Case Study


Case Study

“Be Yourself—But Don’t”: Mixed Messages from a Mother to Her Gay Son

By Mark O'Connell

March/April 2022


"I don’t care that you are gay. I just don’t want you to act gay." Every gay male I know, including myself, has received this message at some point in our lives. It might come from the media (consider comedian Louis C.K.’s bit in which he claims he doesn’t laugh at gay people because they’re gay, but because they act “f-ing weird” and “silly”), or popular culture, or even from individual people—including those we love.

Many of the gay men I’ve worked with in therapy have experienced this form of regulation from their other­wise loving mothers. On the one hand, many of these mothers want their sons to be themselves; on the other hand, they fear the negative attention their sons may attract if they act gay—or, more accurately, express themselves in gender-nonconforming ways and deviate from social expectations for what it means to be male.

This dilemma resonates with me personally, as I was caught in such a double bind with my own mother for many years.

In some ways, this experience was more disorienting for me than the overtly homophobic attacks I sometimes received out in the world, because there was no clear enemy to blame. As a result, like many queer people, I was ruled by the insidious societal practice I call don’t act, don’t tell: I was allowed to be gay, in theory, as long as I didn’t act gay. This developed into a debilitating fear of taking up too much space in all my relationships, not just with my mother, and sometimes led me to self-destructive behaviors.

Fortunately, years of my own therapy and self-reflection helped me heal from this toxic entanglement with my mother. And my personal experience allows me to help many of my clients free themselves from similar dilemmas.

The Power of Subtext

“My mom always tells me to be myself. But her eyes warn me not to stand out.” My client Ian awakens to this insight as he speaks.

Since Ian began therapy a few months before, we’ve explored his tendency to disavow his own feelings to accommodate other people, especially his husband, Jack. Today he reveals a significant source of this trend: a lifetime of being silently regulated by his mother.

“Like, when I told her Jack and I had another fight, she said, ‘I want you to be happy’—which implies she’d be supportive if we separated. But her face looked worried, like she was also saying, ‘Whatever you do, don’t get a divorce.’”

Ian’s excruciating ambivalence about being separate from Jack has been a primary theme in our work from the start.

In our sessions, I started by directing the spotlight off of Ian and Jack and onto the more general theme of separation in Ian’s family, hoping this would help us understand Ian’s dread of independence. We’ve discussed generations of traumatic separations, including his parents’ divorce, that have been passed down, unprocessed and unrepaired. And as much as this gives us a context for Ian’s individual struggle with Jack, their cyclical conflict has remained uninterrupted.

But today, when Ian describes the double bind he’s in with his mother, we begin to clarify the emotional stakes that keep him running in circles in his marriage. His mother has always been supportive: she encouraged him to step independently and boldly into the spotlight. But she warns him to shroud himself in the normative safety of the dark. Now, in his relationship with Jack, he struggles to reconcile his sense of self with his need for a loving connection.

Silent Policing

“Why does your mom think getting a divorce would be the worst thing for you?” I’m aware that Ian can’t know exactly what his mother thinks, but I offer him this safe way to speak his mind, having learned how difficult it is for him to think reflectively when the spotlight is only on him.

“Well, the shame of it. We had a big wedding. Everyone was excited to support us, and they’d be disappointed. They’d see me as a failure, a destroyer.”

“Your mom said all of that with her eyes?” I ask playfully, inviting him to keep exploring.

“Her eyes and her voice.”

“Can you share some examples?”

“When I was a kid, I loved The Nutcracker. So I asked for a dance class, and she found one! But then she asked, ‘Are you sure you want to go?’ with a quivery voice, as if she was urging me not to do it.”

“Then, when I was 12,” he continues, “I didn’t realize our family computer recorded the sites we visited, and one day she showed me the list of gay porn sites I’d been to, and asked coldly, ‘What’s this?’ It was confusing, because she was always saying, ‘You can tell me anything,” and talking about gay people she knew in positive ways, as if she’d be okay if I came out.” Suddenly Ian tears up, showing how his mother’s mixed messages about his sexuality and, more generally, his gender nonconformity, have affected him.

As I take this in, I’m transported back to my early 20s when I described something similar to my therapist at the time, a straight man. I felt as if I was uncloseting myself as I shared examples of the double bind with my mother. For example:

When I was four, she gave me the Miss Piggy puppet I craved, but then grimaced when I played with Piggy in front of my older brother and his friends, as if to say, ‘How dare you embarrass him like that!?’

When I was 10, she asked if I wanted to grow my hair long, while her eyebrows signaled this was the worst possible choice I could make as a boy.

When I was 22, and she first met my now-husband, with whom I’d told her I was head-over-heels in love, she asked, ‘Do you always hold hands in public?’ in a tone that begged, ‘Stop this unseemly practice immediately.’ To which, after all those years of caving to her stealthy normative regulation, I declared, ‘You’d never ask my brothers that question!’ They’re all straight.

My therapist’s eyes had betrayed his ambivalence about how to respond. Then he spoke blankly, submitting to a script, “Your mother failed to mirror you.”

I felt shut down. Not because he was wrong—he wasn’t. But the quandary in which my mother and I were tangled was far more specific and complex than his pedestrian observation.

More stingingly, by attempting to be “neutral,” instead of openly acknowledging the details I described, not only did this therapist fail to mirror me, but he inadvertently recalled the very bind from which I hoped he’d help me escape. In other words, like my mother, while attempting to validate me on the surface, he was also implicitly suggesting that something about me was too shameful to talk about.

Of course, no therapist can “totally get” their client—just as no parent can fully understand their child—and that isn’t the point of therapy. Still, I wished this therapist had stepped out of his safe zone and into the spotlight with me, even at the risk of emphasizing our distinct separateness as people. I wished he’d said something like, “Wow, my mother never sent me signals like that. I guess because I’ve always been pretty gender conforming for a guy.”

From that place of authentic openness, he might have invited me to explore my own. I now hope to offer Ian such an invitation.

Speak the Subtext

After holding space for Ian’s feelings to breathe, I begin to name the furtive silences between parent and child that he’d described, which have caused him confusion and pain throughout his life. “I appreciate how difficult this is to talk about. Especially since your mom so clearly loves and supports you.”

“She’s the reason I am who I am,” Ian replies. “An artist [Ian is a successful graphic designer]; a social activist; gay, out, and proud. It feels wrong to be critical of her,” he continues. “It’s like I’m saying she didn’t do enough for me. And that couldn’t be further from the truth. Especially when so many queer kids are kicked out of their homes.”

“And yet, shouldn’t you be allowed to tell your story?”

Ian twists his face as if to say, “I guess.”

I explain, “This dilemma—of gay males struggling to reconcile mixed messages they get from supportive mothers—is actually quite common. Beyond my own personal experience, I’ve heard variations on it from clients over the years, as well as from friends.”

As I say this to Ian, I’m aware that as important as it is to acknowledge this highly specific relationship between mothers and gay sons when it occurs, we must be careful about generalizing. Obviously not every relationship between two people is exactly the same, and similar dynamics to the ones Ian and I experienced with our mothers can occur between other combinations of parent and child, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

“For one thing,” I say, “unlike parents who are explicitly homophobic and abusive, mothers like yours—who are as good as it gets—reveal clearly how insidious systems like patriarchy and the gender binary work through each of us. Even those of us who actively rail against those ideas.”

“That’s what I mean,” Ian says. “After I came out in high school, my mom joined PFLAG. She marched with me for marriage equality. She’s all about my rights, everyone’s rights.”

“I’m sure that’s true,” I reassure Ian. “That’s my point. That’s how social systems work. We internalize and enforce cultural expectations—about gender, sexuality, etc.—without realizing it. That’s why it’s crucial to name subtle forms of social regulation when we see them, like that look in your mother’s eyes, so we can be aware of how we police ourselves and people we love, keeping them from being fully alive.”

I wish my therapist long ago had helped me name the silences between my mother and me, and the social systems that created them. Fortunately, after years of reflecting on my own dilemma with my mom, I understand it well enough to help clients like Ian to navigate theirs. This includes helping them take a deep empathy dive into their parent’s perspective to better understand their conflicting messages.

Recognize Spotlight Ambivalence

I’ve come to appreciate that my mother did want me to live openly in the spotlight all along, even as the gender-nonconforming male I am—and that she wished the same freedom for herself.

Unfortunately, her own uncertainty about taking up space, what I call spotlight ambivalence, shaped by a lifetime of internalized rules for how women (or anyone other than gender-conforming, straight, white males) should or should not behave—in addition to her parental instinct to protect me from criticism and attack—manifested in contradictions that made me ambivalent about being myself.

Understanding my mother’s spotlight ambivalence has helped me break free from her implicit policing without having to cast her as a villain. It allows me to feel connected to the part of her that’s always wanted both me and her to live out loud and maintain an authentic connection to myself. I want to help Ian to do the same.

Break Free From the Normative Police

“Didn’t your mom get divorced?” I ask Ian.

“Yes, but that wasn’t her choice: my dad left her. She was devastated and ashamed. She still hasn’t recovered.”

“She wants to protect you from those feelings?”

“Yes. What’s funny, though, is that my brother’s getting divorced right now, and she’s not worried about him. It’s his wife she thinks should be ashamed.”

And there it is: his mother’s internalized rule that there are spotlights (such as divorce) that only some (straight men in this case) are allowed to enter.

“She’d react differently if you got divorced?”

“Definitely. It sounds weird when I say it aloud. I think because I’m gay she doesn’t want me drawing too much attention to myself. She meddled in our wedding plans a lot, making sure our outfits weren’t too garish. She said, ‘I want everyone to know it’s just a wedding like any other.’”

I recall my own mom warning me and my husband not to have a flashy “Elton John wedding,” saying, “I want my family to take it seriously.”

As we continue this conversation session after session, we clarify Ian’s fear of asking for attention, which has been quietly exacerbated by his mom. At the same time, we emphasize the ways in which his mom has always encouraged him to be his fullest, freest self.

“She watches RuPaul’s Drag Race now—which is hilarious because she used to point to drag queens and say, ‘At least you’re not gay like that.’ But now she talks about every queen on the show like she knows them. She loves the finales when the parents are in the audience, crying, and saying how proud they are.”

I remind Ian about this version of his mom whenever he describes being anxious about making her uncomfortable. And he’s gradually started to resist her regulating subtext.

He notes, “It’s helpful to remember she isn’t the bad guy: she isn’t defined by her fear of standing out. It’s like a virus within her. Deep down, I know she really does want me to be myself.”

Most crucially, Ian has been able to manage the spotlight patrol in his own mind, and we see evidence of this in his marriage. Jack’s moods and behaviors have remained the same, but Ian has begun deviating from their toxic cycle.

He says, “Lately when Jack gets pouty, I go into another room, breathe, and quiet the voice in my head that says, ‘You fucked up again. Fix it, or else!’ Then I reemerge and calmly say, ‘I’m going to the park to paint.” In other words, he allows himself to reemerge into the spotlight.

Best of all, his capacity and willingness to finish his thoughts in session increases. And as this occurs, I smile and say, “Ah, there you are.”

Love Means Letting Go

Months later, despite Ian’s progress, he continues to complain about feeling trapped in both his marriage and his career. And as our sessions once again feel cyclical, I find myself worrying about him, getting impatient, and sending him signals to fish or cut bait.

Then, one day, after sharing his latest fiasco with Jack and absorbing the sting of the “WTF?” in my eyes, he claps back, “You’re looking at me like I disappointed you.”

Ouch. I’m chagrined. How, after all of my efforts to free him from the silent police in his life, did I become one of them?

It’s tempting to defend myself by saying, “I’m just trying to help you.” But instead, I allow myself to feel the humility I always imagined that neither my mother nor my former therapist would’ve been able to absorb had I challenged their conspicuous silences. By extricating himself from my expectations for him, he reminded me that to truly empower someone you care about to enter the spotlight, you have to allow them to do it their own way.

“You’re right.,” I say. “I’m sorry. I’ve become one of the people trying to regulate you.”

Since then, I try to be hyperaware of even the subtlest moments when Ian steps into the spotlight, and I show my recognition and encouragement with my eyes and my words.

I simply smile with validation when Ian tells me, “Jack had one of his worst tantrums this week, but I wanted to have sex. So I said, ‘When you feel better, let’s have our favorite cocktail and hook up,’ and when I got home that night, he was ready to go.”

Fearing an irritated and admonishing rejection, Ian would typically have disavowed his desire to proposition Jack and suffer the resultant feelings of shame in solitude. But by sharing his feelings openly with Jack, he invited them both to explore creative possibilities to exist in one another’s presence, without either of them getting shut down. And, in this case, Jack accepted.

A year later, Ian and Jack have begun couples therapy.

Take Space to Make Space

Ian has modeled for me something that I preach to clients, but which I need to practice more of myself: the more space we take for ourselves, the more capacity we have to make space for other people. Specifically, he’s motivated me to deepen my relationship with my own mother. And he’s modeled for me how the separateness we create between ourselves and other people when we claim space can help us find opportunities for meaningful connection and mutual growth.

Inspired by Ian, I’ve been video-calling my mother every week, so she can be a grandma to my three-year-old son within the strict boundaries of COVID. When she sings and plays with my son, screen-to-screen, I recall the versions of her beyond her spotlight ambivalence: the person who always encouraged and enlivened me to be exactly who I am, the person who got me Miss Piggy, let me be a witch for Halloween, two years in a row, and bestowed two magnetic kissing male teddy bears on me and my husband for our first Christmas together.

In a recent call, I told her about the first time my son said b’bye to me, how he happily and confidently drove his riding-toy truck away from me in the kitchen, and how that brought tears to my eyes—also how he similarly marched off, a year later, on his first day of preschool.

Her reply transcended my expectations. She said, “I know, honey, that’s the hardest part of parenting: letting go. But it’s also wonderful to see that smile in their eyes, as they ride off, letting you know they’re ready to discover who they are.”

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CASE COMMENTARY

By Joe Kort

In his case study, Mark O’Connell goes where many people don’t. It’s taboo for us to speak ill of our mothers—especially in the culture of gay men—so we often ignore, deny, or stay silent about their behavior. O’Connell’s client says it well: “It feels wrong to be critical of her.” It becomes then problematic for gay men like O’Connell’s client, whose mother has been, seemingly but not actually, accepting and honoring of his gayness and relationship.

I appreciate that O’Connell connects a gay man’s relationship with his mother to his relationship with his partner. It’s often easier for therapists to work with sons struggling with fathers, since it’s a matter of men in relationship with men. But a gay man’s relationship with his mother is huge. In my experience, they often get hung up on what their mothers do and don’t approve of. A good mother allows her son the ability to stay true to his own needs and wants in a relationship. But sadly, a mother sometimes puts her wants and needs ahead of her son’s.

Usually, we gay men have very tight bonds with our mothers, who try to protect us from homophobia, but some pass on their own unexamined biases. The mother in his client’s case does it covertly. It’s those kinds of covert messages we often overlook in therapy, and, in many cases, they’re the most harmful.

O’Connell helps his client differentiate from his mother and see the negative impact her covert messages have on him while still allowing him to appreciate the good she’s done. His admission that there was a lack of differentiation between him and his own mother makes it clear that he’s an excellent clinician, who’s able to notice and manage his own material when it comes up.

Mark O’Connell, LCSW, MFA, is a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City. He’s the author of The Performing Art of Therapy: Acting Insights and Techniques for Clinicians and Modern Brides & Modern Grooms, as well as numerous articles about mental health and the performing art of living. Contact: markoconnelltherapist.com.

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Joe Kort, PhD, is a sex therapist and Imago therapist with a specialty in LGBTQ issues. His books include 10 Smart Things Gay Men Can Do to Improve Their Lives, LGBTQ Clients in Therapy, and Is My Husband Gay, Straight, or Bi?

ILLUSTRATION BY SALLY WERN COMPORT



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