The successful working out of these negotiations, early in the treatment – that our shared and positively affirmed identity as gay men did not preclude the need to uncover and explore their couple and family dynamics, and did not imply an alliance against women – remained essential to our work throughout the treatment. I worked with Tom, Rick, and Mike for four years.
Telescoping for purposes of this paper, Tom and Rick’s parenting was loving, but lacked predictability and structure, which – as Mike came in time to articulate – had long left him hurt, angry, needy, and at loose ends. Mike loved his fathers and was not homophobic. Compounding the family dynamics, however, Tom and Rick both perceived Mike – comfortable in his male, securely heterosexual identity – as overly feminine. They saw Mike as “soft,” and too expressive of his emotions. They themselves, like a sizable number of gay men (Nardi, 1999), emphasized if not overemphasized their masculinity. I hypothesized with them that their unstructured and unpredictable parenting and their view of Mike as feminine were linked, and essential or us to explore. They dismissed my speculation, but, again grudgingly, were willing to consider and explore it when I said I thought this would be productive.
In my meetings with Mike, I found him reflective and likable. His values were positive and prosocial; he aspired to become a high school teacher. His transference to me was positive. He saw me as a gay male object who, unlike his fathers, understood him, empathized with him, and did not reject him. He spoke openly about his frustrations and anger with his fathers. He described feeling too chronically upset with his home situation to focus fully at school, and frequently provoked by criticisms from his fathers at home that – to use the words he used – he “acted like a faggot, like a girl.” He wanted more contact with his mother, but was afraid that voicing the request would escalate his fathers’ belittling and emotional aggression.
As we explored the roots and workings of the family and – at my insistence, at first – couple dynamics, Tom and Rick both increasingly came to vent overt, considerable misogyny. They expressed belittling views of their own mothers, whom they described having experienced as too preoccupied with their own needs (both worked outside the home and were in marriages where it was assumed they would do all the housework and childcare) to be, as they saw it, sufficiently attentive to Tom and Rick during their developmental years. They felt their mothers should have intuited their emerging sexual identities and attendant needs for understanding and support, though, when I asked about this, both admitted they had dated heterosexually as adolescents and had assiduously hidden any trace of expression of gay interests or emerging identities. They projected their subjective feelings toward their mothers into a broader, and deeply entrenched, contempt for women and for any characteristics they perceived as female (Holland, 2006). Their attraction to each other, it emerged over time, had initially been driven by a desire for refuge from the women in their lives.
This in turn, we learned together, stemmed from internalized homophobia that took the form of hatred of aspects of themselves they perceived as feminine. Their macho presentations served a defensive function; we uncovered powerful fears that any divergence from tra
Still, my work with Tom, Rick, and Mike was not superficial. The shifts to which it gave rise took place primarily on tectonic levels. To my thinking, tracing these shifts evinces the deadening effects of misogyny on gay men in our times. The changes Tom and Rick achieved in therapy were also reflective of constraints on gay male development – individual and collective (the issues Tom and Mike presented were not the result of individual or family aberrations, so much as of ways their development had commonalities with the personal trajectories of gay men in a homophobic US society) – that our collective turning away from feminist lessons and insights leave us unable to overcome.
Concluding Thoughts: Toward Transformative Action
As The New Normal portrayed in sharp focus, many gay men who parent through adoption or surrogacy do so not informed by a feminist appreciation of the complexity of women’s reproductive lives. Perhaps understandably, studies of gay male parenting have tended to focus on children’s positive psychological development in households headed by gay men (Martin, 1993; Patterson, 1992), not on how gay men’s parenting affects women who act as surrogates or whose children are placed in foster or adoptive care. The charged question of how gay male adoption or parenting through surrogacy affects birth mothers’ already complex experience (Hushon, Sherman & Siskind, 2006; Wadia-Ellis, 1995) has not yet entered the research agenda or general psychological and psychoanalytic discourse.
But it needs to do so. Perhaps the failure, to date, to analyze how gay men’s parenting affects women, and women’s reproductive rights, is among the implications of the disjuncture that has arisen between the contemporary gay movement and feminism. As long as this goes unchallenged, therapists working with gay male parents or potential parents have a stark choice: leave our gay male patients’ groundingly misogynist beliefs and choices unexplored, or embrace a model of therapy (necessarily informed by feminist notions of psychoanalytic psychotherapy [Benjamin, 2013; Eichenbaum & Orbach, 1983; Mitchell, 1974; Prozan, 1992]) that takes our gay male patients’ covert and overt misogyny on.
Several implications flow from this. One is that much theoretical and clinical work needs to be done to better understand the intertwining between internalized homophobia and misogyny in gay men. While we have more than two decades of theoretical, clinical, and empirical work on the deleterious effects of homophobia on gay men (Greene & Herek, 1994; Plummer, 1999), we do not, as yet, have extensive psychological and psychoanalytic understandings of the links between internalized homophobia and gay men’s misogynist views of women – as were evidenced to play key roles in the case of Tom and Rick. We need to have a better understanding of misogyny in gay men, both to help our individual gay male patients, and those with whom they interact if they assume parental roles, and to help the contemporary gay movement move past its overly narrow agenda and recover more of its original vision of liberation.
A corollary is that exploratory and not just affirmative/psychoeducational/supportive directions are needed in therapeutic work with gay men who are coupling, marrying, and parenting in new ways. This involves working with our gay male patients to understand deeply the roots in feminist theory and practice of the ways coupling and parenting can be and are being re-conceptualized in our times (Goldner, 1985; Jackson & Scott, 2004; O’Reilly, 2008; Silverstein & Goodrich, 2003). Not to weave in the necessary lines of therapeutic work would imply failing to recognize that gay men have male privilege, and often attendant misogynist values, that have potential to mis-shape the marital and other forms of relationships we choose to enter (Brod & Kaufman,1994; Rothenberg, 2004; Wolfson, 1993, 2007) and how we approach the vicissitudes of parenting (Goldberg, 2010).
A farther shore is that clinical work along the lines proposed here has lessons that need to inform social and political debates. Gay men embracing marriage and parenting have a historical debt to be paid in the present. Once we deepen our appreciation of feminism’s essential role in the birth of the gay liberation movement and today’s emergent gay possibilities, gay male couples seeking to parent, and gay communities collectively, need to take responsibility not to be a safety valve for the currently precarious reproductive rights of women, and the still-damaging impact on women’s parenting of ongoing patriarchal social and economic discrimination. Instead, we need to take action as women’s staunch allies, in the protection of women’s rights to reproductive freedom, now under mounting attack (Faludi, 2009).
Gay men’s desire to parent must ground itself in feminist thought and feminist practice. If that takes us from the nurseries to consulting rooms, the courts, and the streets, then that is where we need to be. It’s as simple, and as urgent, as that.
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.