What Are Little Boys Made Of?

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

Jim Burroway

June 7th, 2011

Part 7: Skirting the Issues
It’s one thing to follow your family doctor’s advice. But very few mothers can say that they learned how to raise kids using scientifically-proven methods from a world-class institution backed by funding from at least six major clinical research grants from the National Institute of Mental Health.93 Those are some powerful resources, and one could argue that it would have been a terrible waste if that mother had declined to pass what learned on to her children. And so when Mark and his new wife gained custody of his daughter from his previous marriage, Kaytee gave the blue and red chips to Mark’s wife. Almost, one can imagine, as one would pass on a family heirloom.

“I don’t think my mom explained to my wife how to use them,” he said. “She just gave them to her and suggested she use them on my daughter.” Mark’s wife just stuck them into a desk drawer without mentioning it to him.

Years would pass, until last November as the family began to understand that Kirk had been the subject of so much interest. That’s when Mark’s wife remembered, “Well, your mom had given me these chips…”

People, particularly those of a certain generation, trusted scientists in 1970 in ways that we don’t see today. Science had put a man on the moon, wiped out polio, built massive room-sized computers capable of deciphering impenetrable codes, and brought images from around the world into Americans homes through the wonders of television and satellite. Scientists embodied modernity, and they walked with a confident swagger on the world stage. Their authoritative pronouncements were greeted with great esteem and respect not just from the general public, but also from each other. “Not yet responsive to the philosophers of science,” UCLA’s Robert Stoller wrote in 1986, “we accepted each other’s skimpy, often undocumented accounts as reliable evidence. We had — and still have — much at stake: pride, including our scientific pretensions, as against humbling candor.”94

By extension, doctors were the scientists in your neighborhood, and they commanded similar deference from many of their patients. He was the man (or nearly always the man) in the white coat whose office sported an impressive library of medical textbooks and framed calligraphic diplomas. “My grandmother, my mother, and my aunt had a real fascination with doctors,” remembered Mark. “I think, probably as children they didn’t go to the doctor, and so it was partly about attention and status.”

Maris agreed. “I can’t tell you how many hours as a kid I had to listen to them drone on about this doctor or that doctor or how this doctor paid attention. They just ate it up.”

While the Murphy’s confidence in doctors may have been somewhat greater than most, it wasn’t unusual. As one can imagine, that set up a number of important dynamics. Albert Ellis, a famous behavioral therapist who had once tried to cure gays of their homosexuality himself before becoming an advocate for gay rights, once wrote:

(C)lients may easily like their therapist and their therapy and end up more disturbed than they were before being “helped” — just as consumers of Häagen-Dazs ice cream may rave about its taste and significantly increase their cholesterol levels. … For these and other reasons, clients who feel better during and after therapy may derive some adventitious benefits, but also be “helped” quite inelegantly, or even harmed.95

In other words, clients are sometimes inclined to see the results they want to see. But there’s also something else at play here: the way UCLA’s staff worked with Kaytee by enlisting her as Kirk’s “therapist” at home. “We … assured the mother that she had treated Kraig well in the clinic,” Rekers wrote, “and that we had great confidence in her ability to serve as Kraig’s primary therapist at home, which is the role she was in fact assigned.”96 Being assured entry into that rather exclusive club was undoubtedly an ego boost for the young mother. “After treatment,” Rekers observed, “she felt as though she had been able to help actively by being the therapist, and acted with considerably more confidence and assurance.”

It’s fair to say that Kaytee was impressed with a lot of things when she was younger. She was not only working with world-class therapists, she was being coached to become a something of a therapist herself. And to think, it was that expert she saw on television who opened those doors for her. “Well, I am indeed still thankful the day I saw you on TV and you took me in,” she told Richard Green during his visit to Montana in 1982. “I knew there was going to be a problem if something wasn’t done, and I knew I couldn’t handle it. … When I saw you on TV that day, I kept after my husband until he finally let me call.”97

Kaytee today acknowledges that seeing Dr. Green on television made a huge impression on her. “I probably would not have done anything as far as professional help if I hadn’t seen Green on TV. Rod really didn’t see any problem at the time, but I was a very ‘nervous mother’,” she said, neatly mirroring Dr. Lovaas’s observations about mothers who feel guilty about their sons and would pay any price to take care of all those mistakes the psychological profession laid at their feet. “Truthfully, Dr. Green did influence my thinking,” Kaytee continued. “I stand by that totally. And the fact that it was a free program was a huge factor.”

Having the attention of this famous doctor and a world-class institution was certainly heady. And being a sort of a co-therapist placed a lot of pressure on her shoulders for Kirk’s success. I asked Kaytee if she had ever expressed any of her doubts about the therapy’s effectiveness during any of Kirk’s follow-up evaluations. As far as she could remember, she never disclosed them.  “I was fairly young and I think at that time I was probably running for cheerleader,” she said. “I wanted everybody to like me and I wanted everybody to love my kids. And I think a lot of times I didn’t listen to my own gut feeling like I should have, and I probably let people influence me in ways that, you know…”

But today, Kaytee now says that taking Kirk to UCLA was the worst thing that she could have done. “You don’t have a manual on raising kids,” she said. “I have felt a lot of guilt.”

“It’s been years in the back of my mind,” she continued. “Rod was right. I probably shouldn’t have taken him, but I did. He just didn’t think it was a good idea. But I think he was in denial that there might be a problem with Kirk, you know? But the mother in me thought it was the right thing to do.”

They say that hindsight is perfect, but Kaytee’s still isn’t. Hers is still clouded by all the outdated information she acquired from UCLA, knowledge that nobody from UCLA has bothered to update her with over the past forty years. And so she still struggles with all of the things that she fears went wrong with Kirk’s childhood development. She returns again and again to the babysitter whose daughters let Kirk play with their dolls. She’s positive that this is where Kirk’s problem started. But she also wonders about other things that happened in his childhood. Like, for example, when Kirk was two he spent six days in the hospital for pneumonia. “That was very traumatic for him,” she remembered. Did that also help to make him gay, she wonders.

She also wonders if Kirk’s problem was a medical one. When Kirk was two years old, he would grab fistfuls of dirt from her planters in the living room and eat it. The pediatrician diagnosed Kirk with pica, an eating disorder characterized by persistent and compulsive cravings to eat nonfood items. As many as 30% of all very young children experience some form of pica.98 It’s almost certainly irrelevant, but Kaytee isn’t so sure. Kirk also had allergies when he was little. Did that have anything to do with it, she asked aloud.

She also recalled that when she was pregnant with Kirk, she was on hormone treatments for two months. She wonders why nobody at UCLA thought that was significant. That could be relevant, although the research is very thin.99 She also remembers that her doctor decided to induce labor at nine months so he could go on vacation. “Hindsight is always better,” she said, “but I have always regretted having induced labor. Kirk got off to a bad beginning.”

She also brought up Kirk’s undescended left testicle and the fact that nobody seemed concerned about it. “No one told us if there was anything we could do about it,” she said. “So once again, we were in the dark. She also added a telling anecdote. “Kirk was not comfortable around doctors,” she explained. “He practically ran out of the room when old Doctor Peterson in Hamilton wanted to examine him.”

“Jim, I just think all of this is important for you to know,” she continued as a note of weariness crept into her voice. “I have had many years to look back on Kirk’s life, and I realize his Dad and I made mistakes, but we didn’t know any better. I believe in my heart that his medical problems and everything else caused a lot of problems, but the experts didn’t seem to have the answers either.”

“You trust these professionals, and I don’t care whether they’re a doctor or a psychiatrist or what, you trust them to do the right thing. And when they don’t, bad things can happen.” Kaytee feels guilty for sending Kirk to UCLA, but she says she shouldn’t have to bear the guilt alone. “I’m going to say it one more time,” she continued, “UCLA did not hold up to what I expected. If they’re going to publicize a program like this, then they ought to know what they’re doing or don’t do this, because things like this can cause more harm than good.”

It’s not unusual for some parents who’ve sent their children to ex-gay therapy to say the same thing: that it was the worst thing they could have done, that it caused more harm than good. Some have also lamented that they should have accepted their child just the way he or she was, and that the claims of being able to “cure” their child were groundless for many reasons — and not the least of them being that there was nothing wrong that had to be cured.100

And so I thought I was on Kaytee’s wavelength as well. Until she said this: “If I’d have known it was going to turn out the way it did with UCLA, I would not have taken Kirk to them. As intelligent as he was, he learned to, shall I say, skirt the issue. He learned to not let people know who he really was.”

Skirt the issue?

While Kaytee believes that UCLA didn’t follow up sufficiently with Kirk’s medical history, she also still believes what the celebrated experts at UCLA had told her: that homosexuality can be learned and unlearned. While she believes that her hormone treatments or Kirk’s pica or undescended testicle should have been looked into, she ultimately, and repeatedly, points to the babysitter as the real source of Kirk’s problem. “If I wanted to blame anybody, I would blame the babysitter who I thought was a friend,” she repeated. To this day, nobody associated with the Gender Identity Clinic has contradicted what the experts forty years ago told her, and so her suspicions about the babysitter continue.

And when Kaytee says that UCLA didn’t hold up to what she expected, it goes back to what those world-renowned experts at UCLA had originally promised. They held out the promise that if they could correct her son’s gender variant behavior, then they would also nip his future path toward homosexuality in the bud. They promised her that they would take away everything he learned about being a woman, and they would teach her son how to be a confident, self-assured straight man. They promised her that if he took her son in for treatment, he wouldn’t grow up to become like that homosexual who appeared with Dr. Green on television more than 40 years ago.

And it doesn’t help that Kaytee remembers that after Dr. Green interviewed Kirk at the age of seventeen, he told her that Kirk was just fine. “Dr. Green said he was perfectly normal and I believed what Dr. Green said,” she explained.

“Normal” to Green however had by then evolved into a very different meaning than it held for Kaytee. As Green explained it to “Kyle” in Sissy Boy Syndrome when “Kyle” feared that he may be a disappointment to Green:

It’s not a question of my approving or not approving of who you are. It’s finding out who you are, and if you are having a conflict somewhere, to see if I can find a way to handle the conflict. I think the principal concern in terms of the initial evaluation and referral to the psychologist when you were a young boy was not to prevent you from becoming homosexual fifteen years later. It was because you were unhappy being a boy back when you were four, and because kids who are four, five, six, who do a lot of girl-type things get a lot of teasing from other kids. The goal was to reduce the stress you were feeling back then. As to whether you lead a married, family life-style or a gay life-style or both, it’s not for me to have a feeling one way or the other about that. My concern is that whatever you do, you be happy doing it.101

In this passage, everything relating to Kirk’s treatment had changed, but no one seems to have bothered to tell his mother. The goal now was not to avert homosexuality, but to make Kirk “happy.” While this new goal is the only scientifically legitimate goal — and the only achievable goal — that was a completely different message from the one Kaytee heard Dr. Green deliver on television in 1970.

If Green’s opinions about “curing” young children with a “pre-homosexual” condition had changed (and we have ample evidence that it has), then he should have told Kaytee. He should have taken the time to sit down and review with her what he had learned in the twelve years since he first met Kaytee and Kirk at UCLA. He should have taken the time to explain what was possible and what wasn’t. He also should have told her his new definition of Kirk’s being normal. And most importantly, he should have told her that none of it was her fault. He owed her that as a professional, as an expert, and as a trusted family doctor.

“I trusted him,” Kaytee reiterated. “If he had any idea that it wasn’t all alright with Kirk then he should have told me.”

And that’s not the only thing she’s upset about. “And no,” she added. “I did not know that he had written a book and used Kirk as an example in the book. He did not get my permission for him to do that.”

Kaytee feels that she was kept in the dark about a lot of things. “I was stressed out not knowing really what was going on,” she said. “If they had given me a written report, then I could have read it and I could have understood it maybe. But they gave me nothing. And then Rod and I could have discussed it and said, do we want to continue with this or don’t we? But they really didn’t give us an option.”

“Rod only did it because I thought it was the right thing to do,” she continued. “But one more time, on TV Dr. Green had convinced me that this was the way to go. I rue the day that I ever saw that program.”

And so she holds everyone associated with UCLA responsible for several things. She holds them responsible for not leveling with her about Kirk’s sexuality. She holds them responsible for failing to make him straight. She holds them responsible for not being honest with her about why they couldn’t make him straight. She holds them responsible for experimenting on her child and not knowing what they were doing. She holds them responsible for adding to Kirk’s insecurities as he grew older. She holds them responsible for telling other parents that their kids could be cured just like “Kraig” was. But most significantly, above all else, she holds them responsible for his death.

“I wish I had never taken him there,” she said again. This time her voice was soft and quivering. “Dr. Green had a good story on TV and I believed him. But I’m not the only parent. I have come to this conclusion, I’m not the only parent that has lost a child to evil. So if Kirk’s light can shine and help other children, then I guess maybe God meant it to be that way.”

One of the surprising things to come out of this investigation has been discovering the effect Kirk’s treatment had on his older brother. “I’m being surprised by it on a daily basis,” he told me. “I would love to just let it all flow out, but it’s been a struggle, Jim.”

“I can tell you I did have an epiphany, after our first interview with you. I had a pretty long drive that night. I called Maris and I told her I think I felt fear for the first time in my life. There’s a numbness that’s going away, slowly, from all of this. Most of my anger is with the therapy and the relationship with my brother. We were all just numb. There was no sibling relationship. I used to think that I was weird because I could never find a depth, base feeling. That numbness took over a long time ago, and that’s just what kept us alive.”

Mark wonders whether he may have unwittingly played a role in Kirk’s therapy at the time. “Keep in mind, I was also put into those same therapy rooms with the toys and the one way mirrors. I never understood why, but now I think I can safely assume I was to be a benchmark against which my brother was measured. To know that I was used for that purpose, against my own brother, makes me horribly hurt and angry.”

Mark believes that being set up as an example for Kirk to follow put a permanent wedge between them. “I basically have my own trucking company,” he said. “I’m just a one-truck small company thing. I’ve always been envious whenever I’ve seen brothers running a business, like ‘Murphy & Murphy.’ Or two brothers in a bar getting in fistfights with everyone else. Or whatever — two brothers doing something together.”

“That’s one thing about being a truck driver, I have time to think of things. And I remembered that Maris has a picture from our father’s funeral. It’s Kirk on one side and me on the other and my daughter is skipping in the middle. And if you look at the picture, Kirk and I look physically so much alike. Our mannerisms, both our legs are lifted at the same time — it was quite a touching picture. It was amazing how similar we were, but neither of us knew it. What happened to Kirk in that therapy destroyed that sibling bond.”

“It breaks my heart about Kirk,” Donna said. “It breaks my heart.” Donna just remembered a sweet kid whose odds were stacked against him. “He made something of himself,” she said. “He had no advantages, he had no one. He did what he needed to do to get an education.”

“I am so distressed,” she sighted. “I am so distressed. His life was ruined by therapy I think. I am so sad for him. He was a sweet, sweet kid and he was very guarded about everything. He never told me he was gay. It didn’t matter to me one way or the other. I didn’t say anything to him about it, and he couldn’t talk to me about it. He was so guarded.”

“I’m very sad that he had such a tortured life.”

In 2009, Dr. George Rekers contributed a chapter to Dr. Julie Harren Hamilton’s Handbook of Therapy for Unwanted Homosexual Attractions. Hamilton is the president of NARTH, and the book is available through NARTH’s online bookstore. It has also been sold at various ex-gay gatherings and conventions. In the book’s final chapter, Rekers boasted:

Follow-up psychological evaluations three years after treatment indicates that Craig’s gender behaviors became normalized. An independent clinical psychologist evaluated Craig and found that post-treatment he had a normal male identity. Using intrasubject replication designs, this published case was the first experimentally demonstrated reversal of a cross-gender identity with psychological treatment, and the journal article on this case was among the top 12 cited articles in clinical psychology in the 1970s.102

Rekers wrote that passage six years after Kirk took his life in New Delhi, and just one year before Rekers returned from his fateful European vacation in the company of a young, tall, blonde and handsome male escort.

“I’ll never forget this as long as I live,” said Frank. He was the first outside of India to receive the news. “I got a phone call from the account manager who reported to me. It was midnight or one o’clock in the morning. I was totally shook up. I went in to the office and waited until it was morning in New York City, back east where Maris lived. I tracked her down and talked to her boss first and told him I had some really bad news and had to deliver the news to Maris. I had never spoken to her before and we had never met.”

Frank invited Maris to fly to India with him. After their arrival, Maris met with Kirk’s Indian co-workers. “They were completely baffled,” she recalled. “They told me, ‘We don’t understand. It had been a really great day.’ But I could see how Kirk would have felt there: the poverty, the sadness, the fear. And I even knew that at the time, participating in a full day of sports activities would have brought up a lot of insecurities for him. Even though physically he was really strong, he just felt so awkward and so self-conscious, even when he shouldn’t have.”

Frank was baffled too. “When I got that call that night that Kirk had taken his life, I was absolutely floored. I had no idea he was struggling internally so greatly that he would take his own life. To this day it’s still a struggle to even think of it because he was just a sweet, generally nice guy who fit in really well with the work that we did, and fit in really well with what we were trying to get accomplished over in New Delhi.”

Kirk’s coworkers wanted to have a Hindu funeral for their beloved friend. Maris confesses, “When I understood what a typical Indian funeral is like, it made me very nervous. But we knew this was important to them and they had opened their homes and hearts to Kirk while he was there, so how could we not allow them to celebrate his life in a meaningful way?”

“Death isn’t anything to be afraid of there, and they treat it with much more intimacy and certainly less fear than we do here,” she went on. “In India, the cremation is actually part of the funeral ceremony.  They unwrap the shroud, say prayers, and place gifts with dried herbs and ghee on the body and place it in the crematorium. Then, prayers are said en masse while the body burns.”

The ashes were returned to Phoenix where his family and friends gathered for a memorial service. They divided his ashes among a few select friends and family. Because Kirk liked to go hiking and camping with his friends in the mountains, Debbie and Tim decided to take their portion of his ashes to their favorite campground. But when I spoke to Debbie in November, she confessed that they still hadn’t gotten around to it. “There may be a part of us that kind of doesn’t want to part with him,” said Debbie. “It may be kind of silly, but it’s a part of Kirk that we still have. And if we take them up to the campground, then they’re at the campground and not down here. We haven’t done that yet, but we need to.”

Maris buried her portion of Kirk’s ashes in her front yard beneath a tree. So did Kirk’s mother.

“That tree must be a hundred feet tall in front of the house,” Kaytee said. “There are rocks around it and wild rosebushes and plants that we’ve put in there. And I can go out and talk to him. Or if the weather’s bad, I can look out the door and talk to him any time I want to.”

“There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think about him. I miss him. I wish I had been more tolerant. I hope he never thought that I didn’t accept him, because I loved him just as much as I loved the other two. But I don’t know if he ever really knew that.”

“I know his life did count for something.”


93. Rekers, George A. Shaping your Child’s Sexual Identity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker House Books, 1982): 154. [BACK]

94. Stoller, Robert J. “Patients’ responses to their own case reports.” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 36, no. 2 (April 1988): 371-391. [BACK]

95. Ellis, Albert. “Extending the goals of behavior therapy and of cognitive behavior therapy.” Behavior Therapy 28, no. 3 (Summer 1997): 333-339. [BACK]

96. Rekers, George A.; Lovaas, O. Ivar. “Behavioral treatment of deviant sex-role behaviors in a male child.” Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis 7, no. 2 (Summer 1974): 173-190. [BACK]

97. Green, Richard. The “Sissy Boy Syndrome” and the Development of Homosexuality (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987): 296. [BACK]

98. “Pica.” MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia, National Institutes of Health web site (updated February 28, 2010; accessed December 1, 2010). Available online at http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001538.htm. [BACK]

99. Green, Richard. “Sex-dimorphic behaviour development in the human: Prenatal hormone administration and postnatal socialization.” In Sex, Hormones and Behaviour, Vol 62 (New Series), Ciba Foundation Symposium, held at the Ciba Foundation, London, 14th-16th March 1978 (Amsterdam: Exerpta Medica, 1979): 59-80.

Meyer-Balhburg, Heino F.L; Ehrhardt, Anke A.; Rosen, Laura R.; Gruen, Rhoda S.; Veridiano, Norma P.; Vann, Felix H.; Neuwalder, Herbert F. “Prenatal estrogens and the development of homosexual orientation.” Developmental Psychology 31, no, 1 (February 1995): 12-21.

van de Beek, Cornelieke; van Goozen, Stephanie H.M.; Buitelaar, Jan K.; Cohen-Kettenis, Peggy T. “Parental sex hormones (maternal and amniotic fluid) and gender-related play behavior in 13-month-old infants.” Archives of Sexual Behavior 38, no. 1 (February 2009): 5-16. [BACK]

100. One such mother, Mary Griffith, was the subject of a book that became a made-for-television movie, Prayers for Bobby. Her son had committed suicide after she pressured him to enter therapy to “cure” him of his homosexuality. After his death, she re-examined her deeply-held conservative religious beliefs. “There are gay children sitting in our congregations across America,” she wrote in a letter to the editor responding to the news that an ex-gay group was forming in her community. “They are tragedies waiting to happen, all due to homophobia and, worst of all, ignorance.”

Aarons, Leroy. Prayers for Bobby, A Mother’s Coming to Terms with the Suicide of Her Gay Son (New York: HarperOne, 1995): 149. [BACK]

101. Green, Richard. The “Sissy Boy Syndrome” and the Development of Homosexuality (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987): 318. [BACK]

102. 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. Available online at the NARTH bookstore at http://www.shop.pilgrimageresources.com/product.sc?productId=41&categoryId=2. [BACK]