Saturday, May 05, 2007

What About the Parents?

When someone chooses to enter an ex-gay program like Love in Action (LIA), if they mean to or not, they often bring other people along with them--partners, friends, and in many cases, parents.

Ex-gay leaders have typically pointed to the parents as the probable cause for a homosexual child. How many of us have heard things like, "You're mother was overbearing and your father was emotionally distant."

The program leaders and ex-gay spokespeople pieced together the profile of what made us homosexual. They provided us with a template that insisted that serious dysfunction must have occurred in the home, and even when we insisted that things were fine at home, they questioned us further and suggested that we were in denial.

I have heard horror stories from lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people who have told me how program leaders targeted their parents, and in so doing, drove a wedge between parent and child. (see Jeff's story in a previous post) In some cases the leaders misused their power and even coerced participants to confront parents about past events sometimes even hinting at unspoken abuses.

No one has perfect parents, and parents and their adult children need to talk about past hurts and family issues, but often without any trained counselors, after only a few days of group therapy, ex-gay program leaders have pushed parents and their sons and daughters into conflict and crisis. The "therapy" sessions have caused a deep rift in the relationships and have wounded the parents. The parents left feeling confused, condemned and brokenhearted.

On their web site Love in Action announces one of their newest programs,
We are excited to present a concentrated four-day course designed for parents with teens struggling with same-sex attraction, pornography, and/or promiscuity.
On a recent road trip with my dad I asked him what it was like when he and my mom came to Memphis for the Family and Friends Weekend at LIA, a concentrated family encounter. Here is some of what he said.
We went to the meeting and had no idea of what we were going into. We met a lot of parents in the same category. Lots of kids had no parents there.

Everything seemed to be on the up and up at first. Yeah, but we found out these things aren't so. I said to them, "You can't change a zebra's stripes." They didn't go along with me, and they were very aggravated with me for saying so. Some people go through two colleges and they don't have common sense. I hate when people keep things locked up.

They made me feel that I failed you. That's how I felt after they got through with me. That's how they made all the parents feel.
Years after I left LIA and I began to write my play, I interviewed my younger sister, Maria, about that time. What she told me broke my heart. She said that when our parents returned home from the Family and Friends Weekend, they were devastated. They didn't eat right or look right. They acted sad and depressed. This went on for weeks. My sister felt so concerned that she actually called Love in Action and asked, "What did you do to my parents?!" She felt frustrated by the lack of concern or comprehension she encountered from the staff.

Before my mother died this past September, I apologized to her for my part in dragging her and my dad through the horror of that weekend at LIA and the subsequent ones. She appreciated hearing that, but even in her last letter to me, she still questioned herself as a parent, questions that I know arose in large part because of her time spent at LIA.

(photos of my parents, Pete and Anita Toscano and my sister, Nardina, I was in my mom's belly in that photo)

After an e-mail from Jim Burroway, who will present at The Ex-Gay Survivor Conference, and his experience at the Focus on the Family Love Won Out Conference, I thought I would provide a link for parents to my post, Can My Gay Child Change?

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At 7:09 AM , Blogger Bruce Garrett said...

A "concentrated four-day course" is it? More like a concentrated four-day sales pitch for the full eight week serving.

Yes, it isn't just the kids John is heart-wounding. John puts his little mark on the hearts of vulnerable parents too, and other family members, and I'm sure you watched him in that video snippet from Mara Schiavocampo's Current TV post yapping about he's got "The Truth...The Truth" and you just know that whatever pain he's causing other people's families he doesn't regard any of it as his fault. He's acting on behalf of God Almighty Himself, and gods don't feel shame.

He may think his personal relationship with Jesus Christ has made him a better person, but all it's done is take away his brakes. He'll never stop. Not of his own accord. But at least people can be made aware of the hurt he's been busy bringing into the world, in the name of the love of Christ. It can spare other families the same heart wounds.

At 11:14 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a terrific post!

It's wonderful that so many ex-gay survivors are now coming forward to tell their stories. While I sat in on the Love Won Out conference in Phoenix surrounded by parents, it dawned on my that there are far more people effected by ex-gay ministries than just those who try to change. Parents are profoundly affected as well, and we have yet to hear their stories.

I gave a presentation to our local PFLAG chapter last Wednesday talking about Love Won Out through the eyes of the parents who went there -- in other words, it was parent-centric, not ex-gay-centric. The presentation was a tremendous success. I think everyone there really identified with the parents who attended LWO and had so many questions that we ended up staying some forty minutes past the time we were supposed to give up the room.

At 3:07 PM , Blogger Seething Mom said...

Oh Peter, this post about your parents broke my heart! I hope you do not blame yourself for their experience with these horrible people.

I am the mother of a 21 year old gay son. I live in Arizona and I gave very serious thought to going to the Love Won Out conference in Phoenix, but not for the reasons that most of the other parents there had for going. I would have gone for one reason, and one reason only, to confront these evil, evil people. I am one major hothead when it comes to any of my children, and I would have most certainly ended up in Sheriff Joe Arpaio's tent city jail that day. No quack homophobe bigot is going to stand up there and blame this mama for anything. My son is smart, motivated, hard working, brave, compassionate, funny, kind, adventuresome, and wonderful --- that he is gay is simply a sidenote. Our son is the love of his dad's and my life, and we would not change one damn thing about him.

Your dad is a hero in my eyes for standing up and stating the obvious to these rotten people. And boy did he hit the nail on the head about common sense. But for me, it is not these ex-gay opportunistic, greedy frauds whose common sense I question, but the parents of the gay children who seek to change their children's sexual orientation. Where in God's name is their common sense?

Never, ever have I felt blame needed to be assigned for my son's sexual orientation. NEVER. As a parent I know my child better than anyone, and no one is ever going to convince me that his sexual orientation was not set at conception or shortly thereafter. NO ONE. I knew there was something that made him different from my other son almost from the day he was born and when I finally learned he was gay, every nagging question I had was instantaneously put to bed. I am completely flabergasted that any loving parent could buy into these ex-gay fraud's garbage that they somehow made their beloved child gay. And no one can tell me that many (if not all) of these parents did not see signs or have nagging little questions in the back of their minds about their gay child as well.

Did I wish in the beginning that my son was not gay? Yes, but only because I knew that his life was going to be fraught with added challenges, animosity, and hatred. No parent wants that for their child. And therein may be the reason why so many parents with gay children file into these ex-gay conferences --- to save their children from the very wolves standing up on the stage telling parents it is their fault for having a gay child in the first place.

Keep fighting the good fight and know there are parents right there in it with you.

Love Seething Mom

At 5:45 PM , Blogger Liadan said...

Holy moly, you look exactly like your dad. To the point where I was squinting and thinking "... those pictures look a little OLD to be of Peterson, but..."

Actually, this explains a lot of things I've heard from my parents, particularly my Focus-junkie mom. I remember things like "We're sorry we weren't good enough parents" or "I'm sorry I failed you" and thinking "...wait, who told you you failed as parents?"

At 6:04 PM , Blogger Jay said...

This was an amazing post, Peterson. One of the main reasons I've never been interested in any sort of ex-gay program was because of their theories regarding the parents of homosexuals.

My parents are and always have been among the most loving, compassionate, and caring people I know. Are they perfect? No. Was my childhood perfect? No. But would I ever think that they had anything to do with my same-sex attractions? No. To point fingers at them, I think, would be to fly in the face of the fith commandment.

Not to mention the fact that I'd really just have to be pulling stuff out of thin air. Mom and Dad did nothing wrong. Again, great post.

And you do look a lot like your father.

At 8:14 PM , Blogger Peterson Toscano said...

Yeah, I look a lot like my dad. I once went to a funeral in Long Island and a woman there, who once dated my dad in the early 50s, saw me and acted like she saw a ghost. I was the same age as when she dated my dad, and she swore I was him.

I do have my mom's eyes though. I love her eyes. So strange how we see parts of our parents in ourselves, especially now that my mom has died. In some ways they are always with us, genectically for sure, but in so many other ways.

Thanks for the comments. This was a difficult post to write, and I have been working on it since Easter. When I recently appeared on Tyra Banks with John Smid, the director of Love in Action, I had to work hard through the feelings I had.

seethingmom, I don't blame myself completely. The staff at LIA are responsible for what took place that weekend. But part of my recovery process has been to take responsibility for being in that program. I allowed them to inject their poison in me and as a result, I opened the door for my parents to experience the same.

During the family and friends weekend my dad said one of his classic lines that so cheered me that weekend.

After getting programmed to death and then getting jumped on for saying the wrong thing, then my mom getting picked at because she hadn't spoken in any of the group sessions, my dad turned to me in the car, "It's a hell of a program these people are running here. Yeah, last night they kicked my ass and this morning they kicked your mother's ass."

At the time I remember saying, "Yeah, that happens a lot around here."

Thanks for all your comments.

At 7:17 PM , Blogger Liz Opp said...


Thanks for this tender post and for allowing us another opportunity to see your vulnerability.

Not having gone through any experience like LIA--or even legitimate family therapy--it had never occurred to me how parents and siblings might be impacted and/or shamed this way.

I'm glad your family had the resilience it did to stay connected to one another, though, and that you were able to make peace with your mother before she died.

I realize that your theatrical activism is going off on its own direction, but I'd sure love to see a monologue of some sort (from the parent's perspective?) developed about what the ex-gay movement does to the family system... in case you are ever short on material, which I'm sure won't be the case for a long, long time--sadly.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

At 5:00 PM , Blogger Jonathan said...

I was reading Pam's thoughts on what she's learned from rep therapy on Ex-Gay Watch and Dr. Throckmorton's site. It made me think. Much like you've done here (excellent post by the way!!!)! No, I didn't attend any of the bootcamps out there, but at 18 my parents did find a Christian therapist who specialized in bannishing same sex attractions. He bought into the school of thought that the parents were to blame, particularly emphasizing broken relationships or bonds with the father.

My family wanted so desperately to believe I could be cured and I wanted to be "normal" so we bought into his theory. He suggested that my dad and I start meeting weekly to develope a relationship. Turned out to be an amazingly great idea! Those Friday night meetings that started when I was 18 continue today long after we realized that it wasn't a broken father/son relationship at all.

Truth be told, my relationship with my parents has always been good. Yes, my father was gone a good deal of the time. But there wasn't a day that went by that I didn't talk to him (and that was well before the days of cell phones). I have never doubted his love for me. When I finally was able to come out, he was the first parent I told. His response was unnerving to me (although I guess it shouldn't have been). He told me he loved me, respected me and supported me AND that his own experiences in counselling (he's a pastor) had helped him see that the "gay issue" was not nearly as black and white as the church often says it is.

More recently, as we've struggled with my partner's addiction, my father has been the one that I've leaned on for advice and comfort.

Lest I concentrate on dad too much, I've got to say that my mother has been a tower of strength, love and support my entire life.

I really don't know where these guys came up with the idea that parents are to blame for their kids "failed" sexuality. It does great damage to families. I think only because of the strength of my own family, were we able to weather what could have potentially been a debilitating attack.


At 1:46 PM , Blogger Jude said...

Awwh, man. As a parent-to-be, and so close to Mother's Day, that just kills me. To think of the LIA folks crushing your parents' spirits just hurts my heart, but the idea of your sister calling them and coming to their aid makes my heart soar. It amazes me that programs like LIA can exploit even the closest, kindest of families.



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