Anderson Cooper Uncovers the Painful Truths About 'Sissy Boy' Experiment

This week, CNN's Anderson Cooper aired a three-part series on AC360 called "The 'Sissy Boy' Experiment: Uncovering the Truth."  The series centered around the tragic life of Kirk Andrew Murphy, as was first reported by Jim Burroway on the blog Box Turtle Bulletin.

Part 1 (6/7/11): Therapy to change 'feminine' boy created a troubled man, family says

Part 2 (6/8/11): Researcher responds to man's suicide

Part 3 (6/9/11): 'Sissy' therapy still has influence

(Please click here to read "What Are Little Boys Made Of?," Jim Burroway's original investigation.)

At the age of four, Kirk was a seemingly happy little boy, the middle of three children.  His older brother, Mark, has a picture of Kirk the last time he remembers him smiling - Kirk was four years old at the time.  The following year, Kirk's mother, Kaytee, enrolled him in a government-funded study at UCLA that was aimed at making effeminate boys more masculine, or ridding Kirk of what participating researchers later called 'Sissy Boy Syndrome.'  The happy demeanor of four-year-old Kirk was never to be seen again.

Kaytee Murphy says she enrolled Kirk in the study because she was concerned about him playing with "girls' toys."  A psychologist appearing on a local TV program suggested boys like Kirk would become gay unless intervention, by way of 'treatment,' was sought.

"I was seeing effeminate mannerisms," Kaytee told Anderson Cooper.  "It bothered me, because I wanted Kirk to grow up and have a normal life."

Rather than parents wishing a "normal life" for their children, how about a rich and fulfilling life instead?

For nearly a year, Kirk was treated mainly by a man named George Rekers.  The treatment would become the subject of Rekers' doctoral thesis, and the success Rekers claimed in 'curing' Kirk laid the foundation for his very prominent career.  Rekers wrote about his work with Kirk (whom he referred to as "Kraig") in at least 20 publications during a nearly three-decade career in which Rekers became one of the country's leading anti-gay activists.  Case in point, Rekers became a founding member of the Family Research Council (FRC), a vehemently anti-gay organization that is recognized as an official hate group by the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center.  Rekers was also a board member of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), an organization whose members attempt to 'treat' people for being gay.

Kirk's 'treatment' consisted of repeatedly being placed in a room with two tables and observed through a one-way window.  On one of those tables were toys stereotypically associated with boys, like plastic knives and guns; on the other, toys stereotypically associated with girls, like dolls and a play crib.  He could also choose what clothing to wear: an Army hat and military fatigues or a dress, jewelry and a wig.  Kirk's mother was brought into the room and told to ignore Kirk when he played with 'feminine' toys or clothes, and to compliment him when he played with 'masculine' ones.  Rekers wrote that when Kirk's mother ignored him, he would beg for attention from her, cry and sometimes throw tantrums.  Still, she was advised to continue ignoring him.

The system of reward and punishment continued at home, too.  Researchers advised Kirk's parents to use poker chips: blue chips were awarded for 'masculine' behavior; red chips were given for 'feminine' behavior.  Kirk's older brother, Mark, also participated in the system as a means to reinforce Kirk.  On Friday night, both boys stood before their father with the chips they'd accumulated throughout the week.  Spankings were handed out, the severity of which depended upon the number of red chips.  Speaking with Anderson Cooper, Mark tearfully recalled having taken some of Kirk's red chips and adding them to his stack so that Kirk wouldn't be beaten so badly.

Though Kirk's 'treatment' lasted just under a year, its effects haunted Kirk for the rest of his life, according to his family.  Kirk's mother, Kaytee, now lives with serious regret.  Though Rekers' work with Kirk provided a launchpad for his career as a prominent anti-gay activist, that career would ultimately topple and disenfranchise Rekers from the FRC and NARTH in 2010 when Rekers was photographed with a young male escort he hired to accompany him on a trip to Europe.  Rekers maintains that he is not gay and that the escort was hired to help him carry his luggage; the escort, on the other hand, tells a much different story.

Despite acknowledging himself as a gay man in 1985, Kirk never had a loving and committed relationship and chose a career where being openly gay wasn't even possible.  He spent eight years in the U.S. Air Force and then held a high-profile position with an American finance company in India.  It was there, in his New Delhi apartment, that Kirk Murphy died by suicide in 2003.  He was just 38 years old.

"[Before only recently learning the details of Kirk's 'treatment' from Rekers] I used to spend so much time thinking, 'Why would he kill himself at the age of 38?'," said Maris Murphy, Kirk's younger sister, to Anderson Cooper.  "What I now think is I don't know how he made it that long."

Though the actual reason for suicide is always difficult, if not impossible, to know, Kirk Murphy's family says that he struggled with being gay for most of his life - a struggle they blame on the experimental 'therapy' Kirk received as a five-year-old child.

"What they really told him was that the very core of who he was, was broken," said Maris Murphy to Anderson Cooper.

Though Kirk Murphy's life was tragically cut short, the research about his 'therapy' unfortunately lives on - cited as recently in a book Rekers co-authored in 2009, six years after Kirk's suicide death.  Despite Kirk's tragic death, there are still those who cite Rekers' research about Kirk as evidence that you can prevent a child from becoming gay.  Another sad reality is the fact that children are still sent to 'therapies' much like the one Kirk attended - and this is despite the fact that it's been nearly 40 years since the American Psychological Association (APA) concluded that being gay is not a "disorder" and is not in need of a "cure."  On the heels of the APA's conclusion, virtually every respected medical and psychological organization followed suit, including: the American Psychiatric Association, American Medical Association, American Counseling Association, American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Association of Social Workers.

By telling the story of Kirk Murphy, and for letting that story speak for itself - rather than frame the validity of his 'therapy' as a two-sided debate, Anderson Cooper and his team exposed the painful truth that so-called 'ex-gay therapy' is capable of causing, and often does cause, serious and long-lasting psychological damage.  As we've noted again and again on GLAAD Blog, this is something that's no longer up for debate.  Our hat's off to Anderson Cooper and his team for bringing the media coverage of this issue up to speed on this longtime reality.  It's about time.

At Kirk's memorial service, his sister, Maris, eulogized him by saying, "We have a responsibility to Kirk to enjoy life like we never have before, because he is no longer here to enjoy his."

We couldn't agree more.