Homophobic Therapist Dads, Gay Activist Sons in “When We Rise”

Last week’s miniseries When We Rise revealed, among many other things, two different unflattering portraits of real-life homophobic therapist dads reacting to their gay sons.

The first such pair we meet is Cleve Jones, the author of last year’s memoir When We Rise: My Life in the Movement, and his father (played by David Hyde Pierce), a psychologist who believes being gay is a sickness to be treated with electroshock or other brain-changing practices.

In the first episode Jones is an adolescent struggling with his budding identity. Now 62, he recently told Terry Gross, NPR, about his despair: “I was planning to kill myself when I was 15 because I thought I was the only queer in the world, and I didn’t want to live that way. And I didn’t want to be ashamed and beaten up, and then I read about gay liberation in Life magazine. And I decided not to kill myself, and I flushed the pills down the toilet.”

As Cleve had feared, his coming out to his parents several years later didn’t go so well. Having purposely waited until he was old enough, he then went off to San Francisco, where he eventually became a well-known activist.

Cleve says he had little contact with his father for at least a couple years after that. Tim Teeman, The Daily Beast: “His mother, a former dancer who taught dance well into her 70s, and he had a much closer relationship. His relationship with his father got close again after Jones was diagnosed HIV-positive and became sick. ‘Both of them were quite perfect in every way. They went to quilt displays and marches and became activists. There was a rapprochement’.”

Jones actually wants to write his next book about his father.

Another key but lesser figure in the mini-series is Richard Socarides, who was an adviser to President Bill Clinton. His father was psychiatrist Charles Socarides (1922-2005), founder of NARTH, the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality.

In When We Rise Richard (played by his actual younger brother Charles Socarides) is being tapped to aid Clinton on gay and lesbian issues when he has a significant exchange with Cleve Jones. “…Jones (played by Guy Pearce) confronts Richard and asks if he’s related to ‘that homophobe shrink who damned my entire generation.’ Richard turns around and politely says, ‘He’s my father; have a good day'” (Theater Mania).

Father Socarides, in fact, had pioneered conversion therapy, and Richard had yet to reveal to him his own sexual orientation. Influenced eventually by Cleve’s strong opinions, however, Richard decides to come out with it. Adam Nagourney, New York Times, recently got the real scoop from Richard about this scene shown in When We Rise:

‘In that interaction with my father, my father takes out a gun and puts it to his head and threatens to shoot himself,’ Mr. Socarides said. ‘Which actually happened. No one ever knew about it. It was really intense. I hadn’t told anybody that ever, because I was trying to protect him, or I guess in some way I was embarrassed or ashamed of myself. I felt enough time had passed.’

ABC News quotes additional info from Richard about this: “I knew that the gun probably was not loaded, I knew he wasn’t going to fire it. But it was very emotional and I probably did not react in real life as calmly as Charlie does in the film.”

But Charlie told Theater Mania: “Richard’s strength is his ability to remain composed and productive under pressure and not let these personal demons eat at him too much.”

Richard himself to The New Yorker in 2013: I don’t think my coming out to my dad was harder or easier than anyone else’s. I didn’t come out to the founder of conversion therapy. I came out to my father.”

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