My father and I haven’t spoken in about ten years. We never really had a good relationship, but that seemed to change when my mother died. He became more tolerant, more open to change, but old patterns re-emerged after he remarried. Then I came out and met my late partner, which totally changed things. We were allowed at family gatherings, but those events were strained and always made Jim and I feel “less than.” My father eventually forced me to make a choice. It wasn’t him.
I offer this not for sympathy, but as an introduction to my thoughts on Sarah Schulman’s compelling and thought-provoking new book, “Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences.” There are no ties that bind tighter than family bonds, and no one can hurt you as easily or as deeply as your family. Schulman rightly postulates that abusive behavior in the family unit encourages and enables abusive treatment of gay men and women in general society.
Almost every member of the community can attest to the veracity of this position, and our usual reaction is to withdraw, as I did. Although withdrawl alleviates the immediate hurt, it hardly cures the problem. The offending family members “get a pass” without changing their behavior, and we are left out of our natural family unit, forced to create outside support systems and new “families” to whom we are not related except by common circumstance.
Schulman’s solution is simple yet devestatingly complex – third party intervention as societal obligation. We do it for alcoholics and domestic abusers, right? But we’re talking about intervention in the family, that most private and personal of all our building blocks. However, as (I believe) Carl Rogers said, “What is most personal is most universal,” and if we can solve homophobia in that unit, the gains will eventually show in society as a whole.
This intervention, however, is not without risk. You will definitely lose a relationship with your co-worker if you tell him that his treatment of his gay son is disrespectful and not right. But if you don’t tell him, who will? We all know the answer. No one.
Schulman tackles this ambitious subject with clear-headed, jargon-free prose that is as readable as it is sensible. She illustrates her points with very personal examples from within her own family as well as her therapy sessions. And she doesn’t linger on or belabor those points. She makes them and moves on, resulting in a short book whose brevity belies its gravity. It’s an important and original work that deserves to be read by every member of our community – and their families.
As for me and my father, I fear it’s too late and we’re both too old to change our behaviors at this point. Too much water under the bridge, so to speak. But I hope Schulman’s book and its inevitable imitators will encourage intervention in other, more malleable families and damn the consequences – because the only consequence that should concern us is equality.
Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler