Homophobia is the Patient
Mary Lynne Ellis
Teresa was already in therapy with me when her son, some years ago, then in his early twenties, ‘came out’ to her as gay. Luigi had decided to ‘come out’ to her because he had begun a relationship with another young man which was important to him. Teresa felt extremely shocked, even if not surprised, and struggled to extend herself to Luigi through her desire for his happiness and against her terror of the possible significances of this for him and for herself. Horrific and threatening images of gay sex and sexualities, and of bizarre lifestyles, cascaded through her, their strangeness threatening to annihilate her. These unspeakable images were also suffused with loss: loss of the picture to which she had clung of her son as a prospective husband and father who would produce grandchildren within a conventional nuclear family situation. Her narrative was interwoven with a number of themes, most of which were conscious: anxieties relating to what were her own, albeit disowned, fantasies of unbounded sexual expression, her terror of the unknown, and feelings of loss in relation to her imagined future. Sometimes her son became the focus, almost arbitrarily, for any of her angry feelings.
Teresa is a highly intelligent woman from an Italian working class, Catholic background who was born in England. She began therapy because she was suffering from acute anxiety. Teresa’s anxiety is constantly shifting its focus and there are times when it is intensely focused particularly on her son’s homosexuality. I shall explore here the particular conscious and unconscious associations which have emerged for Teresa in relation to Luigi’s sexuality. Through this, I wish to raise the question as to whether this material can augment our understanding of the workings of homophobia in a more general way.
In the early part of her therapy, before her son ‘came out’ to her, Teresa often referred to her fear of God, who was constantly scrutinizing of her ‘bad thoughts’ and punitive. She is also averse to certain images of Christ, recalling a frightened curiosity in her childhood as to what might be underneath his loin-cloth. Teresa does not consciously recall being exposed to explicitly anti-homosexual teachings in the church as a child. However, she does remember her Catholic parents being vehemently anti-gay. Her scrutinizing of her own sexual thoughts and her guilt at these is also very evident.