The ‘Sissy Boy’ Experiment: Why Gender-Related Cases Call for Scientists’ Humility

  • Share
  • Read Later
Reimer Family / Winnipeg Sun / AP

Seen in this undated picture provided by the Reimer family, David Reimer, a Winnipeg man who was born a boy but raised as a girl in a famous nurture-versus-nature experiment

Some of the most harrowing cases of psychological and medical malpractice involve attempts to change a child’s gender or sexual identity. Not only have such misguided “therapies” often resulted in patients’ suicides, but they also repeatedly appear to foster scientific misconduct.

In back-to-back shows on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper is exploring the tragic case history of Kirk Andrew Murphy. His story has been cited as evidence that the use of punitive behavioral therapy can prevent “sissy boys” from growing up gay. But Murphy’s family believes such “therapy” ultimately led to his suicide.

(More on The Protective Effect of Family Acceptance for Gay Teens)

As a child, Murphy preferred playing with dolls and engaging in other stereotypically “girly” activities. Concerned that he was not “normal,” his mother took him to a young doctoral student at University of California-Los Angeles named George Rekers, who claimed to be able to prevent such boys from becoming gay.

If Rekers’ name sounds familiar, it may be because he has long crusaded against homosexuality as a founder of the conservative Family Research Council. It may also be because in 2010, he was photographed in the company of a male prostitute, Jo-Vanni Roman, whom he hired from to accompany him on vacation. (Rekers continues to deny that he is gay or that he was sexually involved with Roman; Roman says otherwise.)

Whatever did or didn’t happen between Rekers and Roman, Rekers’ research has long been used to oppose gay rights and to support efforts to “convert” men to heterosexuality. Back in 1974, Rekers published the case history of Kirk Andrew Murphy, to whom the author referred by the pseudonym “Kraig.” The paper claimed that after having been rewarded by his mother for “masculine” behavior and punished by his father (with harsh beatings, the family has revealed) for stereotypically feminine acts, Kraig was no longer effeminate and was now like “any other boy.” (Note: Rekers’ co-author on the paper was O. Ivar Lovaas, who would later develop Applied Behavior Analysis, a widely used treatment for autism that has in the past utilized punishment as well as reward.)

In reality, Murphy became increasingly miserable and filled with self-hatred. He grew up to be gay — but, unable to accept his sexuality, he committed suicide at age 38.

(More on The Lab Rat: Can a Simple Writing Exercise Close the Gender Gap?)

Meanwhile, Rekers continued to cite Murphy’s case as a success story in research articles and books. Until the incident in 2010, Rekers was regularly testifying in court cases as an expert witness against gay adoption and spoke out widely about his therapeutic success.

“Kraig’s” is not the only case study in the gender and sexuality literature that has been widely misrepresented and used in the service of politics — and ended in suicide. The case of David Reimer, widely known as the “John/Joan” case, is even worse. When Reimer, who was born with an identical twin, was maimed in a circumcision accident as a baby, he was surgically made to look anatomically female and raised as a girl. During childhood, he was never told that he had been born a boy.

His case study was used for decades to prove that gender was completely socially constructed and not biological. I recall reading about the “John/Joan” case — the pseudonyms that Reimer’s psychologist John Money gave him — in several psychology and gender textbooks as an undergraduate at Columbia College in the 1980s. Money presented the case as a success — just like Murphy’s.

Money claimed that dressing “John” as a girl after he lost his penis, providing him girly toys, calling him “Joan” and putting him in therapy to convince him he was female had worked. “Joan” had become a happy, heterosexual girl, according to Money (and the texts that cited his study), arguing that the result meant that biology had nothing to do with human sexual orientation or gender identity.

(More on The Precarious Nature of Masculinity)

Except Reimer never saw himself as a girl. At 13, he threatened to kill himself if he was made to continue seeing Money for therapy. At 14, when he was finally told what had really happened to him, he immediately began identifying as male and underwent surgery again to attempt to reconstruct his genitals.

Reimer co-wrote a moving and brilliant account of his life story called As Nature Made Him, which was published in 2000. He married a woman but remained so unhappy that, like Murphy, he committed suicide at 38.

Yet similar behavior-modification therapies are still being used in various teen boot camps and “tough love” programs, which attempt to make gay teens straight or to stamp out other gender variant behavior. Reimer’s and Murphy’s stories should remind us that therapeutic and scientific humility — and the physician’s oath to do no harm — should guide all attempts at treating children, particularly where highly politicized issues like gender and sexual orientation are involved.

Related Links:

Gender-Free Baby: Is it O.K. for Parents to Keep Their Child’s Sex a Secret?

Study: Why Some Transgendered People Have Higher Levels of Autistic Traits