About A Boy: Tony Carroll Has Made A Career Of Helping Gay And Straight Men Find Themselves, And Peace
Inside a baronial house on Woodhead Street, a Bach fugue is thundering. Sculptures, antiques, even the fibers of a vast Persian rug seem to tremble with the sound from a Rogers organ. It’s a sign that Tony Carroll, the man at the keyboard, differs a bit from his fellow therapists. While his work is defined by intimate listening, in his private life Carroll makes it a practice to speak out, disclose much, and try to shake the political landscape.
Carroll is one of Houston’s leading gay therapists. When he received his social work degree in 1983, there were only a few such therapists in practice. More than 30 years later that number has increased, but Carroll is arguably the city’s best-known, and a resource for gay men – as well as straight men, wives, parents, and anyone else who cares about American males.
Carroll sees his work as part of a larger mission. While gay men face particular issues, they are products of a culture that shapes all American males. What he has learned from his clients, Carroll says, is how many men, regardless of their sexual orientation, are full of thundering emotions they have never voiced.
Carroll’s career suggests that he is onto something. For the past 14 years, Outsmart magazine has anointed Carroll Houston’s ”Gayest and Greatest” psychotherapist. This winter, the National Association of Social Workers, Houston Chapter, presented him a Lifetime Achievement Award. Mayoral candidate Chris Bell has tapped Carroll and his husband, Bruce Smith, to be his liaison to the city’s LGBT community. And since 1996, Carroll has held dozens of leadership roles in the mental health field, among them Texas Representative for the National Federation of Clinical Social Work, Founder of the Montrose Area Mental Health Study Group, and President of the Texas Society for Clinical Social Work.
In part, this attention reflects Carroll’s ebullient personality.
“I’m pretty unusual for a therapist because I’m so extroverted,” he admits, stepping away from the organ and settling on a chair in his lavish living room. This room, in fact the whole house, was designed to hold spectacular parties. The glossy chairs and tables are Federal and Georgian antiques, gathered during jaunts to England. Though the house is new, its classical moldings suggest an era of village artisans and country manors. The salmon-and-bark colored paint comes from a 300-year-old palette used by British aristocracy; the shade appears at Buckingham Palace.
Carroll’s exuberance is just one element of what makes his clients devoted. In appearance, he is ordinary enough: youthful for a 73-year-old, bald, preppy in khakis and blue Oxford shirt. Carroll is relaxing to be around. He is droll, casual, amusingly profane. But when he speaks a certain charisma surfaces. And when he describes what he sees in practice, his insight can be searing.
“What I hear about from virtually every man I work with, gay and straight,” Carroll says, “is profound loneliness.”
By definition, a therapist’s clients are going to have issues. But to Carroll, the loneliness he sees every day in his office is a result of the rules by which American men are taught to live. Currently, his practice is about 70 percent gay men; for them, protecting themselves emotionally in a still-hostile world while trying to form love relationships is a recurrent theme.
But Carroll’s practice also includes straight men. Their concerns differ in many ways from those of his gay clients, but they share a sense of aloneness. While they may not have to face rejection because of their sexuality, says Carroll, the straight men he sees are still sensitive to other kinds of rejection and disappointment. And whether gay or straight, he says, much of this fragility comes from the earliest lessons in being male.
The inner problems of men get fairly short shrift in pop culture, as might be expected for the gender that has run things for a few millennia. But Carroll, the gay son in a Southern family whose business fueled the local economy, has spent his life grappling with the questions of power and inner desperation.
“In retrospect, my life has been profoundly impacted by three factors,” Carroll says in a recent biographical essay. “The early taste of privilege, the racial prejudice of the South, and my sexual orientation.”
Early in life, Carroll was imprinted with confusion and horror at the experience of African Americans in his Arkansas town. ”Although the social structure was rigid in the 1940s and 1950s, I became increasingly aware of the close relationships between our extended family and our many African-American employees,” Carroll says in the essay. “After all, my cousins, brother and I were looked after and reared by the black women who ran each of our houses. Their husbands worked in our lumber mills.” The Carrolls’ own housekeeper, Celestine, stayed with the family for 40 years. Tony Carroll worshiped her.
His father, a Navy officer, told the boy that with privilege came responsibility. But Carroll learned that respect was a hollow substitute for equality. “On a blazing hot summer day, we stopped for lunch and bathroom break. Celestine was denied access to either the restaurant or the restroom,” Carroll says. “It made no difference that her husband, Levi, was an infantryman fighting in Germany at that very moment.”
When he was a sophomore in college, Carroll found a name for his own ”differentness.” A friend mentioned being married to a gay man, and after the conversation Carroll read The Sixth Man by Jess Stearn. “My world shattered,” he says, “when I realized I was ‘a queer.'” A year later, when Carroll fell in love with a tenor whom he accompanied in his college music program, the fear he had only witnessed in other marginalized people became his daily experience.
When Carroll’s parents found out about the relationship, they disowned him. His boyfriend’s parents discovered them, too, and pulled the young man out of college. He returned after a year, and the two struggled to keep their relationship alive in secret.
”It was my descent from privileged to outcast,” Carroll says, ”that informed my life’s journey caring for others.”
That relationship ended, and Carroll had another emotionally devastating one that seemed to reflect the turmoil he felt inside. But as a musician he flourished. An accomplished organist and choral director, he began leading choral departments, first in El Dorado, Arkansas, and then Houston, where he arrived in 1968 to join a boyfriend. “I came here with his horrible cat, Clytemnestra,” Carroll says. “But I never heard from that boyfriend again.” The city proved more accommodating, and Carroll began directing choirs in HISD and directing music at local churches.
He also started therapy. In 1970, no gay therapists were to be found. But a compassionate woman practitioner, Frances Sand, helped Carroll enormously. Her treatment inspired him to earn a Masters in Social Work and start a psychotherapy practice to help others.
It would take Carroll decades, though, to find the ease he dreamed of. Meeting dentist Bruce Smith two decades ago when Carroll was 53 was the turning point. “It sure took a long time,” Carroll says. But the result of that love was monumental.
Happy couples, gay or straight, often take on a kind of parenting role for the people around them. Something about their partnership seems to multiply the confidence they inspire as individuals. As a couple, Carroll and Smith began to see just that.
“We were both established, well-respected, self-employed health care professionals,” Carroll explains. “Being so fortunately positioned afforded us many opportunities to present a couple as a part of the public face for, and to, the gay community.” They took on high-profile roles in professional organizations, and started supporting candidates such as Annise Parker, Sue Lovell, Chris Bell, and Ellen Cohen.
But every project in this public life, Carroll says, echoes the mission he pursues in the quiet of a therapy session: to nurture the voice and fulfillment of the individual.
When a gay or straight man sits in Carroll’s office for his first session, it’s Carroll who does most of the talking. Carroll gives an overview of how psychotherapy works, urges clients to keep an eye out for defensive reactions, and explains transference – the idea that what happens between a client and the rest of the world is going to happen with the client and the therapist. Transference is a reflection of someone’s personality style, says Carroll. “People who are shy out there will be shy with me,” he notes. “People who feel misunderstood out there will feel misunderstood with me.”
His handful of women women clients get a shorter version of the talk. In Carroll’s view, women want less intellectual coaching for therapy.
Carroll’s male clientele tends to be far less expressive about what is going on inside emotionally; in fact, Carroll says, these men are so accustomed to problem-solving that if they come in with a problem, “it’s not so simple as it seems, or they would have already figured it out.”
This male distance about their inner lives, Carroll says, is generally a result of socialization. For gay men it’s a survival mechanism. Most have known learned to create a facade to cover their differentness, resulting in loneliness and fear. “For many gay men, the facade is of incredible adequacy and charm,” says Carroll. “The issue is how to put aside that facade, which has kept us safe, but separate.”
But straight men, too, are taught to build a facade. “I think very few men can say to anyone, ‘Will you just hold me? I am absolutely broken and beat down,'” Carroll says. “What I see in virtually every man who comes in is profound sadness, disappointment, and/or hurt.”
American men, says Carroll, are taught to be self-reliant, to not bother others with their problems, and, perhaps most damaging, to not pay much attention to their own emotions. The result is a disconnection about what touches or hurts them. “I think of depression, anxiety, and addictions as being symptomatic of something else,” Carroll says. “When somebody tells me they’re depressed, I can say they are probably not in touch with their sadness or hurt. If they’re angry, anger gives us energy: You can’t be angry and depressed at the same time. Once people start to get in touch with the sadness, or the anger, the depression breaks.”
With younger men, Carroll sees an increasing problem with failure to launch. “These young people are terrified of being a failure,” he says. “They are finishing college and grad school, and live in their parents’ spare rooms. As long as they’re told exactly what’s expected of them they can do it perfectly. But otherwise they are terrified.”
When a man knows little about his emotions, Carroll says, it’s natural for him to revert to childhood responses in adult situations. By way of example, he likes to tell a story about himself: For most of his adult life, he panicked when someone suggested they needed to talk. “Gary the minister, who was my boss, and with whom I got along wonderfully, would say, ‘I need to talk to you,’” Carroll says. He clutches his chest histrionically. “It scared the shit out of me every time. But he was never angry with me. He’d be worried that he pissed off a parishioner, or he would want me to go pick something up. It was the same anytime a partner said it to me.” Only in his 50s did Carroll’s panic from those words cease.
“In the house I grew up in, every time someone said, ‘I want to talk to you,’ something was wrong,” he remembers. In therapy, Carroll works to get to the roots of such intense emotional responses to help them recede.
Though Carroll’s practice is mostly individual men, he also works with couples – though for the most part in separate sessions. He doesn’t want to see them being cruel to each other. Among the common threads he sees with his male clients are a fear of being judged or unappreciated; more common with the women is an intense rage, especially if they earn more than their husbands but feel they are being deprived emotionally.
In gay and straight couples both, Carroll also wrestles with a phenomenon known as dependency rage: the outcome of expecting that a partner can and should make one happy, or that we can make our partners happy. The resulting fury can be devastating. “Where in the world would you get the idea that you can get someone to love you better by hurting them?” Carroll asks. But he sees it repeatedly.
Addressing the fallout from outmoded lessons and childhood experiences can be wearying. But Carroll finds his practice exhilarating. For one thing, the world he is trying to change has evolved momentously. The behaviors of heterosexual men have changed noticeably: in recent years he has seen straight men hug and even kiss gay friends in greeting. “It’s as if they’re allowed to be more human,” Carroll says.
Among gay men, one of the most promising developments he sees is their increasing opportunity to be parents. If you want to see outstanding parenting, Carroll says, watch a gay couple. In his view, many of these couples are not just nurturing, but also encourage their children’s independence. The mix of lavish attention and respect for autonomy seems to lead to well-behaved and happy children.
Whether parents are gay or straight, Carroll says, his work suggests a few basic principles for raising boys that may reduce their chances of ending up unhappy and repressed. Tell them it’s all right to feel angry at their parents; make it clear they are not responsible for their parents’ moods or emotional needs.
“Don’t tell them not to cry,” Carroll adds. And most important of all: “Don’t tell a boy to act like a man.”