National Commentary

Aversion Therapy’s Tragic Outcome

The story of the suicide of a young man at age 38 has brought to light the destructive “aversion therapy” to which he’d been subjected as a youth, as CNN’s Anderson Cooper reported on his nightly “360” show the last two nights.

The story of the suicide of a young man at age 38 has brought to light the destructive “aversion therapy” to which he’d been subjected as a youth, as CNN’s Anderson Cooper reported on his nightly “360” show the last two nights.

Cooper reported that, as a five-year-old boy in 1970, Kirk Murphy was subjected to systematic so-called “Sissy Boy Syndrome” aversion therapy at UCLA’s Gender Identity Center conducted by one George Rekers.

The aim of the therapy was to change Kirk’s mental circuitry from one that naturally preferred “exaggerated feminine behavior” to act more like a “real boy,” someone who prefers to play with toy guns, soldiers and military equipment.

The “therapy” involved putting Kirk into a room where he was secretly observed making choices between supposedly feminine and masculine toys. Classic “behavior modification” coercion techniques were used to revise his choices, and when he started picking up guns, it was determined that the therapy had worked. His parents were then told how to continue Kirk’s aversive therapy at home, which they did for years.

Rekers went on to affiliate with the Family Research Council and to write prolifically, often citing Kirk’s case, on his claim that sexual orientation can be successfully modified.

However, an interview with Kirk’s tearful brother revealed that Kirk came back from UCLA with a marked loss of the happy vitality he was so known for. He never recovered it as, according to his brother, “He had no idea how to live.”

The inner struggles and turmoil of this “straight-behaving” young man finally manifested themselves with his suicide in 2003.

A still-dominant current in America’s “Protestant ethic”-driven society is mortified by differences of any kind, especially ones that reflect on allegedly-proper relations between the sexes. Children are brought up wearing pink or blue, and being showered with countless reinforcements of their respective gender identities.

I recall a conversation with a friend more than a decade ago about his youngest son. He was very concerned and ridiculed his son’s effeminate mannerisms and interests. I am happy that I had the wherewithal to strongly caution him about the negative effects of such an attitude.

My friend preferred the parental role of coaching his older son’s Little League baseball team. For him, the younger son’s natural affinities were not only at cross-purposes with his own, but also dampened his expectations for someday enjoying the parental role in a “normal” wedding and the grandparental role of dabbling in his offspring’s family life for decades.

To my friend’s great credit, it did not take much to turn him around on this matter. He began bragging about his youngest son’s achievements in the theater arts and appreciating his outgoing, friendly disposition. He saw his role as helping to channel his son’s natural affinities toward constructive, creative expressions. He has turned out to be a very good father.

The tragedy of Kirk Murphy cannot help but evoke themes of the powerful Peter Weir movie of 1989, “The Dead Poets Society,” in my opinion one of the finest movies ever.

Robin Williams’ role in that film, an English teacher taking a room full of high school seniors in 1959 and breaking them free from the stilted convention of the privileged New England boys school they attended, qualifies as seminal for the emergence of the generation that in the 1960s fueled the passions of the civil rights movement, and the anti-Vietnam War and other struggles for the enfranchisement of oppressed minorities, including Blacks, women and gays.

Williams’ role is contrasted to that of the angry parent who forbade his son from pursuing his passion to act. When the son defied him, the father’s brutal repression drove the son to suicide.

The Williams character’s encouragement of the son got blamed for the suicide, and he was dismissed. But in the film’s moving final scene, as he leaves the classroom for the last time, the teacher’s students rise one by one to stand on their desks and invoke the great Walt Whitman poem, “O Captain, My Captain!”

Would that young Kirk Murphy had had such a captain, instead of what he got.