Gender confusion as “reparative” therapyPosted: June 10, 2011
Trigger warning: suicide, physical and emotional abuse, heterosexism, cissexism.
Kirk Murphy’s story is yet another tragic example of the ridiculous and harmful the lengths we go to as a society to enforce supposedly natural gender norms. We’re talking about a 5 year old little boy who had to make sense of his mother deliberately ignoring him, even when he screamed and begged for her attention, simply because he liked to play with dolls. A 5 year old boy subjected to an abusive, arbitrary system of punishment and reward, where the rules literally changed every week, where he was terrorized with poker chips used to tally up “appropriate” and (a growing list of) “inappropriate” behaviors, and severely beaten if things didn’t add up to what was expected of him.
And his treatment was deemed a success because, unsurprisingly, he learned to perform the behaviors that his parents and the experts were looking for, and to avoid the stuff that came naturally, the things he enjoyed and wanted to do.
This kind of abuse disguised as “therapy” still goes on, not just in conservative religious communities, and it’s not just an issue for gay or bisexual youth. The gender norms that inform such therapy are widely and uncritically accepted, making gender variant (GV) children of all sexual orientations vulnerable to them. This is especially true for transgender youth, who today are still being subjected by supposed experts on gender identity to the same techniques that George Rekers employed with Kirk Murphy, the same techniques that CNN is now exposing as harmful and potentially fatal to those forced to endure them:
To treat Bradley, [gender identity specialist] Zucker explained to Carol that she and her husband would have to radically change their parenting. Bradley would no longer be allowed to spend time with girls. He would no longer be allowed to play with girlish toys or pretend that he was a female character. Zucker said that all of these activities were dangerous to a kid with gender identity disorder. He explained that unless Carol and her husband helped the child to change his behavior, as Bradley grew older, he likely would be rejected by both peer groups. Boys would find his feminine interests unappealing. Girls would want more boyish boys. Bradley would be an outcast. [from a 2008 NPR report, ht Transadvocate. Trigger warning for major cissexism and misgendering]
This is systematic and vicious abuse, done in the name of an abstracted definition of “normal” that has nothing to do with actual right or wrong. And yet, difficult as it is to understand, I do think parents who resort to such methods are genuinely concerned for their children, and believe they are acting in their best interests. They think they’re helping their kids avoid “gender confusion” and social isolation from their peers (“I wanted Kirk to have a normal life.”).
But who’s really confused about gender here? Certainly not cisgender kids who happen to be gender variant – i.e., children who identify with the gender they are assigned at birth, but whose behavior doesn’t conform to traditional gender norms. Boys who like pink or enjoy wearing dresses still know they’re boys. Left to themselves, they know that liking “feminine” things doesn’t make them not boys. It’s the messages they get at home and from society that cause them to question their masculinity. Nor are trans* children “confused” about their gender. They know that their external physical appearance isn’t the same thing as their internal sense of self. What’s confusing is constantly being told you have to pretend to be someone you know you’re not, for no reason other than that it’s who you’re supposed to be.
No, the people who are truly confused about gender are the adults who think that if you force someone to dress or talk or play a certain way for long enough, you’ll make them into a man. They’re the ones who think masculinity can be measured and quantified, and make up bullshit theories about how bad mothers make their children trans* or queer:
Stoller [the founder of the gender identity “clinic” where Kirk Murphy was a research subject] was a leading expert on “transsexualism” ….he regarded homosexuality and transsexualism as two expressions of the same problem…the most extremely feminine boys would grow up to become transsexual. But those boys who somehow managed to pick up some stray bits of masculinity along the way had considerably more options available to them. With a touch more masculinity, a boy might avoid becoming transsexual and instead become merely homosexual. Add still more masculinity, and maybe he would be straight but a cross-dresser. More masculinity still, and he’d be “normal.” How much masculinity a boy picked up depended entirely on his mother. [Box Turtle Bulletin]
The people who are really confused about gender think that if you make sure a five year old wears the right clothes and plays with the right toys now, they won’t want to sleep with or marry people of the same gender 20 years from now. That’s gender confusion.