Coming out: How parents react is crucial
Chong Siow Ann
Published in The Straits Times
Nov 21, 2015, 5:00 am SGT
The delicate-looking young man was compelled to see me by his mother,
who sat with him in an outpatient consultation room at the Institute of
Mental Health. It soon transpired that she wanted me to "cure" him of
his homosexuality - a word she couldn't bring herself to say.
Homosexuality was described as "a pathological deviation of normal
sexual development" by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and
listed as a disorder. This is no longer the case. Following the vigorous
protests of gay rights activists, the APA in 1973 had its membership
vote on the issue of its classification. The outcome was the elimination
of homosexuality as a disorder - and that was "the first time in
history that a disease was eradicated at the ballot box", quipped
psychotherapist and author Gary Greenberg.
Until well into the last century, the prevailing orthodoxy was that a
homosexual individual was either depraved and ought to be punished, or
was sick and, therefore, in need of treatment.
Mr Alan Turing was a brilliant British mathematician who, in the
midst of World War II, figured out the workings of the Enigma, the
seemingly unbreakable cipher machine that the German military was using
for its communications. Celebrated as a war hero, he was credited to
have helped bring the war to an earlier end. But, in 1952, he was
convicted on homosexuality charges. To stave off imprison-ment, he
subjected himself to chemical castration with female hormones with the
intent of suppressing his "unnatural" desires. Whether this led to his
suicide a year later remains unanswered.
Currently, there are some therapists (and self-styled therapists) who
offer sexual reorientation therapy for gays and lesbians. This sort of
therapy, covering a slew of different approaches, aims to change a
person's sexual orientation.
Most major mental health organisations have explicitly voiced their
disapprobation about the lack of evidence of the effectiveness and
expressed disquiet about the possible harmfulness of such therapy. They
have also renounced the idea that homosexuality per se was something
that could or should be cured or corrected.
In 1991, a neuroscientist named Simon LeVay published in the journal
Science his post-mortem brain study of a small group of homosexual and
heterosexual men. He reported that a particular region in the anterior
hypothalamus - a part of the brain that is long believed to have a role
in sexual behaviour - was, on average, more than twice the size in
heterosexual men as in homosexual men.
(Prior to that in the 1970s, East German surgeons attempted
unsuccessfully to eliminate homosexuality in men by operating on the
hypothalamus). LeVay's study heralded many other studies that searched
for a biological substrate of homosexuality, including those that
examined the effects of sex hormones on foetal development and the
genetics of sexual orientation.
So far, there is strong evidence that biological factors do play an
important role in the development of sexual orientation, though it is
currently not clear to what extent. What is known at this point is that
sexual orientation represents a highly complex behavioural trait with
multiple determinants, including genetic and hormonal factors
interacting with one another.
Stemming from this is the fact that homosexuality (as with
heterosexuality) is an inborn characteristic which is involuntary in
people and is, therefore, not a matter of choice.
The analogy that is sometimes used for homosexuality in the politics
of gay rights is the innate characteristic of one's race. Just as people
should not suffer discrimination because of their race, homosexual
people should be legally protected against discrimination, and the
stigmatisation of homosexuality is hence the equivalent of racism - so
goes the argument.
There is also the notion that if science can clearly show
homosexuality to be biologically determined and immutable, there will be
greater societal acceptance.
But science alone will not enable us to reach a more ecumenical take
on the status of homosexuality in our society. The issue is too riven by
a cacophonous mix of religion, culture and politics, and too freighted
for any calm discussion among the different camps.
The tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality varies from one country
to another. In June this year, the US Supreme Court ruled that the
Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage, while in Uganda
gays have been hunted and killed, and lesbians in South Africa have been
subjected to "corrective rape". In Singapore, a same-sex relationship
(more precisely, "any act of gross indecency" between men as stated in
Section 377A of Singapore's Penal Code) is a criminal offence punishable
The possibility of becoming a felon didn't stop the young man in my
clinic from seeking kinship and acceptance among the gay subculture and
community outside his family. He felt the stirring of this same-gender
attraction in his pubertal years.
"To reach puberty and find oneself falling in love with members of
one's own sex is to experience a mixture of self-discovery and
self-disgust that never leaves a human consciousness," wrote Mr Andrew
Sullivan, the former editor of The New Republic and who is a Roman
Catholic gay. "If the stigma is attached… to the deepest desires of the
human heart, then it can eat away at a person's sense of his own dignity
with peculiar ferocity. When a young person confronts her sexuality,
she is also completely alone…The very people she would most naturally
turn to - the family - may be the very people she is most ashamed in
In his autobiography On The Move, the neurologist and writer Oliver
Sacks narrated the scene when his mother "with a face of thunder, a face
I had never seen before" confronted him over his homosexuality. "You
are an abomination…I wish you had never been born," she told him and did
not speak to him for several days.
When she did speak, she made no mention of what she had said and
never after that, but Mr Sacks felt that things were never the same
again - "something had come between us".
Decades later, in his 80s and obviously still hurting, he
rationalised: "We are all creatures of our upbringing, our cultures, our
times… My mother did not mean to be cruel, to wish me dead…But her
words haunted me for much of my life."
In that moment of realisation and in their appalled imagination,
these parents perhaps envisage a bleak future where their children would
encounter a gauntlet of prejudice and discrimination. Maybe, too, some
parents mind very much that they would, henceforth, be seen as parents
of a gay child - an identity which they might find shameful and
Most straight parents would want their children to be straight and if
things turn out otherwise, their first impulse would be to "get the
problem fixed", as with this young man's mother who had sought help from
me with such desperate hopefulness. After a long discussion, as they
left my clinic, I could not miss the sense of her profound
That was years ago and I have not seen them since. In hindsight, I
wished I had told the mother that parental reaction to such revelation
can significantly influence the young person's self-esteem and
irreparably shape his expectations of acceptance or rejection by others
outside the family.
There will be some parents who will reject their offspring and
continue to feel repulsed; some will insist that their child remain in
the closet than to come out and face the external world with its varying
shades of homophobia. But some will, with time and habituation, and by
dint of parental love, come to tolerate and accept this part of their
• The writer is vice-chairman of the medical board (research) at the Institute of Mental Health.