The Good Doctor

By Jon Barrett

Originally published on Advocate.com April 12 2011 9:00 AM ET

Watch video of the interview below and click here to see videos from Dr. Phil's gay themed episodes over the years. 

 

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 Nobody questions that Dr. Phil McGraw is opinionated, blunt, and never hesitates to speak his mind. But pro-gay? People who don’t watch his daytime talk show, about to start its 10th season, might be surprised to hear that this host has been speaking out in support of gay interests — especially in support of gay and questioning youth — since day one.

In fact, McGraw is so supportive that we at The Advocate were somewhat confounded in February when a few online outlets reported advice, posted on DrPhil.com, suggesting that the mother of a young son “take the girl things away” from her son “and buy him boy toys.” We reported on the advice on Advocate.com and, as a result, helped stoke a lively online conversation about its merits.

What we didn’t do initially is report all of McGraw’s advice to the mother: that the toys would have no bearing on her son’s sexual orientation and that once her son realizes what his orientation is, “it won’t be a choice; it will be something that he’s pre-wired to do.” And because the advice was posted on the show’s website, we didn’t call any Dr. Phil reps to confirm that it was indeed McGraw’s advice. If we had called, we would have learned (as we did when the reps called us) that the advice was from a show McGraw taped in 2002.

Our missteps resulted in the opportunity to sit down with McGraw — both to talk about his nine-year-old advice and to further examine the roots of his strong support for gay youth, marriage equality, and the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Whether you’re an avid Dr. Phil show viewer or not—or whether you read the abbreviated transcript of the conversation below or view a video of the full conversation on Advocate.com — I think you’ll be surprised by what Dr. Phil has to say.

The Advocate: Thank you for having me here, Dr. Phil. And congratulations on what I understand are 1,500 episodes so far?
Dr. Phil: We just passed 1,500. We’re in our ninth season. So I had five years on Oprah and nine years on here, so I’ve been doing this for 14 years.

And since some of those first episodes, you’ve been talking about gay issues.
I have. We deal with what we call the silent epidemics in America, and I think so much of the treatment of the gay and lesbian community is silent — and should not be.

Were you surprised by the rash of teen suicides this fall?
Well, I’m not sure that we have had an upswing or an uptick in suicides in the gay and lesbian community. I’m not even sure we’ve had an uptick with gay, lesbian, or questioning youth. I think what we have is an Internet that has become more prolific and so some of these stories that might have frankly been buried before, or have been local or regional, now have the wherewithal to become national stories.

I assume you agree that hearing about it more is a good thing.
I think hearing about it more is a good first step. But I think as Americans, we’re a little ADD and I think we jump from headline to headline to headline, and you can hear a story about a young person that has been bullied or picked on, taken their own life or whatever, and that can get the attention of the public for this much. But when the next headline comes along, they move on. We don’t need just to talk about it more, we need to sit down and have some intelligent discussions about what we’re going do about it. I mean, we know that gay and lesbian youth are bullied and picked on at a much higher rate than other kids. And there are other at-risk groups as well. But it is a real problem for gay and lesbian youth and that’s not going to change until we do something about it, and when I say something about it, that means we’ve got to educate the people that are in a position to recognize it, prevent it, remediate it when it’s happening. And we’re not going to do that until we get some legislative power behind it because it takes money. It takes money to put things into the curriculum. It takes money to train teachers, many of whom may have very antiquated views about things. It needs to be part of the curriculum. A curriculum of inclusion, a curriculum of acceptance. This isn’t a thing where you put up a poster on the bulletin board the first day of school and say, “We don’t bully and we don’t pick on this and we accept all different people that might be different than ourselves.” It needs to be an ongoing dialogue where it becomes part of what shapes the minds of the people that are doing the bullying.

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 Have you always been so supportive?
Well, I think, I certainly hope, that I am a work in progress. I certainly hope that I am an evolving project. But things did not sit right with me about this, dating back to my original training. And I’m 60 years old, obviously. So my schooling was back in the ’70s and at that time homosexuality was a diagnostic category in the DSM manual, used by the American Psychiatric and American Psychological Association. And the wisdom that was taught then was that gay was a lifestyle, that it was learned. And there were many schools of thought that said it was the product of a domineering mother and a weak father. And this is what was taught in that time and that era and so I was influenced by that, but it never set right with me. I think I was a bit of a rebel about that at the time, but I don’t think there was ever a moment of awakening on my part. It just didn’t add up to me.

Did you, or do you, have very many gay people in your life?

Well, I haven’t called roll, I don’t know how many gay friends I have or don’t have, but I have many, and you know, it’s interesting. This is maybe a big issue media-wise or publicly, but in your life, if you have kind of an attitude of acceptance and inclusion, it’s just not an issue for even two minutes. I mean, people are who they are, and I know gay people that I don’t like, we’re not friends. I know gay people that I do and we are, but it has nothing to do with their sexual orientation.

That’s fair. I wanted to talk to you a little bit about some advice you gave a woman back in 2002, when you started the show, and she had asked you about her son, who was playing with girlish toys. I believe you had told her that was no indication of how he was going to turn out, what his sexual orientation was going to be…
You know, it’s interesting to me that somebody would even consider that in that light. If you understand that your sexual orientation is a hard-wired genetic DNA reality and not a learned lifestyle, then what toys you play with is not going to determine whether you’re straight or gay, you’re not going to take a child that is hard-wired to be gay and give him G.I. Joe and so he becomes straight, and you’re not going to give a kid a Barbie and so he becomes gay. What I said to the parents at the time, you don’t like the toys he’s playing with, take them away from him and give him some different toys. You’re the parent, be a parent. If you think that your kid’s playing too many video games, get rid of the video games. If you think they’re playing too many sports, then, you know, don’t let them do that. But it has nothing to do with programming their sexuality.

So your suggestion that she take the toys away had more to do with her discomfort with him playing with those toys?
Well, I think it had to do with her discomfort and what she thought was confusing to him. Maybe you can help me here. Do gay boy children play with girl toys?

Some do.
I’ve never heard that.

I think some straight boys play with girl toys.
My kids played with the boxes. I mean, you give them a toy, they throw the toy away and play with the box. But I’ve never seen any research that said young male children that grow up to be gay preferred female toys.

No, I don’t think that’s true. I think that people would hope, though, that parents would be comfortable enough with the child’s choice of toys and that — like you said — that wouldn’t have an effect on their sexual orientation.

Well, that’s a parenting issue. That’s not a gay or straight issue, that’s a parenting issue. And parents have the right to choose what toys they want to expose their children to. Like for example, I’m not a hunter. I’ve never had a cross word with a deer, so what am I going to go track one down and shoot it for?

What do you think about gender identity disorder? Maybe we’re talking about a child who, maybe, is born as a boy but is starting to identify possibly as a girl?
I don’t think that he would be drawn to those toys because of his genetic encoding. I mean, we identify things socially as being male or female. There’s nothing inherently female about a Barbie. It’s like eating breakfast. There aren’t breakfast foods. We just decided that we’re going to eat cereal in the morning instead of a cheeseburger. That’s not because some foods are breakfast foods. We just decide that and we assign that to different things, and I think we have to be cautious about doing that.

So would your advice have changed if you were asked that question today?
I don’t think so. I think a parent has a right and a responsibility to do what they think is appropriate for their child at the time. Now, there are limits to that. If a parent had a child that believed that they were gay or lesbian and [the parents] said, “Well, we’re not going to have that, you’re going to go do this,” and so you’re now telling a child that has their own mind to be somebody they’re not, then I think now you’re in a situation where those parents need to be counseled.
  So parents need to be careful, then?
I think they need to be very careful, and I think that you need to have a dialogue with your kids about sexuality. I think you need to have a dialogue about differences in sexuality, not only in terms of when they become sexually active, but how they identify themselves, and they need to know we have so many gay and lesbian youth that have suffered because they don’t perceive an air of acceptance within their own family. If this was a dialogue that was had before this even ever became an issue or a question, that child would predict acceptance, that child would predict support, that child would know that we have a family that is inclusive, they wouldn’t go through all of that pain. So I don’t think this is a conversation you have with your kids if you think it may be an issue. I think it’s a conversation you have with your kids to make them well-rounded in terms of their own expectations and how they would react to others in the world. It’s not a conversation, it’s a dialogue. Kids process at a different rate and in age-appropriate ways.

Did you have these conversations with your children when they were growing up?
Yes, and we had the conversations because they were often stimulated by religious teachings. They would come home and say, you know, I know how we talk and how we feel about this, but when I have these religious teachings that seem to fly in the face of that. And so it was really a great stimulus for us to talk about those things and — and resolve that. Psychology and religion have always been considered to be a clash of ideologies, where you had science and faith coming together, and that had to be mutually exclusive. As a career psychologist, I never saw it that way at all. So I always talked to them about that because, you know, they would hear again, psychology is antireligion and I’d say, “No, no. That’s not true. You can have conflicts, but you don’t have to have conflicts,” and then when other things came up like sexuality, then it was natural for us to have those conversations.

Speaking of conflict, I know two years ago you had the only daytime talk show that devoted an hour to Prop. 8, where half of your audience was for the proposition and half of them were against the proposition. How did that come about?
Well, I can tell you when it was over we had to put a roof back on the building, because it got very passionate and very heated, but I will say in acknowledging both sides of the debate that I thought we had a very intelligent discussion. People had serious disagreements with one another about what was right and not right. I truly believe that the basis of all bias, prejudice, and stereotypical thinking is born in ignorance. If you give people information, I think they will process it and embrace it.

I think people who don’t watch your show might be surprised that you’re so supportive of gay causes. Do you think this is as a result of some misconceptions we might have of white men from Texas?
Yeah, I think they think this little boy’s a redneck mouth-breather [laughing] and there’s no way he’s going to be informed and enlightened, and you know what? I’ll tell you, I’m very proud of the Dr. Phil show. And I’m not talking about myself in the third person. I’m proud of the show. We have 300 people on the staff here. We have many gay and lesbian adults who work here. But we do our homework. Because I know people listen to what I say and I think they’re entitled to hear the truth as I see it, and we have a very blue-ribbon advisory board here that most people don’t know about. We have the top minds in psychology and psychiatry, medicine, sociology, nursing. Many of them from the top learning centers in the country, from Harvard University, Yale, Stanford, UCLA, USC, University of Texas. All of these top learning centers, and two former presidents of the American Psychological Association are on the advisory board. We try to make sure that we give people accurate information. They don’t always have to agree with it, and if it is controversial, I will put the opposing side on the show. So I never underestimate my viewers, and I think they’re intelligent as a group and I think they’re inquisitive, they ask questions and make up their own minds. If they ask me where I stand on an issue, I tell them.