LOS ANGELES, California, June 9, 2011 (LifeSiteNews.com) - The family of a man who was violently abused by his father in childhood has blamed a 10-month experimental gender identity therapy in the 1970s for their son’s distress and suicide in 2003.
Both CNN host Anderson Cooper and the prominent gay rights blog Box Turtle Bulletin this week released detailed reports on the story of Kirk Murphy, the five-year-old subject of a government-funded study on gender identity disorder in the early 1970s. The purpose of the therapy was to discourage effeminate behavior in Kirk, who his family says grew up maladjusted and was found hanged in his room in 2003 at the age of 38.
The family has not indicated that Kirk gave a reason for the suicide, but now claims that his therapy sessions at UCLA at the age of five should be blamed for his demise.
Kirk’s mother Kaytee became aware of the possibility of therapy in 1970 through a television broadcast by gender identity expert Dr. Richard Green; she signed Kirk up for it because she had been troubled by his effeminate behavior.
“It bothered me because I wanted Kirk to grow up and have a normal life,” she said. The family was living at the time in Sylmar, a district of Los Angeles.
However, an extensive report by the Box Turtle Bulletin blog’s Jim Burroway revealed that such behavior was not the only source of the family’s concern for Kirk.
Relatives say the family was partially prompted to pursue therapy out of concern for how Kirk’s father, Rod, acted colder towards his younger son than to Mark, the elder brother.
“They said he had to go to UCLA because of his relationship with his dad,” said Kirk’s cousin Donna, according to Burroway. “They said it was Rod’s fault because he didn’t love Kirk enough.”
Gender identity therapists have recognized a lack of affection from one’s father as a risk factor for males developing gender identity disorders.
The family brought Kirk to experimental therapy at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). There, the boy was subjected to a treatment approach focusing on positive reinforcement for desired behavior. The experimental study was guided by and published in part by George Rekers, then a doctoral student who later became a prominent advocate of reparative therapy.
CNN cites a UCLA researcher as confirming that Kirk was the same boy as “Kraig,” the pseudonym of the subject of Dr. George Rekers’ study; also, both Kirk and the subject had an older brother and an infant sister. Nonetheless, several discrepancies emerged between Kirk’s story as remembered by his family and that of “Kraig.” For example, while Kirk’s family denies that Kirk’s effeminism was severe, Rekers wrote that “Kraig” showed “profound” feminine behaviors that were “very alarm[ing]” to his family, including “pronounced feminine mannerisms, gestures, and gait.” Kirks’ mother, Kaytee Murphy, also had no recollection of the six therapy sessions in which the subject’s mother was recorded to have participated in the reinforcement regimen.
The study notes that one reason for pursuing reparative therapy was that, when left untreated, “adult cross-gender problems ... contribute developmentally to difficulties in social relationships, so that by adulthood, the syndrome is frequently accompanied by other serious emotional, social, and economic maladjustments,” including suicide and suicide ideation.
After the sessions finished, the Murphys were instructed to continue encouraging normative behavior on a token reinforcement system, using red and blue poker chips to reinforce both gender-related and other habits. Rekers concluded at a three-year follow-up session that the child’s more masculine habits “have become normalized,” and the therapy was deemed a success.
However, according to the family’s recollections, the reinforcement regimen took an ugly turn when brought back home: instead of the “spanking” advised for Kirk’s misbehavior, according to his children and wife Rod Murphy physically abused his son so violently that Kirk’s sister Maris recalls hiding in her room under pillows to avoid hearing Kirk’s screams. Mark Murphy broke down in tears as he recalled how he would try to save his younger brother from his father’s beatings.
His mother recalled one beating that was “so hard that [Kirk] had welts up and down his back and on his buttocks.”
“Today, it would be abuse,” said Kaytee.
His family detailed how Kirk grew to become nervous, sensitive, and overly withdrawn, and noted that he attempted suicide once when he was 17 before his final attempt years later.
Maris says that for years she had not blamed the therapy for her brother’s suicide, but after learning more about the published study from Dr. Green, and an extended email correspondence with Burroway, began to see things differently. Now mother and siblings alike blame the changes they saw in Kirk on the reparative therapy.
“I blame them [the therapists] for the way his life turned out,” said his mother. “If one person causes another person’s death, I don’t care if it’s 20 or 50 years later, it’s the same as murder in my eyes.”
George Rekers, who was tracked down by CNN, expressed sorrow at Kirk’s suicide, but said linking the event to therapy 30 years prior was tenuous.
“That’s a long time ago, and to hypothesize, you have a hypothesis that positive treatment back in the 1970s has something to do with something happening decades later. That hypothesis would need a lot of scientific investigation to see if it’s valid,” said Rekers, adding that “two independent psychologists with me had evaluated him and said he was better adjusted after treatment, so it wasn’t my opinion.”
One of those therapists, Dr. Larry Ferguson, told CNN that he had not noticed any “red flags” in later evaluations of Kirk. Maris countered that her brother was conditioned to misrepresent himself to the therapists.
“The research has a postscript that needs to be added. That is that Kirk Andrew Murphy was Kraig and he was gay, and he committed suicide,” she concluded.
Gay rights advocates often point to the seminal de-classification in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in 1973, and the resulting shift in position by all top medical associations, as proof that homosexuality is an unchangeable trait. However, the debate is far from closed, as prominent studies continue to support the possibility of reparative therapy.
Dr. Robert Spitzer, who is acknowledged as “spearheading” the 1973 change within the APA, asserted that reparative therapy for homosexuality was possible based on the results of a study he conducted in 2001, despite beginning the study as a skeptic.