5 Things You Need to Know: Gay Reversal Therapy

In fact, very few converts actually exist—going either way.
Being who you are is a basic and self-evident human right. How can anyone take it upon themselves to argue with that? (Photo: Radovan Stoklasa/Reuters)
Jun 8, 2011
Allan MacDonell is TakePart’s News + Opinion editor, with a focus on social justice.

Anti-gay therapy sounds like an absurd joke, but the family of Kirk Andrew Murphy isn’t laughing. A 12-year Air Force veteran with a hotshot finance job in India—and a survivor of 10 months of experimental “sissy boy” therapy as a 5-year-old—Kirk Andrew Murphy hung himself in 2003 at the age of 38.

Six years after Kirk Murphy’s suicide, a book co-written by the man who conducted that sissy-boy therapy, Handbook of Therapy for Unwanted Homosexual Attractions, cites the dead man’s case as a success.

Murphy’s mother told CNN that the experimental therapy destroyed her son’s life.

"I blame them for the way his life turned out," she said. "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."

In the 1970s, anti-gay therapy was a secular pursuit. The popular conception of a brimstone-baiting homophobe wielding theological ire to scare the gay out of God-fearing believers may have basis in reality, but it was not initially the story of George A. Rekers. A doctoral student at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1970, Rekers ran the sissy boy experiments on 5-year-old Kirk Murphy. The therapy, conducted on the UCLA campus, consisted of crude behavioral manipulation. In 1974, Rekers published a study that concluded Murphy's 10-month ordeal had made him "indistinguishable from any other boy." Relying largely on his self-described success with Kirk Murphy, Rekers built a three-decade career as a gay buster. That career collapsed in 2010 when the anti-gay crusader popped up packing along a self-described “rent boy” on a 10-day European cruise.

In America, anti-gay therapy has become a branding strategyalbeit an often-failed one. Exodus International, Focus on Family, Renew Ministries, the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), Love in Action and, naturally, Homosexuals Anonymous all claim to know the true path to gay reversal. High-level slips from the straight and narrow have plagued them all.

Established religions and crackpot theologians alike support and indulge in gay-reversal therapy. Gay-reversal strategies—from hands-on counseling to electroshock—have been employed by Mormons, CatholicsJews and by Gainesville, Florida’s Pastor Terry Jones of Dove World Outreach. Pastor Jones is known in this country due to his fervor for burning the Koran. Until 2009, Jones headed a church in the western German city of Cologne. That congregation expelled Jones, according to Spiegel magazine, when he took upon himself the mission “to help a homosexual member to pray away his sins.”

Some countries show a national fervor for gay-reversal therapy. According to its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran has no homosexuals and, therefore, no need for gay-reversal treatment. Ahmadinejad’s attitude seems consistent with a belief that Islam and homosexuality are fully incompatible. However, the majority Muslim nation of Malaysia has broken from gay denial and struck out along the path to gay reversal. Malaysian authorities sent 66 Muslim schoolboys who had been deemed at-risk for effeminate behavior to a four-day camp. The campers received tutoring on masculine behavior, intended to discourage them from being gay, but—if the boys were lucky—perhaps the seeds for a lifelong appreciation of camp culture were planted instead.

The American Psychological Association and British Medical Association both view “conversion” therapy as a harmful hoax. Up until 1973, the American Psychiatric Association classified homosexuality among its lists of “mental and emotional disorders.” Since then, experts in much of the civilized world have moved from condemning sexual orientation to condemning therapy to alter sexual orientation. Specifically, the American Psychological Association “is concerned about such therapies and their potential harm to patients.”

“Sexuality is such a fundamental part of who a person is, that attempts to change it just result in significant confusion, depression and even suicide,” said Tim Dolphin, a doctor with the British Medical Association. “You can't just wish away same-sex attraction no matter how inconvenient it might be.”

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