Dr. Phil's Relationship Surprises: Recap and Analysis

October 8, 2009

Dr. Phil

On Thursday October 8th the Dr. Phil Show aired the episode  “Relationship Surprises.” The intro had Dr. Phil surveying the audience for reactions to the controversy surrounding the extra-marital affair of former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, but the majority of the episode focused on issues of sexual orientation. Jane Velez-Mitchell, host of HLN’s Issues with Jane Velez-Mitchell, was Dr. Phil’s first guest. She told the story, which is the subject of her new memoir, I Want, of her battle with alcoholism and her struggle to come out of the closet to herself and the world.
“Once I didn’t have the alcohol to self-medicate suddenly all these other feelings started coming up. Essentially I had to admit to myself that I’m gay…[It] was kind of a chain reaction of honesty. I got honest about my addiction and then I got honest about my sexual orientation.”
Jane Velez-Mitchell

Jane Velez-Mitchell

Velez-Mitchell, who has been sober since 1995, came out to friends and family before coming out publicly during a KABC radio show with Al Rantel,  an openly gay conservative.  During the course of the show, in which the two of them were discussing Sen. Larry Craig, Mitchell said she began to feel like a hypocrite for not revealing to the audience that she was gay and living with a woman, so she did just that. Dr. Phil’s second guest was Barbara, a single lesbian who decided to have a child via in-vitro fertilization at age thirty-nine, and has now begun to question her sexual orientation for the first time. Dr Phil questioned whether her new feelings for men were the result of an image in her mind or a social concept she has, now that she’s a mother. Barbara responded:
“I know that I want the best for her ..…[I] don’t want her to start off with a strike against her in any way so I guess that’s what’s attractive about it. Like you said,  the husband, the white picket fence. That’s why I’m confused. I’m wondering if it has more to do with what I want for her…”
Dr. Phil was supportive of Barbara questioning her identity without putting pressure on her to decide. He encouraged her to relax and “see where it goes.” At GLAAD’s request, the Dr. Phil Show invited Denise Penn, a clinical social worker who sits on the board of directors for the American Institute of Bisexuality (AIB), to participate in the discussion. Denise had this to say about Barbara’s questioning identity:
“Thanks, Dr. Phil, I agree with you completely. It’s all about relaxing and accepting who you are and she’s going through a lot. Being a mother is such a big change in your life. But we’ve found at AIB that there isn’t a lot of research about women’s sexuality...[T]he myth is that bisexuality is some phase people go through while they’re getting comfortable  with their homosexuality but the reality is that  a lot of people come out as gay  and later on they question that and they find other attractions to the opposite sex. “
In addition, Dr. Phil was vocal in his defense of single mothers and same-sex parents:
“I would also not want you to make the wrong assumption that this baby can’t have a wonderful fulfilling nurturing life with a single mother or with two mothers."
We also commend Dr. Phil for engaging with his last guest, Mika, a mother whose daughter recently came out as bisexual, around her rejection of her daughter and for bringing up the issue of LGB youth and suicidal ideation. Mika was fixated on what she saw as her daughter’s denial of her true straight identity but Dr. Phil was very careful to steer the conversation away from analyzing whether or not Mika’s daughter is bisexual and towards a conversation on how important it is to be supportive and communicative with her daughter, regardless of her sexual orientation. He quoted the statistics, provided to him by The Trevor Project, so that Mika would be aware that her adamant rejection of her daughter’s orientation places her daughter at an increased risk for suicide, over twice that of youth who come out in a supportive environment. Dr. Phil let us down a little when describing the daughter’s identity. He consistently used the word claim, as in “your daughter claims to be bisexual.” He used this word each time he described the youth’s sexual orientation. While this may have been Mika’s language, it was disappointing to hear Dr. Phil repeat it. We urge Dr. Phil to use the phrase come out as opposed to claim and also to consistently use inclusive language.  A few times he slipped and used gay or lesbian and left out bisexual. Denise Penn raised a crucial point when she asked Mika if she would feel the same if her daughter was a lesbian. Unfortunately this was a point Penn was not able to come back to because Dr. Phil interjected after Mika’s answer. Dr. Phil repeated his concerns about Mika losing her daughter if she doesn’t keep communication open.  After which, he turned to Jane Velez-Mitchell and said:
“Jane, that’s what kept you from coming out - this kind of judgment and fear, is what kept you from coming out, right?”
Velez-Mitchell responded:
“This is a perfect example of why people don’t come out.”
She went on to attribute this to Mika’s homophobia, which Mika vociferously denied. However, it is possible that she may not be homophobic, or at least not in this instance, as the reactions Mika expressed might be more aptly attributed to biphobia:
“[T]his whole liking a boy one week and a girl the next week ….[I] just don’t like it.”
It seemed fairly clear that Mika’s issue was with her daughter’s attractions to boys and girls. Dr. Phil later revealed that Mika had even kicked her daughter out of the house for her bisexual identity.  While alarming, Mika’s reaction is not uncommon.  Thousands of kids are kicked out of their homes each year in the US for being LGBT. According to the 2007 Task Force report, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth: An Epidemic of Homelessness, 20 to 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBT. Dr Phil urged Mika to educate herself and to make sure her daughter feels that she is accepted. He wrapped up the conversation by telling Mika to make sure to keep the lines of communication open and promised to send her “information to eliminate some of the myths that are out there.” We’ve been working with the Dr. Phil show for a number of years. We want to thank the program for taking time to create a show with a qualified expert. We will continue to be in touch with the Dr. Phil show to provide information, resources, and spokespeople. Please contact us at nationalnews@glaad.org to share your reactions to the broadcast.