tested Bieber's findings in regard to mothers. Apperson et al., queried 22 homosexuals who were "functioning adequately" and not receiving any psychiatric treatment." They found that "the mothers of the homosexual group appear less restrictive than the mothers of controls." These mothers were "shown as being less concerned with training the child in socialization." Apperson comments that his findings appear to be "in direct contradiction to Bieber's," but Bieber reported that 11 cases of detached mothers and 8 cases of rejecting-minimizing-hostile mothers. Apperson's findings, in fact, agree with Bieber's conclusion that in these cases:

Neither parent provided the support and protectiveness required both psychologically and physiologically for normal growth and development. These patients were exposed to a range of traumatic experiences that go along with a hostile, affectionless milieu. (Bieber 1962, p.82)

This was confirmed by Green's (1987) study in which feminine boys reported spending less time with their sons than did control mothers and to have been more likely to have experienced mother-son separations.

Zucker and Bradley reported that in their clinical experience, "Boys with GID have been shown to have largely insecure attachments to their mothers;" however, they also found, "ample clinical evidence that boys with gender identity disorder have greater emotional closeness with their mothers than with their fathers." (Zucker 1995, p. 229)

Thompson found that "homosexuals more strongly identified with their mothers and more strongly disidentified with their fathers than with controls." (Thompson, 1973) According to Saghir and Robins' research:

The mother seems to replace the father as the parental model and source of identification. In the vast majority of the homosexual men, identification is reported to have occurred with the mother or with no parent at all during childhood. A majority of the homosexuals describe their mothers as having been dominant at home, making decisions, carrying out discipline and showing greater drive and involvement. (Saghir, p.152)

Comments collected by Saghir and Robins illustrate the nature of the relationship between homosexuals and their mothers during childhood:

She wanted me to be always good. I never associated with roughnecks. She did not want me to get hurt. Everything was towards the effeminate life. She prevented me from expressing any aggressive behavior and sex to her was always dirty. I never was encourage to date.

She babied me completely. She gave me a bath till I was in high school. Never wanted me to engage in sports. Always was nosy about friends and phone calls and found fault with the girls I dated.

My mother was more patient with me than my father. I learned a lot through her like cooking, baking and housework. My father liked my sister more ... Once I was making a cake and my sister came riding on a bike from playing basketball. I was struck by the reversal of the role at that time. (Saghir, p.148)

Observations from therapists who treat effeminate boys confirm the recollections of adult homosexual male. Bates and his associates reported on a group of 29 boys, 5-13 years old, who were evaluated and treated for gender role abnormalities. Frederick, age 7, was:

a clinging, fearful boy who was somewhat clumsy and compulsively clean, was not permitted to roam the neighborhood because of his mother's constant fear that he might be injured by the "rough" neighborhood boys. His mother also protected him against any anger from his large, imposing father who slept days and worked nights. Since she saw her son as helpless to achieve things by himself, she continued to bathe him herself, and even required that he change clothes with her in the women's locker room at the public swimming pool. Roughness, noise, and physical risk were not allowed. (Bates, 1974)

Over-protectiveness may be a symptom of the mothers' psychological problems. According to a study by Marantz and Coats (1991) mothers of boys with GID have higher rates of depression and borderline personality disorder than mothers of normal controls. According to Wolfe (1990), mothers of boys with GID "report more psychopathology on symptom checklists and meet criteria for more psychiatric diagnoses--social adaptation, depression, and hostility."

Other researchers have found that the closeness has a darker side. In a 1945 book Otto Fenichel observed that

In quite a number of male homosexuals, the decisive identification with the mother was made as an "identification with an aggressor," that is, in boys were very much afraid of their mothers. (Fenichel, p.331)

In a 1960 study of homosexual prisoners, Ullman found that these men described mothers who were overly aggressive or hostile. Stoller observed that the mother of homosexual often failed to identify with her own mother. Her partial identification with the father lead to feelings of anger, envy, and rage, because she couldn't be a boy. As a mother she is unable tolerate masculinity in her son, because triggers her competitive and hostile feelings. As a result these mothers reinforce their sons only when they are non-masculine or feminine. (Zucker 1995, p.231)  

Tolerating Effeminacy

The mother's emotional problems allow her to tolerate or even reinforce her son's cross-gender behavior. The child develops a "fantasized other self" or cross-gender behaviors as a defensive solution and may be very unwilling to let go of these comforting behaviors.

Mitchell (1991) found that mothers of boys with GID were more likely to reinforce feminine behavior and less likely reinforce masculine behavior than the mothers of normal controls. According to Zucker and Bradley, the initial parental response to cross-gender behavior was in many cases quite positive and that this tolerance had a profound effect on the boys development:

we feel that parental tolerance of cross-gender behavior at the time of its emergence is instrumental in allowing the behavior to develop...What is unique in the situation with children who develop a gender identity disorder is the co-occurrence of a multitude of factors at a sensitive period in the child's development -- that is, most typically in the first few years of life, the period of gender identity formation and consolation. there must be a sufficient numbers of factors to induce a state of inner insecurity in the child, such that he or she requires a defensive solution to deal with anxiety. This must occur in a context in which the child perceives that the opposite-sex role provides a sense of safety or security. (Zucker 1995, p.259)

Zucker and Bradley suggest that some mothers may react more positively to their son's feminine behavior because these mothers feel unnurtured and believe that females are more nurturing. These mothers may have an "an intense aversion to aggression," and associate aggression with masculinity.(Zucker 1995, p.261) In addition these mothers may see this particular boy as an especially beautiful or feminine baby. In this regard the mothers' perceptions have been confirmed by independent observers. Stoller (1975) and Green (1987) both noted that boys with GID are unusually attractive. When objective raters were shown photographs of the boys with GID and normal boys, the GID boys were rated as more attractive.(Zucker 1993)

According to Green mothers of GID boys frequently send their son's a mixed message. For example, one mother refused to allow her son to use her new lipstick, but allowed him to use an old one. Another mother claimed to be upset about her son's cross-dressing, yet at the same time gave him her old shoes, saying,: "I had to throw more high heels away. I'd finally break down and let him have them to just keep him quiet. He would go and sit down and play with them." Another mother made it clear that she affirmed her son's feminine fantasy play telling the therapist that her son knew that she didn't see anything wrong with it. In another case the mother reacted positively to her son's chose of dolls for play things.(Green 1974, p.157-159)

One mother explained why she restricted her son's activities:

he was a very delicate baby. He didn't belong out there with the other boys! He belonged inside with me. I didn't want him to get dirty. I wanted him to be clean all the time. and I used to make him little shirts with little panties. Of course I made my other sons that, but with him it was special because I wanted a girl so bad, and he had the features of a girl. (Green 1974, p.219)

Another mother expressed a negative reaction to rough-and-tumble play:

I didn't want it to be too rough. If I saw that he was going to be hurt--now this was before he was five years old--he went out once and the other boys, his own age, were going to push him down the concrete steps--and I stopped them, stopped him from getting pushed. And I think I did more of that than I needed to do.

When her husband tried to take the boy at two years of age into a men's bathroom, the mother prevented it because she didn't feel it was clean enough. (Green 1974, p.222)

Zucker and Bradley reported a case an overanxious six-year-old boy was extremely sensitive to his mother's professed resentment toward men. (Zucker 1995, p.92) In another case a mother seen in their clinic had made it clear that she "hated men." She was angry at her husband's for expressing concern about their son's marked cross-gender behavior, and she threatened to leave the marriage if he persisted in discussing the issue. While the father worried about allowing the boys to wear dresses on the street, the mother indicated forcefully that it would not bother her in the least if Jeremiah developed a homosexual orientation and asked how she would feel if he were to seek sex reassignment, she answered that this was fine with her as long as he was happy. It was Zucker and Bradley's clinical opinion that: "Jeremiah's mother had a great deal of ambivalence regarding men and masculinity and that it was probably very difficult for her to tolerate any signs of masculinity in Jeremiah." (Zucker 1995, p.90)

Moberly points out that concern about the relationship between the mother and son should not be misinterpreted:

To be attached to one's mother is in itself entirely normal. However, if there is a defensive detachment from the father, the only remaining channel for attachment is to the mother. What is normal when complemented by a father--attachment-- becomes abnormal when isolated from it. (Moberly, p.8)

Mothers' effect on adult behavior

Silverstein. minimizes the importance of the mother's influence; he writes: "A gay man's problems in later life, particularly in dealing with love relationships, are more apt to center around the father than the mother." Others see a substantial maternal influence.

Dr. Walt Odets, who works with homosexual men with AIDS, has observed how a patient's childhood relationship with his mother can effect his adult behavior. One patient reported feeling guilty that he was having a good time when his mother called during a dinner party. The event reminded him of the guilt he felt as a child about running around in front of her or walking too fast because his mother was crippled. He admitted that at times he resented being kept from normal play activities and wanted to run away from his mother. As an adult he did in fact "run away" from his mother, by moving to a distant city. (Odets, p.48)

In another case Odets reported how one client's empathy for his mother effected his adult behavior:

Growing up, Greg was the oldest of three siblings and was close to his mother. He and his mother shared a sense of abandonment by his father... Greg empathized with his mother's loneliness and depression, was acutely sensitive as a child to her moods, and attempted in an emotional sense to serve as a surrogate husband. (Odets, p.54)

Greg's efforts to care for his mother were unsuccessful. When she was hospitalized for depression. Greg tried to take her place, "caring for his mother so that his father, whom he idolized as a child but hardly knew, would not be burdened with her." As a child Greg bore a profound sense of failure and guilt because he could not solve his parents' problems. This caused him to limit himself as an adult "in order not to have a better life than he felt his mother had." When he contracting HIV disease, his potential for a better life was limited, and this reduced his guilt feelings. (Odets, p.55)

Stoller points out the importance of the mother's willingness to allow her son to develop a separate identity and a sense of mastery:

Mothers, we see, have an additional task in rearing a son not needed with a daughter. They must encourage the separation (1) with greater intensity, steadfastness, and vigilance; (2) at the right time(s); (3) with the right amounts of frustration tempered with (4) the right amounts of love, care, sympathy; (5) enjoying their husband enough to offer this father as a worthy object for identification.

In addition to encouraging the separation, they must also encourage the development of a sense of mastery. This has been studied in regard to many ego functions but perhaps less systematically in regard to those functions that are perceived by others and by oneself as masculinity. It requires of a mother (1) that her own envy of maleness be subdued; (2) that she be feminine, or, if not particularly so, that she be so in certain regards at least when with her sons; and (3) that she enjoy infants. It is a great advantage(4) if she is genuinely heterosexual and especially helpful if she is married, so that a loved masculine man can be permanently present in the family. (Stoller 1975, p. 162)

If the mother fails to allow her son to develop a confident masculine identity, the son may appear superficially compliant, but harbor a hidden anger toward his mother which is reflect in adult behavior. Stoller who has studied the relationship between hostility and sexual behavior believes that some homosexuals feel so defeated by "their blackmailing mothers" that they have a strong desire for revenge which according to Stoller "energizes aspects of many homosexuals' behavior, erotic and otherwise." (Stoller, p.201)  


It is not uncommon for parents to have favorites, however if a child is the favorite of the opposite sex parent during the crucial development period this can effect gender identity development. In a study by Friedman only 7% of homosexuals believed they were their father's favorite (vs. 28% of the heterosexual controls). On the other hand 44 % of the homosexuals (vs. 24% of the controls) believed that they were their fathers' "least favored child." (Friedman 1988, p.61)

The two examples of identical twins raised together who developed differently mentioned in the previous section --Sam and Howard, Frank, Jr. and Paul -- suggests that the differential in parental attention and feeling that one is not the same sex parent's favored child can have an effect on gender identity development.

This also happens among siblings. Dr. George Rekers, the editor of Handbook of child and adolescent sexual problems and author of Growing up straight: What every family should know about homosexuality, Shaping your child's sexual Identity, and numerous other articles, has successfully treated a number of GID boys including Craig who was four years old and extremely effeminate when initially assessed:

the father had a closer relationship with Craig's eight-year-old brother than with Craig. Because Craig was not interested in the typical games that his brother participated in, his father felt less inclined to spend time with him. Instead, the father spent considerable time playing ball and roughhousing with Craig's brother. For this reason, Craig had an intensely close relationship with his mother and a quite remote relationship with his father. (Rekers 1982, p.132)

Rekers recommended behavior modification and an increase in contact between Craig and his father. The parents were willing to follow the therapist's advice and within 10 months Craig was "indistinguishable from any other boy in terms of his sex-role behavior." His development was followed into adolescence and there were no signs of any subsequent problems. (Rekers, p.137)

Friedman carefully reviewed numerous studies on the relationships between homosexual sons and their parents. His conclusion: a "warm and supportive [family] pattern has not been documented to occur with any frequency in the backgrounds of homosexual men." (Friedman, p.73)

Not everyone agrees with this analysis. Siegleman, in a widely cited study, also claimed that other studies found differences because they did not control for neuroticism. Siegleman claimed that there were no significant differences in familial interaction between non-neurotic homosexual men and non-neurotic heterosexual men. (Siegleman, 1974) The Siegleman study has been criticized by van den Aardweg because the questionnaire did not assess behavior in sufficient depth. In addition, in a subsequent study Siegleman (1981) found differences between non-neurotic homosexuals and heterosexuals in familial patterns similar to those found in other studies. (Siegleman, 1981)

Dr. Bernard Zuger, who has written a number of articles on effeminate behavior in boys, found that the parental relationships and attitudes in families of effeminate boys were not statistically very different from those in the families of non-effeminate boys". Zuger did not, however, compare the effeminate boys with normal age-mates, but with boys admitted to a children's psychiatric clinic.

In another study Zuger again claimed that parental relationships and attitudes "are not a significant factor in the origin and development of persistent effeminate behavior." However, in "21 of the 22 cases ... the boys was considered closer to the mother, and in only one to the father." Zuger blames the father's alienation on the "effeminate boys' withdrawal." Zuger also found that more mothers than fathers of effeminate boys were dominant in the family. Most interestingly:

Among the parents of the 25 effeminate boys only six of the mothers and two of the fathers had strong negative reactions to the effeminate behavior from the very beginning. The remaining parents were either unaware of the problem confused about it, or tolerant of it. (Zuger, 1970)

All this would suggest that, contrary to Zuger's assertion, the relationships within the families of effeminate boys in this study were substantially different from those of non-effeminate boys.

Several researchers have looked at birth order as a dynamic in the development of same-sex attraction in adulthood. Blanchard and Bogaert studied 302 homosexual men and 302 heterosexual men and found that homosexuality:."was positively correlated with the proband's number of older brothers but not with older sisters, younger brothers, younger sisters, or parental age at the time of the proband's birth. Each additional older brother increased the odds of homosexuality by 33%." It is possible that a father who was occupied with older sons might be more tolerant of the mother's protectiveness of a younger son or the father might invest less time with the younger son during the critical period of gender identity development. (Blanchard 1996)

Developmental models

Therapists who treat boys with GID propose various explanations for how the problem develops. According to Green, the mother perceives this particular child as special. This favoritism may reflect her own needs. She gives the child more of her time. The boy plays with his mother's possessions and imitates the mother. These behaviors are supported by adults. The father is less present or does not present himself as a model and does not object forcefully to feminine play. On the other hand aggressive boy play is frowned upon. The situation creates alienation between the father and son. The boy's perceived femininity is an obstacle to same-sex peer play. The mother responds positively to cross-dressing. The problem spirals out-of-control. (Green, p.239)

Zucker and Bradley, have observed that the Gender Identity Disorder arises when "a boy's temperamental vulnerability to high arousal" combines with "an insecure mother-child relationship." The mother may have problems with frustration, depression, or hostility. In these cases:

The boy, who is highly sensitive to maternal signals, perceives the mother's feelings of depression and anger. Because of his own insecurity, he is all the more threatened by his mother's anger or hostility, which he perceives as directed at him. His worry about the loss of his mother intensifies his conflict over his own anger, resulting in high levels of arousal or anxiety. The father's own difficulty with affect regulation and inner sense of inadequacy usually produces withdrawal rather than approach.

The parents have difficulty resolving the conflicts they experience in their own marital relations, and fail to provide support to each other. This produces an intensified sense of conflict and hostility.

In this situation, the boy becomes increasingly unsure about his own self-value because of the mother's withdrawal or anger and the father's failure to intercede. This anxiety and insecurity intensify, as does his anger. (Zucker 1995, p.262)

The mother's psychological problems can have a profound effect on a sensitive son. For example, a 10-year-old boy with gender identity disorder, whose mother suffered from recurrent depression, talked about "how difficult it was for him to predict what mood his mother would be in each day." (Zucker 1995, p.229) In another case Zucker and associates treated an anxious youngster, prone to fantasy and cross-gender identification, whose mother was depressed and have difficulty separating from her son. (Zucker 1995, p.91)

Bieber describes what is needed for a boy to develop a healthy sense of his own masculinity:

A mother who is pleased by her son's masculinity and is comfortably related to his sexual curiosity and heterosexual responsiveness to her and other females, encourages and reinforces a masculine identification. A father who is warmly related to his son, who supports assertiveness and effectiveness, and who is not sexually competitive, provides the reality testing necessary for the resolution of the son's irrational sexual competitiveness. This type of parental behavior fosters heterosexual development.(Bieber 1962, p.313)


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