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What Are Little Boys Made Of?

An investigation of an experimental program to train boys to be boys.

Jim Burroway

June 7th, 2011

Part 5: “No One Was Obviously Harmed”
When Kirk was seventeen, Dr. Green flew to Montana to conduct a follow-up evaluation. That’s the visit Maris remembers, of Green in the living room with a tape recorder and wearing a tweed jacket. “Before he left,” Kaytee said, “he assured me that Kirk was perfectly okay. No need to worry about him, he’s fine. And I liked Dr. Green and I took him at his word that I wouldn’t have to worry anymore.”

Whatever Green may have told Kirk’s mother, Kirk certainly wasn’t fine. This was around the time when Kirk tried to kill himself for the first time, although we don’t know whether his attempt occurred before or after Green’s visit. Green would learn about it the follow year, when he flew Kirk out to Boston for a final set of interviews at age eighteen. That’s when Kirk told Green about his two sexual encounters the year before. The first was with a girl while he was drunk. That experience left him unimpressed. He then slowly admitted to Green his sexual attraction to other guys, but he was very conflicted by it. That’s when he revealed a second sexual encounter, this time with a man, a stranger he met at a public men’s room. The interview, the transcripts of which Green included in Sissy Boy Syndrome, continues

KYLE: It wasn’t like I was real. And afterwards, a few weeks later, I tried to kill myself.

R. G.: Tell me about that.

KYLE: I swallowed about fifty aspirins.

R. G.: Did you really want to die?

KYLE: I think I really wanted to, but I knew I wasn’t going to. But I really did want to.

R. G.: Why?

KYLE: Because I don’t want to grow up to be gay.56

Kirk said that happened “about a year ago,” when Kirk was about seventeen. That would have been at about the same time the family was struggling to survive with very little food, no electricity, and with a mother who, as Maris put it, was “checked out on the couch.”

“He told me after the fact,” Maris said, who would have been thirteen at the time. “I remember him sleeping. There was no intervention. There was no going to see a doctor. There was no acknowledgment of that from a parent or anything. I was probably the only person he told, and I’m sure I totally didn’t understand that I was supposed to do something about that. I just remember that later he showed me the bottle and said he took a whole bunch of aspirin.”

Maris said that she didn’t really remember the incident until last October when she read the transcripts of “Kyle’s” interviews in Sissy Boy Syndrome for the first time. “I said, ‘Oh, my gosh! That’s what that meant.’ If you had asked me before I read that, I’d have said I’m sure he probably thought about it because I know there were times that he was pretty unhappy.

Kaytee also remembered it, but she didn’t know why he tried to kill himself. “Just that he wasn’t happy,” she said. “Kirk was the kind who would not communicate real well and tell you what he was thinking. He had his reasons and he stuck to his guns, but he didn’t want to be a crybaby or whatever. He kept a lot of things inside. And if he didn’t want to tell you, he wasn’t going to tell you.” This was, of course, during the time that Kaytee herself was undergoing a nervous breakdown.

It’s indicative of the larger turmoil the family was going through that Kirk’s suicide attempt would go unnoticed. “Maybe in another household,” said Maris,” there would have been someone there to take it seriously. But there wasn’t anyone who was able to understand what happened.” But Green wasn’t caught up in that turmoil, and his apparent incuriosity over Kirk’s admission is astonishing. According to the published transcripts, the conversation went immediately from Kirk mentioning his suicide attempt to Green asking Kirk how much influence his religious beliefs had on his not wanting to be gay (“Not really strong, I don’t think,” Kirk answered).

The transcript’s abrupt change of topic is jarring. When a boy undergoes treatment for homosexuality and says that he is still attracted to men, that he had sex with a man but is extremely conflicted by it, and is also conflicted over having undergone treatment at UCLA in the first place so that he wouldn’t be gay, but now admits that he was afraid to reveal his sexual feelings to Dr. Green because “I thought you would be mad,” and also, by the way, mentions that he tried to kill himself because he didn’t want to be gay, one would think that a clinician would want to examine that last statement just a little bit. Instead, Green reacts by changing the subject, and he never mentions the attempt again. In fact, Green brushed the whole thing off a few pages later by writing that no one was “obviously harmed by the treatment” (emphasis his).

Interestingly, Rekers would never mention the suicide attempt in any of his papers or books published after Sissy Boy Syndrome appeared in 1987. As far as Rekers was concerned, it never happened. Kirk was perfectly normal.57

While Green made no mention of what the Murphy family was going through or the outsized burden that the fragile teenager with severe self-image issues was forced to carry, Maris recalled that these factors alone gave Kirk plenty of reasons to consider suicide. “He was miserable. He had no friends. He always thought people hated him, whether they did or not. He hated high school, he liked music, he liked some of his teachers, but socially it was a pretty miserable experience. He had a lot of resentment toward both our parents.”

“You can imagine,” she continued, “when you’re in high school and you’re so worried about what everyone thinks about you, and then you add that on top of everything else he was going through, how desolate and isolated a person could become. He had a big burden at the time.”

A burden that was compounded by a secret struggle that he fought to keep hidden and could tell no one except, tentatively, Dr. Green.


Moving On
The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1973, but added another disorder they labeled “ego dystonic homosexuality” for gay adults who were distressed over their sexuality. This gave therapists the green light to continue to try to change their patients’ sexual orientation.58 The American Psychological Association ratified those same changes in 1975. But the decisions remained controversial. A 1977 poll by the professional trade magazine Medical Aspects of Human Sexuality still found that 69% of psychiatrists surveyed believed that homosexuality was a “pathological adaptation,” 73% believed that gay men were “generally less happy than others,” and 70% believed that problems experienced by gay men and women were the result of personal conflicts and not the product of stigmatization.59

Today, all major mental health organizations agree that sexual orientation cannot and should not be changed. In 1999, the American Psychoanalytic Association cautioned that “Psychoanalytic technique does not encompass purposeful efforts to ‘convert’ or ‘repair’ an individual’s sexual orientation.” They warned that such efforts “often result in substantial psychological pain.”60 In 2000, the American Psychiatric Association warned that therapies “to convert or ‘repair’ homosexuality are based on developmental theories whose scientific validity is questionable.” They also said that the scattered reports of so-called “cures” are “counterbalanced by anecdotal claims of psychological harm.”61 And in August, 2009, the American Psychological Association updated its earlier position statement, stating, “There is insufficient evidence to support the use of psychological interventions to change sexual orientation.”62 An accompanying review of peer-reviewed studies on attempts to change sexual orientation concluded, “efforts to change sexual orientation are unlikely to be successful and involve some risk of harm.”63

Many of the original researchers at UCLA’s Gender Identity Clinic changed their perspectives as well. Dr. Robert Stoller would acknowledge that “biological forces” were at play in the development of sexual orientation and gender identity, at least more so than he first believed. 64 But he would die in a traffic accident in 1992 before he could fully break from his beliefs placing the mother at the center of her son’s sexuality and gender identity.

Dr. Ivar Lovaas co-wrote four papers with Rekers on attempts to change sexual orientation in children, including their 1974 paper featuring Kirk. In 1977, Lovaas and Rekers joined two other UCLA researchers, Alexander Rosen and Peter Bentler, in a robust defense of behavioral treatment options for young children, saying “gender disturbed children desperately need treatment.”65 They specifically rejected the option of helping “a homosexual individual … to adjust to his homosexual orientation and behavior,” saying, “we find this line of argument to be totally unacceptable and irresponsible.”

Lovaas would later renounce the use of punitive aversion therapy techniques. He would also distance himself personally from UCLA’s program to treat gender-variant children,66 going so far as to claim that he had no interest whatsoever in gender issues. When Phyllis Burke interviewed Lovass for her 1996 book Gender Shock, he reportedly told her that it was very, very easy to change gender behaviors, but after having achieved this feat with the first three or four children (Kirk would have been among them), it was “just not interesting.”67 When told of “Kraig’s” suicide attempt at age seventeen, Lovaas denied responsibility. “I don’t know what happened to these kids in follow-up. My responsibility was to help George Rekers set up a scientific study.”68 Lovaas also added that he thought that Kirk’s transcripts in Green’s Sissy Boy Syndrome “didn’t provide any information to me which I thought was all that helpful.” Lovaas died in August, 2010.

A few years after Kirk’s treatment, Dr. Richard Green went on record supporting the APA’s removal of homosexuality from its list of mental disorders — while, at the same time, defending therapy to change sexual orientation for those who wanted it.69 How a prepubescent boy should indicate a desire to change a sexual orientation that he has yet to experience or understand, Green didn’t say. Instead, he pointed to his own research which found observation that about three-quarters of the boys he classified as “feminine” would grow up to be gay or bisexual,70 and this fact alone gave parents the right to pursue whatever therapy they wanted for their children. “If that prerogative is denied,” he argued, “should parents also be denied the right to raise their children as atheists? Or as priests?”71

But whatever prerogatives Green sought to preserve, he would begin to cast doubt on therapy’s ability to change sexual orientation a year later. “The arduous process of ‘reorientation’ is psychologically wrenching and has been sometimes physically painful,” he wrote. “Therapy may not be much more effective than what would be expected from attempts to reorient heterosexuals if penile-vaginal intercourse were to become (frequently) a crime, (usually) a sin, and (for several decades, at least) a mental illness.”72 He also moved away from the smothering-mother theory and published several studies adding to the growing evidence of a biological basis for homosexuality and transgender identity.73 In 2007 he told a reporter, “I suspect that at least in your lifetime we will find a gene that contributes substantially to sexual orientation.”74

And yet for all of Green’s work after leaving UCLA, he remains best known for his work with young children at that clinic. In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental disorders included a new category, “Gender Identity Disorders of Childhood,” or GIDC,75 and the APA today is again reviewing GIDC’s place on the list amid considerable controversy. Just last January, Green’s contribution to the debate came in the form of a historical overview of the diagnosis and the role his work at UCLA played in its creation. “The criteria for diagnosis,” he wrote, “were derived (perhaps lifted) from the descriptions of cross-gender boys I assessed at UCLA.” But because most children with GIDC grew up to become homosexual or bisexual rather than transgender, Green noticed that “a paradox had developed. Homosexuality was not a disorder, but prehomosexual behavior was.” It’s a paradox that Green apparently remains unable to resolve even today, as he concluded, “My role here is not to debate continuing or not the diagnosis in its present or in any revised form.”76

But Rekers had no problem with the paradox, since he did not — and does not still — accept the APA’s position that homosexuality is not a mental illness. In a 1986 paper he wrote for the politically conservative Free Congress Foundation, Rekers countered, “If the psychopathology of ‘Gender Identity Disorder of Childhood’ is one of the major etiological precursors to adulthood homosexual orientation disturbance (as the research indicates at present), it would now appear logical that homosexuality per se be re-examined as a mental disorder.”77

And so as Green, Stoller, and Lovaas evolved over time, Rekers’s position ossified. As the 1970s progressed, Rekers quickly found himself outside of the shifting mainstream of psychological thought. But just as the ground began shifting beneath him, the 1970s also saw the rise of a nascent “ex-gay” movement among Christian fundamentalists. That new religious-based movement, which sought to convert gay sinners into straight Christians, would find common cause with a small number of psychologists like Rekers who dissented from the APA’s position on homosexuality.

By the 1980s, the two groups would fuse, the dissenting psychologists and the anti-gay religionists. Rekers aptly personified that fusion. In 1975, Rekers’s work at UCLA became the focus of protests and controversy, garnering national attention in the pages of The Rolling Stone -– with Kirk’s case standing at the heart of the controversy.78 That same year, Rekers became the head of the right-wing think tank known as the Logos Research Institute79 while also taking on a teaching position at the conservative Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of Psychology.80 When Rekers moved to Kansas State University in 1980, he moved the Logos Research Institute with him.81 In 1983, Rekers co-founded the socially conservative Family Research Council,82 where he served as the group’s first CEO and Chairman. And as he became increasingly involved as an anti-gay political activist, his writings took on a moralistic tone. In 1982, he wrote a book titled Growing Up Straight: What Every Family Should Know About Homosexuality, which dealt with homosexuality in harshly conservative religious terms. That same year, he published another book, Shaping Your Child’s Sexual Identity, in which he wrote about Kirk again, this time as “Craig.” And in this version of the story, “Craig’s” case became a morality play:

Craig obviously needed intensive help, his parents urgently wanted the best professional care available to him, and they were praying that God would help their son to be happy with a male identity and a male role so that he could grow up with the possibility of being married and having children in later life. Even though there had never before been a proven psychological therapy that could be automatically applied to a case like this, I prayerfully accepted the challenge of developing a psychological treatment for Craig in the hope that with the cooperation of the parents, I could help Craig become normal.83

That book was published at about the same time that Kirk first tried to commit suicide. But that’s not all that’s significant about this passage. As Rekers’s justification for his treatment moved more strongly toward a religious-based justification, the more religious he made “Craig’s” parents in each re-telling. “Craig had Christian parents,” he wrote. “Craig’s mother told me that she had been praying for some time for a solution to her son’s problem… she told me that she immediately felt that (the television program featuring Dr. Green) was a direct answer to her prayer.”84

But Kaytee doesn’t remember religion being a significant focus. “I think we had gone to this Christian church with some friends, but we didn’t go all the time,” she said. She couldn’t remember having any significant religious conversations with Rekers. “I can’t swear on a stack of bibles that I didn’t,” she said (without any hint of irony in her voice), “but I don’t remember it if we did.”

She did say that her religious beliefs played no role in her decision to take Kirk to UCLA for treatment. “We went to church,” she continued, “but we weren’t fanatics. I mean, Rod was still in the Jaycees and he’d go out with the boys and have a beer and we went to all the social functions. And I’ve never been a big drinker but I’d have a couple of drinks. And I still have a drink now and then. So we weren’t totally wrapped up in the church either.”

The Murphys may not have been wrapped up in the church, but Rekers was. He earned a Masters of Divinity degree in 1994, and a doctorate of theology from the University of South Africa in 1997. Somewhere along the line, he also became an ordained Baptist minister. Meanwhile, he maintained his professional standing by becoming a professor of neuropsychiatry and behavioral science at the University of South Carolina in 1986.85 Befitting the commingling of those two sets of credentials, Rekers joined the ex-gay movement by serving on the board of directors for the National Association for Research and Treatment of Homosexuality (NARTH), a supposedly secular organization founded by a group of dissident religiously-motivated therapists. He also served on the group’s Scientific Advisory Board.

In the 1970s, Rekers’s papers were still quite mainstream, but they became noticeably anachronistic as time went on. By 1991, Rekers’s papers stopped appearing in peer-reviewed journals as he strengthened his alignment with anti-gay activists. Some of those alliances were quite radical. In addition to his work with the Family Research Council and NARTH, Rekers also became a colleague of Paul Cameron. Rekers likely met Cameron while the two of them were teaching at the Fuller Theological Seminary in the mid-1970s.86 Cameron would soon become notorious for grossly misrepresenting the results of fellow professionals’ scientific research as part of his own zealous anti-gay campaigns. The American Psychological Association responded by removing him from their membership, and he was censured by several other professional organizations for ethical and professional misconduct.87 In the 1980s, Cameron suggested that quarantining and exterminating HIV-positive people might become necessary “unless we get medically lucky,” and in 1999 he openly admired how the Nazis “dealt with” gay people88 (which included sending somewhere between 5,000 and 15,000 of them to concentration camps where many of them died from disease, starvation, exhaustion, and beatings89). But despite all that, in 2004 Rekers recommended Cameron to the Florida state Attorney General, suggesting that Cameron serve as an expert witness against a lawsuit challenging that state’s ban on adoption by gay parents.90 In 2007 Rekers agreed to help Cameron start an online anti-gay journal and to serve on his editorial review board.91

Notes:

56. Green, Richard. The “Sissy Boy Syndrome” and the Development of Homosexuality (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987): 313-315. [BACK]

57. Rekers, George A.; Kilgus, Mark; Rosen, Alexander C. “Long-term effects of treatment for Gender Identity Disorder.” Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality 3, no. 2 (1990): 121-153. “Kraig”/”Craig” is not mentioned by name, but is instead referred to as “a four year old boy” with a reference to Rekers & Lovaas, 1974 (see page 149).

Rekers, George A; Oram, Kimberly Barnett. “Child and adolescent therapy for precursors to adulthood homosexual attractions.” In Julie Harren Hamilton & Philip J. Henry (eds.) Handbook of Therapy for Unwanted Homosexual Attractions: A Guide to Treatment (Self-published via Xulon Press, 2009): 302. Kirk is identified as “Craig.” [BACK]

58.“Ego dystonic homosexuality,” the last vestige of homosexuality as a mental disorder, was removed from the APA’s list 1987. [BACK]

59. Lief, Harold I. “Sexual survey #4: Current thinking on homosexuality.” Medical Aspects of Human Sexuality 11, no. 11 (November 1977): 110-111. [BACK]

60. Position statement on Reparative Therapy. American Psychoanalytic Association (December 1999). Available online at http://www.apsa.org/About_APsaA/Position_Statements/Reparative_Therapy.aspx. [BACK]

61. Therapies Focused on Attempts to Change Sexual Orientation. American Psychiatric Association (2000) Available online at http://psych.org/Departments/EDU/Library/APAOfficialDocumentsandRelated/PositionStatements/200001a.aspx. [BACK]

62. Resolution on Appropriate Affirmative Responses to Sexual Orientation Distress and Change Efforts. American Psychological Association (August 2009). Available online at http://www.apa.org/about/governance/council/policy/sexual-orientation.aspx. [BACK]

63. Report of the APA Task Force on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation. American Psychological Association (August 2009). Available online at http://www.apa.org/pi/lgbt/resources/sexual-orientation.aspx. [BACK]

64. Stoller, Robert J. “A further contribution to the study of gender identity.” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 49, no 2 (1968): 364-369. [BACK]

65. Rekers, George A.; Bentler, Peter M.; Rosen, Alexander C.; Lovaas, O. Ivar. “Child gender disturbances: A clinical rationale for intervention.” Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice 14, no. 1 (Spring 1977): 2-11. [BACK]

66. Ito, Robert. “The Phantom Chaser.” Los Angeles Magazine (April 2004): 50-57. [BACK]

67. Burke, Phyllis. Gender Shock: Exploding the Myths of Male and Female (New York: Anchor Books, 1996): 48. [BACK]

68. Burke, Phyllis. Gender Shock: Exploding the Myths of Male and Female (New York: Anchor Books, 1996): 50. [BACK]

69. Green, Richard. “Should heterosexuality be in the APA nomenclature?” American Journal of Psychiatry 130, no. 11 (November 1973): 1213-1214. [BACK]

70. Green, Richard. The “Sissy Boy Syndrome” and the Development of Homosexuality (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987): 370. [BACK]

71. Green, Richard. The “Sissy Boy Syndrome” and the Development of Homosexuality (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987): 260. [BACK]

72. Green, Richard. “The immutability of (homo)sexual orientation: Behavioral science implications for a constitutional (legal) right.” Journal of Psychiatry and Law 16, no. 4 (Winter 1988): 537-575. [BACK]

73. Green, Richard; Keverne, E.B. “The disparate maternal aunt-uncle ratio in male transsexuals: An explanation invoking genomic imprinting.” Journal of Theoretical Biology 202, no. 1 (January 7, 2000): 55-63.

Green, Richard. “Birth order and ratio of brothers to sisters in transsexuals.” Psychological Medicine 30, no. 4 (July 2000): 789-795.

Green, Richard. “Hand preference, sexual preference, and transsexualism.” Archives of Sexual Behavior 30, no. 6 (December 2001): 565-574. [BACK]

74. Burr, Chandler. “Homosexuality and Biology.” Atlantic Monthly (June 2007). Available online at http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1997/06/homosexuality-and-biology/4683/. [BACK]

75. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (3rd ed.) (Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association): 264-266. [BACK]

76. Green, Richard. “The introduction of Gender Identity Disorder of Childhood into DSM III: An historical note.” Journal of Gay and Lesbian Mental Health 15, no. 1 (2011): 8-11. [BACK]

77. Rekers, George A. “Inadequate sex role differentiation in childhood: The family and gender identity disorders.” Journal of Family and Culture 2, no. 3 (1986): 8-37. This journal, which is now defunct, was an in-house publication of the Free Congress Foundation, a right-wing think tank founded by Paul Weyrich who also co-founded the Heritage Foundation. [BACK]

78. Rorvik, David Michael. “The gender enforcers: Seeing to it the boys will be boys.” Rolling Stone (October 9, 1975): 53ff. [BACK]

79. Rekers, George Alan. Resume (undated). Posted online at http://www.docstoc.com/docs/8204845/GEORGE-ALAN-REKERS-PhD-MBA. [BACK]

80. The following papers indicate that George Rekers taught at Fuller Theological Seminary’s Graduate School of Psychology in 1976 and 1977, even as he simultaneously continued to perform research and treatment at UCLA’s Gender Identity Clinic.

Rekers, George A.; Yates, Cindy E. “Sex-typed play in feminoid boys versus normal boys and girls.” Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 4, no. 1 (March 1976): 1-8.

Rekers, George A.; Yates, Cindy E.; Willis, Thomas J.; Rosen, Alexander C.; Taubman, Mitchell. “Childhood gender identity change: Operant control over sex-typed play and mannerisms.” Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry 7, no. 1 (March, 1976): 51-57.

Rekers, George A.; Amaro-Plotkin, Hortensia D.; Low, Benson P. “Sex-typed mannerisms in normal boys and girls as a function of sex and age.” Child Development 48, no. 1 (March 1977): 275-278. [BACK]

81. Rekers, George Alan. Resume (undated). Posted online at http://www.docstoc.com/docs/8204845/GEORGE-ALAN-REKERS-PhD-MBA. [BACK]

82. “Over 20 years: Defending Family, Faith and Freedom.” Family Research Council web site, as archived by archive.org on January 1, 2006 (retrieved October 12, 2010). Archived web page available at http://web.archive.org/web/20051226235716/www.frc.org/get.cfm?c=HISTORY_ABOUT. [BACK]

83. Rekers, George A. Shaping Your Child’s Sexual Identity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1982): 131. [BACK]

84. Rekers, George A. Shaping Your Child’s Sexual Identity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1982): 130. [BACK]

85. Rekers, George Alan. Resume (undated). Posted online at http://www.docstoc.com/docs/8204845/GEORGE-ALAN-REKERS-PhD-MBA. [BACK]

86. Stewart, Chuck. Gay and Lesbian Issues: A Reference Handbook (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO Inc., 2002): 136. Paul Cameron taught at Fuller Theological Seminary’s Graduate School of Psychology from 1976 to 1979. [BACK]

87. Burroway, Jim. “Paul Cameron vs. Professional Ethics.” Box Turtle Bulletin (July 12, 2006). Available online at http://www.boxturtlebulletin.com/Articles/000,010.htm. [BACK]

88. Burroway, Jim. “Paul Cameron’s world.” Box Turtle Bulletin (May 22, 2007). Available online at http://www.boxturtlebulletin.com/Articles/000,020.htm. [BACK]

89. Lautmann, Rüdiger. “The pink triangle: Homosexuals as ‘enemies of the state’.” Chapter 25 in Michael Berenbaum and Abraham J. Peck (eds.) The Holocaust and History: The Known, the Unknown, the Disputed, and the Reexamined (Bloomington, Ind: Indiana University Press, 1998): 345-357. [BACK]

90. Trial transcript “In the Matter of the adoption of [John Doe] and [James Doe], minor children” In the Circuit Court of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit in and for Miami-Dade County, Florida, Juvenile division. Case no. 06-033881 FC 04 (October 1, 2008): 936. [BACK]

91. Burroway, Jim. “Paul Cameron announces a new ‘journal’.” Box Turtle Bulletin (September 23, 2007). Available online at http://www.boxturtlebulletin.com/2007/09/23/810. [BACK]