Michael is 26-years-old and lives with his partner Greg. His mother passed away when he was 16. He stayed with his father until he was 22, shortly after completing his Honours Degree. Michael describes his childhood as mostly a happy experience. This changed after his mother died.

Throughout his life, Michael experienced his relationship with his father as being complicated and somewhat strained.

Shortly before he moved out, Michael came out to his father and remembers how cold and indifferent his father appeared. They hardly talk nowadays, aside from the brief call here and there, mostly on each other’s birthday and over Christmas.

Greg is 28-years-old and comes from a conservative background, where his father is the patriarch of the family. Greg is very close to his mother, and recalls how loving and involved she had been in his life while growing up. His father, on the other hand, always seemed distant and uninvolved, and would only make ‘an appearance’ when called upon to solve a particular problem or nuisance, and administer some discipline. Greg has always felt nervous or apprehensive around his father.

Greg came out to his parents when he was 18. He recalls how his mother reacted in a highly emotional manner, and how his father subsequently kicked him out the house for being a ‘complete disgrace to the family’. Over the next few months his mother reached out to him. He never heard from his father. Greg’s relationship with his family has improved and he has now been ‘allowed’ back in, with the unspoken agreement that no one ever speaks about the fact that Greg is gay or that he flaunts his gayness in front of his father.

Michael and Greg’s friend, Adam, is also 26 years old. He also comes from a very traditional family. Growing up, his father put a lot of pressure on him and his older brother to play rugby. In contrast to Michael and Greg, Adam’s father was very involved, possibly to the point of being overbearing. Adam recalls how his father would repeatedly poke fun at ‘sissies’ and ‘moffies’.

When he came out to his parents at age 18, his father and older brother became physically violent. It almost seemed like they were hoping to ‘beat the gay out of him’.

The violent outbursts continued for almost a year. His mother remained quietly supportive on the side. Eventually Adam moved out and stayed with another family member. Adam still has a lot of contact with his family. They still tease him for being ‘less than a man’ and he has come to accept that they will never accept him for who he is.

Although these experiences are by no means universal, these stories reveal a common theme that is shared by many gay men:

  • their relationship with their father is generally less satisfying than their relationships with their mothers; and

  • they experience their father as generally less involved, distant, cold, critical, conservative, rigid, autocratic, sexist, unsupportive, and/or homo-negative in their attitudes.

These central themes are supported by a growing body of evidence that demonstrates that

  • families of gay men are deeply immersed in a broader heterosexist culture, and therefore adopt many of its heterosexist assumptions and biases;

  • most gay sons are more likely to disclose their sexual orientation firstly, and in some cases solely, to their mothers;

  • most gay sons experience their mothers as generally open, close, involved, sensitive and supportive;

  • most gay sons perceive their relationship with their mother before and after coming out as largely unchanged;

  • most gay sons find it more difficult to come out to their fathers directly, and generally anticipate a more negative response from them;

  • most gay men who come out directly to their fathers are generally motivated by the hope that the disclosure will elicit direct support from him;

  • most gay sons generally perceive their fathers as being less understanding and less supportive than their mothers over the longer term;

  • most gay sons perceive their relationship with their father before and after coming out as less positive;

  • most gay sons generally feel that their relationship with their father could improve, especially in terms of communication; and

  • lastly, brothers are less likely to be accepting of a gay sibling than sisters, and are more likely to react with physical violence.

Much of this research is based on direct accounts given by gay sons and their mothers. Virtually no research has been documented that explores in any depth the nature of the father-son relationship from the father’s perspective, especially before, during, and after coming out. This gap in our understanding is surprising given consistent findings that point towards a poorer father-son relationship between many gay men and their fathers.

More broadly, however, considerable research has been conducted to uncover and understand the social factors associated with homophobia or homo-negativity. This body of research consistently indicates that homo-negativity is associated with:

  • being male;

  • a traditional masculine gender role orientation;
  • a conservative religious ideology;
  • sexism;
  • racism;
  • an authoritarian personality style;
  • being older;
  • being less educated;
  • fundamentalism;
  • dogmatism;
  • the belief that sexual orientation is a choice;
  • a lack of empathic concern;
  • mental rigidity; and
  • a lack of prior contact with gay men.

Although these factors provide useful insights into the potential reasons behind some people’s negative attitudes towards gay men, the extent to which these factors also apply to fathers of gay men remains to be seen.

It is generally assumed that fathers, like most people, are also immersed in a broader heterosexist culture, and therefore not necessarily immune to the prevailing attitudes, beliefs, values and expectations shared in this context. But more research is needed to fully understand the role of these factors, especially when it comes to fathers. For example, noting these factors, we still do not understand why some fathers are in fact more tolerant, accepting and supportive than some of their counterparts.

Why the need to understand fathers and their contribution to the quality of the father-son relationship you might be asking? Well, it is believed that gay men stand to benefit enormously from an improved relationship with their fathers. This is based on research that suggests that:

  • fathers uniquely and independently influence a range of child and adult outcomes;

  • fathers can have a significant impact on the self and adult attachment patterns of gay men;

  • fathers can play an active role in providing access to love, support, and protection in times of need; and that

  • fathers can potentially play a significant role in buffering gay adolescents against mental health problems associated with victimisation and internalised homo-negativity.

In order to achieve this, we need to understand the dynamics of the father-son relationship and how fathers and sons both contribute in different ways to the quality of this relationship.

Jacques Livingston is a Psychologist/Health and Well-being Manager at OUT Well-being, a LGBT non-profit organisation based in Hatfield, Pretoria. He is currently working towards his Doctorate in Psychology at UNISA with a study on ‘The Meanings and Experiences that Shape Heterosexual F

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