Mommy Liked Me Best (And Why It Matters as a Gay Son)

Mommy Liked Me Best (And Why It Matters as a Gay Son)

by Rick Miller
What psychotherapists and counselors should know about the bond between gay sons and their mothers, and why it’s critical to healthy identity development.
Filed Under: LGBT


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Unconditional Love

I knew that title would get your attention — it usually does! And better still, it’s true. My mother, while not unloving with my siblings, did like me best — and, growing up, I rubbed it in at every opportunity. It gave me a sort of tangible superiority.

I’m gay, I felt different, I was different
The superiority I felt vis-à-vis my siblings was profound. I got to flaunt my power — and, boy, did that feel good! Let me explain. I’m gay, I felt different, I was different. Convincing myself that Mommy liked me best was not only the way I managed to navigate childhood and adolescence but has since become a major area of my clinical research and work.

I didn’t just use that expression throughout my childhood; I also used it in my opening line for my TEDx talk, The Mother Factor: Acceptance Works Both Ways. I always knew this truism meant the world to me, but for a long time I couldn’t understand why. Little did I know that decades later, much of my professional work would be devoted to researching and understanding the relationships between mothers and their gay sons, not just for me, but for the world at large. This topic is both crucial and, unfortunately, overlooked. But not by someone whose mother really did love him best!

When I was growing up, I thought everybody was like me. I was raised in an upper-middle-class family in an affluent suburb in the 1960s and ‘70s. The notion of a traditional, intact family with the financial means to live well, go on family vacations in the station wagon, and enable children to get a good education was very much how we all lived.

When I was a kid, I didn’t have the vocabulary to know I was gay, but I certainly knew that I was different. Our neighborhood had lots of kids, roaming the streets and playing together after dinner and on weekends. While I always had best guy friends nearby, I gravitated toward my sister and her friends. Their activities were way more fun for me! Hopscotch with colored chalk drawn on the street, playing with Barbie dolls and their accompanying accessories… it was all an endless source of fascination.

I never got scolded by my mom for breaking in and making outfits for Barbie
I never got scolded by my mom for breaking in and “making outfits” for Barbie, though now she’ll claim she didn’t know. How could she not? I think she knew and was just waiting for me to understand myself. The truth is that many boys were humiliated, mocked, even physically abused for preferring dolls over baseballs. My sister had no patience for my playing with her toys — understandably — so my maternal grandmother got me a Ken doll outfitted with a khaki military suit…which did absolutely nothing for me.

My sister’s attempts to sway me away from Barbie failed! At the same time, my grandfather tried to engage me in sports, teaching me to play catch and to try and enjoy baseball. He bought me a baseball glove, and while I enjoyed the feel and scent of the new leather, I wasn’t particularly inspired. Another failed attempt.

Fortunately, my mother never tried to influence me or have me do things differently. I was fortunate, though I didn’t know it; I assumed all mothers were like her. My parents owned a woman’s clothing store, so style, fashion, and fabric were a common language for my family. My mother was always stylish and — as you can imagine — I enjoyed helping her with her outfit choices, and she relied on my skill set.

a good enough mother allows her child to be who they want to be
She and I also did a lot of activities together. I was the youngest of three, and even though my siblings weren’t that much older than me, I had a lot of time alone with my mom. We went skiing from when I was 6 through my college years, rode bikes, shopped, raised various household pets together, did yard projects, wallpapered (and re-wallpapered!) the house, and did most of these things enjoying each other’s company.

Growing Up Gay

What I later learned, as a therapist, is that a “good enough” mother allows her child to be who they want to be. She might not know it’s what she’s doing, but she’s safeguarding the child’s sense of well-being and mental health. I was fortunate to receive this kind of acceptance, especially because she most likely knew my “secret,” my difference from the other boys, and none of it mattered to her.

Our relationship was steady and reliable, and the fact that my mother lived up to the expectations of how a good mother raises her child (let alone a gay son) was crucial to my own mental health. Decades later, as I did research about this relationship, it became clear to me that a mother’s intrinsic awareness and support is a lifeline for so many gay boys who were humiliated or alienated in so many other settings.

When I was growing up, my mother was athletic, thin, good-looking, casual, and a little irreverent. People loved these qualities about her; for me, they defined how she was special, and how her specialness reflected on me. I was her son, and I loved how she was admired by others. It was as if I were the one getting complimented! Some would have defined this as enmeshment (not that she was enmeshed with me; it was, rather, me with her).

But during the early ‘70s, the messages mothers received from the medical and mental-health communities were that they were responsible for making their sons gay by indulging them. The very thing that we now know was essential for our well-being was exactly what was pathologized by the medical and mental-health communities. Many mothers who conformed to authority followed the advice of those communities, thereby wounding their children, while other mothers, like mine, had the strength not to conform to expectations. They just kept mothering. This simple act is more significant than anything else.

my teenage years at times were not easy, like many other gay teens
My teenage years at times were not easy, like many other gay teens. My love of style was supported by my mother with shopping trips and clothes purchased based on my likes. I was aware of feeling different, my peers were starting to make fun of me, and it continued until I graduated high school.

One of the more shameful moments was my new slate blue bell-bottom corduroy pants with a plaid fabric insert and a matching jacket I got in 8th grade (As you can see, I remember this outfit well). Just one driveway away from my house, the taunting began, because of the outfit that I was feeling like a million bucks in. This was only one time of many. To this day I can list who taunted me and it was humiliating.

I remember feeling miserable, feeling too ashamed to tell anybody about being made fun of, and wishing I could go to a private school where (hopefully/maybe) this wouldn’t happen. But I never had the courage to tell my parents about my feelings since it would only reveal my secret. Instead, I endured the pain.

Luckily, I had several friends who, throughout my high school years, turned into a large peer group that was totally close and fun. Their bonds saved me.

[editquote;aside from my friends being accepting of me, there was also my mom]Aside from my friends being accepting of me, there was also my mom. We didn’t have any discussions about life, or feelings — that wasn’t anything she’d have felt comfortable with. No surprise that I later became a therapist. But what I got from my mom surpassed any conversations we might have shared. Acceptance and her good company were key.

When I was a teenager, we took day trips together, our bikes strapped to the car so we could ride around coastal towns and beautiful places. We went skiing together and did home projects that were a lot of fun. We always got along well and enjoyed our time together. She was easy to be with, and casual. It was just that simple. Imagine that such simple acts could lead to self-esteem and a healthy sense of self as an adult.

My mother got something concrete out of the relationship as well: as long as she had a son who had talents in certain domains, why not take advantage of his skills by enlisting his help in outfit selections and wallpaper designs? That she did!

Though I grew up in an upper-middle-class Jewish family where friends, neighbors, and community members embodied the stereotypes of Jewish habits and activities, everybody who knew my mom knew she had her own way of relating to the world. Oh, it passed the aesthetic tests of Jewish motherhood, but she was humorous and casual and never felt a need to conform.

Two examples of how my mom was different involved a Playgirl Magazine and her red sports car. My mother was always a collector (and still is). She knew what would be worth saving over the years — sometimes a few too many things — and somehow the year I was 12, in 1973, she got the first edition of Playgirl Magazine with TV actor Ryan MacDonald in the centerfold. The magazine sat on top of the avocado side-by-side refrigerator for years, and she pinned the centerfold in the cabana by the pool where guests changed into bathing suits. It remained pinned on the wall though my high school years; I’ll leave you to consider its impact on my level of excitement.

Then there was her sports car, a red 1974 Datsun 260Z. I wasn’t quite driving yet when she got it. Since it was a two-seater, we had many fun trips à deux. I learned to drive standard on that Datsun, and I drove it pretty much through high school when she didn’t need it. Now, in our suburban town not many mothers had a car like this, and the license plate bearing the name SUZAN was quite recognizable as well! I now own the car, with the old license plate hanging in my garage; and of course, she gave me the Playgirl Magazine as well — a sign of her acceptance of me.

Evolving into a Therapist

As I have matured and listened to so many clients’ experiences with their mothers, I realize how fortunate I’ve been. My sense of self and success as a psychotherapist is attributable to both of my parents, yet my bond with my mother has been the most important to me.

the relationships between gay sons and their mothers were obviously overlooked
Over the years, I’ve occasionally and for various reasons asked my gay male clients to bring their mothers in for a session. I quickly learned I wasn’t the only one that was mom’s favorite, that this similar dynamic existed in many gay son/mother dyads. My interest in this dynamic prompted me to look for literature about gay sons and their mothers, and surprisingly, on the whole web, there was only one article and one short blog post. The relationships between gay sons and their mothers were obviously overlooked — and, let’s face it, this project had my name on it.

So now researching, writing, and teaching about this topic, along with establishing the nonprofit Gay Sons and Mothers is my life’s work. It is a project of passion and also a legacy.

At the start of all this, I recorded an audio file for Mother’s Day entitled “Thanks, Mom” and posted it on YouTube. I said, “I recognize how fortunate l have been to enjoy my mother’s unquestioning love throughout the years. My ordinary story is actually an extraordinary one, and I am so grateful to her.

From my mother’s love, I have had the courage to take risks and have the confidence to be myself. A successful career, a sense of style, putting myself out there, making eye contact and trusting that I am a likeable person are just the qualities of who I am today as a result.”

Sharing it with her a few years ago on Mother’s Day allowed us to have a brief but intimate conversation that synopsized our relationship. For the first time ever, she told me that I’d been a joy to raise, an easy child, and that we’d always had fun times together. She didn’t come out and say I was her favorite, but she did say the bond we shared was quite different from her experiences with her other children. I felt so good hearing this, and I’ll remember this conversation forever as something both casual — and pivotal. She refers to this Mother’s Day piece as her eulogy, and as I will undoubtedly be the one delivering a eulogy that I plan when the time comes, I know already exactly what I’ll say.

“Your love will stay with me for a lifetime. Thank you, Mom.”

Rick Miller Rick C. Miller, LICSW, is a psychotherapist in private practice, host of the Secrets of the Masters video series, founder and executive director of Gay Sons and Mothers, and co-host of the podcast Modern Couples: What Your Therapist Never Told You. His TEDx talk, The Mother Factor, grew out of his work with his nonprofit, which collects, celebrates, and shares worldwide narratives of gay men and their mothers to support LGBTQ+ training and awareness, enrich myriad diverse communities, and enable rapprochement, understanding, and healing. He is a frequent speaker at conferences for a myriad of academic and professional organizations and author of Unwrapped: Integrative Therapy with Gay Men and Mindfulness Tools for Gay Men in Therapy and writes a regular column for Psychology Today. His website is Rick Miller