Yesterday, Chuck Colson posted a column titled “Born Gay? A Parent’s Guide” which asserted that the way parents relate to their male children can create homosexuality. Colson quoted extensively from Joseph and Linda Nicolosi’s book, A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality as support for the view that weak or distant fathers and smothering mothers create gay males. According to Nicolosi, gay males suffered a “gender wound” in childhood and failed to identify properly with their fathers. These males remain tied to their mothers and reject masculine identification. Somehow, however, the “prehomosexual male” becomes gay by falling in love with what he once rejected – masculinity – and seeks gay sex as a means to find it. Trying to make sense of this, Colson, channeling Nicolosi, writes (in italics)
Nicolosi explains “Such a boy will...retreat from the challenge of identifying with his dad and the masculinity he represents...Instead of incorporating a masculine sense of self, the prehomosexual boy is doing just the opposite -- rejecting his emerging maleness and thus developing a defensive position against it.”
Nicolosi says that as a young adult, the boy “will fall in love with what he has lost by seeking out someone who seems to possess what is missing within himself.”
Can such a dynamic be prevented?
According to Nicolosi and Colson, parents can take steps to prevent a gay outcome. The key? Better parenting. Colson writes (in italics)
Early intervention, in which the boy’s father learns how to be both strong and caring, will interrupt an unhealthy mother-son bond.
Did you catch the assumption? If a boy is gay, his father was not “both strong and caring” and the bond with the mother was “unhealthy.” To an audience consisting of evangelicals, these are ominous words. In future broadcasts, Colson promises to bring more information “about what parents can do to lessen the chances their children will grow up homosexual.” Apparently, females are not of interest here since they are not mentioned by Colson.
This advice is unfortunate for academic and practical reasons. It is difficult to research family dynamics and sexual orientation because of the subjectivity of the variables. There are no direct tests of how attached a boy is to his father; recollections of children and parents are subject to bias and reconstruction. In practice, if you believe the reports of men who say they are gay because their fathers were distant, then you are bound to believe the reports of gay men who say they had close relationships with their fathers. In that case, the theory fails as a general explanation for homosexuality because, as I illustrate below, there are numerous gay men and their fathers who report histories of close bonding and mutual love.
Another academic approach is to test a prediction based on the theory. In this case, one might expect the dynamics proposed by Nicolosi to be more frequent in fatherless homes. However, a 2010 New Zealand study led by Elisabeth Wells reported no effect of single parent homes on sexual orientation or behavior as compared to families with a biological mom and dad. Some of the results seem hard to explain by any theory. For instance, the odds of homosexuality increased slightly when divorced parents remarried, bringing two step-parents into the picture. However, the likelihood of homosexual orientation actually decreased where there was only one step-parent. A 2008 US study by Andrew Francis found that having no involved parents was mildly associated with a same-sex partner for both boys and girls. However, single parent homes, whether with mom or dad were not associated with having a same-gender partner or romantic attraction to the same sex.
Practically, such advice has caused confusion and pain among evangelical families, where being gay is a challenge socially and religiously. I have worked with parents who were near divorce over who caused their son to be gay. They had read the books and gone to the conferences which blamed them for their son’s “condition.” Surely, no parent is perfect but something seems wrong about obviously loving and involved parents examining and re-examining every move they made to find out where they “failed.” In that particular case, the father had actually spent more time nurturing his son during the growing up years because his job allowed him to work at home.
In my experience, many fathers and gay sons describe close, loving relationships. For instance, one man described his relationship with his gay son this way (in italics):
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.”
I recall one young man I worked with in counseling who first disclosed his same-sex attractions to his father because his dad was his closest friend. When they read the theory Colson described, they were bewildered and angry. A very masculine linebacker for his high school football team, the young man scoffed at the idea that he was identified with his mother.
It appears that the underlying purpose in Colson’s presentation of Nicolosi’s theory is to present an alternative to prenatal theories of sexual orientation. He writes (in italics)
“The most important message we can offer,” Nicolosi says, “is that there is no such thing as a ‘gay child’ or a ‘gay teen.’…That is exactly the opposite message we hear from gay activists who claim that people are “born gay” and that confused teens ought to be encouraged to embrace homosexuality. And heaven help anyone who would suggest otherwise.
Fighting a political agenda is not a good reason to promote questionable theories. There is currently no scientific consensus about why sexual orientation takes the direction it does. Homosexuality is not strongly related to genetics but that does not mean that parenting is the only alternative non-genetic factor. Other prenatal factors, such hormonal variations during prenatal development, are being investigated and might be a part of the picture. The jury is out with much more research to be done, but what has been done on parenting does not inspire confidence in the claim that distant fathers and smothering mothers create gay men.