Escaping The Prison of Gender has a report today about Kirk Andrew Murphy, a man who committed suicide in 2003. His story is especially poignant because he was subjected to treatment when he was younger that was intended to force him into gender conformity. As part of it, he was given blue poker chips for rewarding masculine behavior and red ones for effeminate behaviors. The blue ones would get rewarded and the red ones would result in being spanked, once to the point of welts on his body.

While George Rekers, the doctor who convinced Kirk’s parents to follow these rules, used his case to build a career on the premise that homosexuality can be “cured”, according to his younger sister:

“It left Kirk just totally stricken with the belief that he was broken, that he was different from everybody else,” she recalled. “He even ate his lunch in the boy’s bathroom for three years of his high school career, if you want to call it that.”

If Rekers’ name sounds familiar, it’s because he was the guy who was photographed while traveling with a 20-year-old rent boy who claimed he had been paid to give Rekers nude massages.  Given the research linking homophobia to same-sex desires, the whole situation is more than a little ironic.

During the “therapy”, Rekers consulted with two psychologists. One of them has died, but the other one reported that “the family was well adjusted and he did not see any “red flags” when evaluating Kirk.” Kirk’s sister responded that he had learned how to tell the experts what they wanted to hear. And in the end, his family is saying that he committed suicide as a result of being beaten and shamed for his gender non-conformity. While I think that this probably more complex than “this is what led to his suicide, ” the effects of such deep shame and abuse from both parents and medical professionals in order to “fix” a child are profound.

As a cisgender, queer man who’s most decidedly gender-non-conforming in some ways, this story both inspires anger and makes me feel fortunate. I’m fortunate that my parents let me be who I was, even though I had very little interest many of the things that lots of boys liked. I was fortunate that they let me discover who I was without shaming me for it. I was fortunate that they kept any anxiety they felt about that to themselves. Kirk Andrew Murphy didn’t get that. And too many young people today don’t get to have that, either.

How many more children and young people are we going to shame for letting themselves shine? How many more are we going to slut-shame and fag-bash in order to keep them in line? How much longer are we going to pretend that there are only two ways of moving through the world and we each only get one, depending on what we have between our legs? How much longer are we going to pretend that this is a prison for all of us? Some of us might be in solitary confinement, some of us might be trustees with a lot of privilege, and we are all behind bars.

There’s really nothing wrong with many of the aspects of gender roles. The difficulty comes in when we have to conform to all of them and visibly perform them in order to present as female or male. I’d love to live in a world in which we could pick and choose which pieces fit us. I’d love to see people put any of them on for a while, whether it’s for an hour, or a day, or a span of years, knowing that when it was time to take them off, that would also be just fine. And I really want to live in a world in which nobody was attacked, assaulted, or shamed because of which ones they happen to be wearing at that moment.
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3 Responses so far.

  1. Sara says:

    …his family is saying that he committed suicide as a result of being beaten and shamed for his gender non-conformity. While I think that this probably more complex than “this is what led to his suicide” …

    I don’t doubt that there may have been adult-life stressors that had a bearing on his state of mind, but if he and those closest to him say the abuse he suffered due to his gender non-conformity is the reason he committed suicide, I think it’s important we respect that. People often forget that childhood abuse doesn’t end the day the child is removed from harm, or grows up and is able to leave. (And to be clear, in this case his abusers were the ‘professionals’ who prescribed his treatment rather than his parents who administered it.)

    As a gender non-conforming cis female whose parent didn’t respect that, and actively steered me away from many of my interests so I wouldn’t ‘become a lesbian’, I can tell you from experience that childhood abuse is a lifelong trauma. If you’re told enough times as a child that you’re bad, wrong and different, you internalize it. In time, the abuser doesn’t need to police you; you do it yourself to avoid their ire, and unfortunately getting away from them doesn’t break that habit. I’m still acutely aware of how everything I do and say will be perceived by others, and I’m not sure that will ever go away.

    On top of that, if the people you should be able to trust as a child deny you that, learning to trust as an adult is a long and difficult process. Too many survivors of childhood abuse live their whole lives with literally nobody they can trust, and it’s an extremely tiring way to live, being on guard every time there’s another person around (and being stuck with the critical self-talk that was conditioned into you as a child whenever you’re alone).

    The link between childhood abuse and adult self-harm is well-established in the psychological literature, so in this case, the tendency to look for immediate proximate causes rather than blaming something ‘long in the past’ is unhelpful.

  2. Charlie says:

    @Sara- Thank you for that. I fully agree with all that you said and I hope that I didn’t make it sound like I was trying to minimize his experience of abuse or deny the responsibility of the people who participated in it. All I meant was that I think that his story is more complex than such a simple formulation makes room for. I wasn’t looking for a proximate cause in order to shift responsibility, as I think the rest of the post makes clear.

  3. Sara says:

    @Charlie: It didn’t sound like you were minimizing or trying to shift blame. I’m aware I get ranty about this stuff (but I don’t apologize for it any more because it’s normal to have strong feelings about experiences like that, even years later).

    I was mostly just trying to make the point that the statistical evidence shows a strong enough link between childhood abuse and adult self-harm that identifying it as the ’cause’ of a suicide is justified. The link is strong enough that it’s safe to state, in most cases, that if the abuse hadn’t occurred, that person wouldn’t have self-harmed. There’s always more complexity to a story than media reports let on, but this is one case where the bulk of evidence does support a causal link between two distantly separate events.

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