I grew up a skinny, effeminate, non-athletic, black gay boy in the south … during the Reagan era.
That’s what I sometimes tell people when they ask my about what growing up was like for me. Those who get it, and most do, give me a wide-eyed look, and ask “How did you survive?”
I ask myself that sometimes, because I know a lot boys like me didn’t. Boys like Kirk Murphy.
[pro-player width=’400′ height=’380′]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-irAT0viF0[/pro-player]
Kirk Murphy was a bright 5-year-old boy, growing up near Los Angeles in the 1970s. He was the middle child, with big brother Mark, 8, and little sister Maris, just a baby at 9 months. Their mother, Kaytee Murphy, remembers Kirk’s kind nature, “He was just very intelligent, and a sweet, sweet, child.” But she was also worried.
“Well, I was becoming a little concerned, I guess, when he was playing with dolls and stuff,” she said. “Playing with the girls’ toys, and probably picking up little effeminate, well, like stroking the hair, the long hair and stuff. It just bothered me that maybe he was picking up maybe too many feminine traits.” She said it bothered her because she wanted Kirk to grow up and have “a normal life.”
Then Kaytee Murphy saw a psychologist on local television.
“He was naming all of these things; ‘If your son is doing five of these 10 things, does he prefer to play with girls’ toys instead of boys’ toys?’ Just things like this,” she said.
The doctor was on TV that day, recruiting boys for a government-funded program at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“Well, him being the expert, I thought, maybe I should take Kirk in,” said Kaytee Murphy. “In other words, nip it in the bud, before it got started any further.”
This story took me a long way back. I’m just a year younger than Kirk would have been if he were still alive. I’m an openly gay African-American man, Last year I married my partner of ten years. Together we’re raising two terrific boys — one eight-years-old, and one three-years-old — whom we adopted as infants.
Like Kirk, I was an effeminate little boy. Like Kirk, and my behavior disturbed my parents. I’ve never forgotten the day I realized that.
I played with dolls. My sister’s dolls; both baby dolls and Barbie dolls. It wasn’t like I didn’t have toys of my own, but I just preferred the dolls. My playing with dolls was the catalyst for the first time I remember getting the message (somewhat indirectly) that I wasn’t measuring up in the masculinity department.
I was sitting in the middle of the family room playing with one of my sister’s dolls, combing and styling its hair. My mom was a few yards away in the kitchen, and my dad was sitting behind me, on the couch, watching the television. He was also watching me, because from behind I heard him ask my mom “Should he be doing that?”; playing with a doll, that is.
The conversation continued as though I weren’t in the room. My mom rationalized that I might have a daughter some day and that I’d have to know how to do her hair. So it was okay. Now that it was safely wrapped in a frame of presumed heterosexuality, I could continue playing with dolls. But the question had been posed, and the seed planted. Normal boys (who grow up to be real men) didn’t play with dolls, as I enjoyed doing. Shortly after that, I was given a Ken doll and a G.I. Joe. I promptly stripped off their clothes was very disappointed with what I found or — more precisely — didn’t find.
When it comes to masculinity, details matter. At that age, I couldn’t even eat an apple the way a boy — or a man — was supposed to. Another time, my dad pointed it out to me. I would usually slice an apple into wedges before eating it, rather than just biting into it, as he instructed me a guy was supposed to. (I didn’t mention at the time that it hurt my teeth to do so.) If anybody saw me eating an apple like that, I was informed, they might think I was a little “funny.” Details. Details.
I have a standing bet with a friend that I can walk on to any playground in America … and by asking one question, I can provoke a fight. That question is simple: “Who’s a sissy around here?” … One of two things is likely to happen. One boy will accuse another of being a sissy, to which that boy will respond that he is not a sissy, that the first boy is. They may have to fight it out to see who’s lying. Or a whole group of boys will surround another boy and all shout “He is! He is!” That boy will either burst into tears and run home crying, disgraced, or he will have to take on several boys at once to prove he’s not a sissy. (And what will his father and brothers tell him if he chooses to run home crying?) It will be some time before he regains any sense of self respect.
Guess which boy I was.
Actually, I didn’t have much opportunity to “run home crying.” I learned early on to avoid my male peers because, for me, there was a danger in being near them. Part of that stemmed from an awakening pubescent desire that was often betrayed by the glances I stole. But it was also due to a recognition that if I ventured onto the field of their turf, chances are I wasn’t going to measure up.
The funny thing was, my parents carried on that conversation like I wasn’t in the room. But I was, and hearing it confirmed something I’d known since kindergarten: That I was different, and different in a way that some people wouldn’t like — including my parents. I was raised in the south. My parents were deeply religious, and I knew that I had keep my secret from them, and from the rest of my family. Sometimes that meant keeping things hidden. Sometimes, it just meant lying. The thing is, hiding and lying as coping methods are unsustainable, and incompatible with mental and/or emotional well-being.
It’s hard growing up as a boy who can’t even get being a boy “right.” You’re reminded in a thousand different ways that you don’t measure up. And on some level you know you never will. You either respond by redoubling your efforts, or giving up and going in the opposite direction. That’s pretty much what I did.
At school, I was bullied. It started as early as the fourth grade. By middle school it had gotten worse. I came home angry and depressed every day. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I was able to put into words what I was was going through then. I used a computer program to add music to the words. The result is a song on my iPod that only one other person besides myself has heard. I won’t post it here, because to tell the truth I’ve never been completely happy with the final result. But the first verses go like this:
At thirteen I was called a name,
Didn’t know exactly what it meant.
But everyone knew just the same,
The way that I was different.
By fifteen, I’d turned into
A tortured, suicidal wreck
I didn’t know who to take out first
The other kids or just myself
I was a gay kid. Actually, I was a flaming, over the top gay kid who just couldn’t help being flaming and over the top. And for years I caught unholy hell for it. After coming out—at 13, a mistake in retrospect—I was suicidal and homicidal. I came home depressed and angry every day. I’m not sure I’ve ever completely gotten over those years, or put them behind me.
It was the 80’s, the Reagan years, and I was in the South, going to school in a pretty rural area. I didn’t have many places to turn, any indication that anyone—even an adult—would take my side if I asked for help. My parents weren’t much help either. If I told them what the kids at school were calling me, the response was “Well, you’re not. Are you?” And it was pretty clear my answer had better be “no.” On the issue of homosexuality, their only advice was to tell me to read the Bible. (Specifically some part of Leviticus, and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.) So, I was on my own physically and emotionally, against some pretty tough kids. It got to the point where I flunked phys. ed. because I refused to go into the locker room anymore, knowing what I’d have to face there.
One day, my mom overheard me saying that I wanted to take a gun to school, blow away my classmates and then use it on myself. And I knew there was a gun somewhere in the house. I just don’t know if I would actually have done it. I didn’t get the chance to find out. To my mom’s credit, that statement landed me in a therapist’s office. I told him at the beginning of the first session that I was gay and I wasn’t there to change that. After he got over the shock of hearing this from a kid my age he said “Let’s just work on the whole person and let that part fall into place where it will.”
The point is, I caught a lucky break. I could have used an anti-bullying program. It might have saved me a lot of needless pain. Things turned out alright for me anyway, but there were kids then who were worse off than me, who didn’t catch the same kind of breaks. A lot of them didn’t make it. There are gay kids today who have it worse than I did, and a lot of them don’t make it either.
And that’s where my story departs from Kirk’s. I caught a lucky break. Like Kirk, I eventually landed in a therapist’s office. The difference was that my therapist said what was probably the best thing he could have possibly said to me. In one sentence, he told me that (1) being gay was part of who was — part of the “whole person” — and (2) that it was OK.
Kirk’s therapist had a decidedly different approach.
The therapy at UCLA involved a special room with two tables where “Kraig’s” behavior was monitored, according to the study.
“There was a one-way mirror or one-way window — and some days they would let him choose which table he would go to,” said Maris, who has read about the experiments.
At one table Kirk could choose between what were considered masculine toys like plastic guns and handcuffs, and what were meant to be feminine toys like dolls and a play crib. At the other table, Kirk could choose between boys’ clothing and a toy electric razor or items like dress-up jewelry and a wig.
According to the case study, Kaytee Murphy was told to ignore her son when he played with feminine toys and compliment him when he played with masculine toys.
“They pretty much told him he wasn’t right the way that he was, but they never really explained it to him what the issue was. They did it through play,” Maris said.
Rekers wrote that Kirk would cry out for attention, even throwing tantrums, but Kaytee Murphy was told to keep going.
And then there were the beatings.
At home, the punishment for feminine behavior would become more severe. The therapists instructed Kirk’s parents to use poker chips as a system of rewards and punishments.
According to Rekers’ case study, blue chips were given for masculine behavior and would bring rewards, such as candy. But the red chips, given for effeminate behavior, resulted in “physical punishment by spanking from the father.”
Mark said he was told to participate in the chip reward-and-punishment system as a way to make Kirk feel like the system was OK.
The family said the spankings were severe. Maris remembers “lots of belt incidents.” She escaped the screaming by going to her bed to “lay in the room with my pillow on my head.” Later, she would go to Kirk’s bedroom and “lay down and hug him and we would just lay there, and the thing that I remember is that he never even showed anger. He was just numb.”
During one particularly harsh punishment, their mother recalls, her husband “spanked” Kirk “so hard that he had welts up and down his back and on his buttocks.”
She remembers her son Mark saying, “Cry harder, and he won’t hit so hard.” She says, “Today, it would be abuse.”
There were moments during the the “AC 360” segment when found myself blinking back tears that for some reason I refused to let fall. Maybe, because I’d shed so many already, on a journey what was similar to Kirk Murphy’s. Similar enough to know what it’s like to be a kid who doesn’t understand what’s happening to him, to be expected to “fix” something that’s “unfixable” and doesn’t need “fixing” anyway, and to have no one on your side — not even the people who are supposed to be on your side; who are supposed to love and protect you.
The only thing you can do at that point is to cope as best you can. If you’re a kid, then you’re figuring out how to do that without the support of the people who are supposed to help you learn how to cope. So maybe you start building a wall between you and the people you’ve been closest too in your life; for your own protection. The problem is, you end up alone on the other side of that wall. By the time you realize it, that wall is “so deep you can’t go under it, so high you can’t get over it, and so side you can’t get around it,” and is too well-reinforced to knock down.
The big difference was that my parents didn’t find an “ex-gay” therapist for me. I don’t know that the thought even occurred to them. Because I was much older than Kirk was when he was taken to Rekers, I’d learned to lie to my parents, and had already answered in the negative their questions about whether I was gay. At thirteen, I had at least some defenses. At five, Kirk had none. What five-year-old would?
At five, all you know is that there’s something so bad about you that your parents have to take you to a doctor “fix” it. At five, all you know is that there’s something so bad about you that the doctor tells your parents to beat it out of you, but it’s so bad that even beating it out of you doesn’t work.
So you learn to hide it. You grow up hiding it, because you want the beatings and the emotional pain to stop. You grow up hiding it, because you learned from the age of five that hiding it makes the people you love happy. You become an adult, and maybe you’ve realized you can hide it from everyone but yourself. You hope, and maybe even pray, that it goes away. It doesn’t, and you just have to live with it.
But you can’t. You never learned how, because you were never taught. You were only taught, by infliction of a great deal of physical and emotinal pain, to hide by changing on the outside what couldn’t and wouldn’t change on the inside. Reker’s made Kirk “indistinguishable from other boys.” But that’s all. That “change” was only skin deep, and couldn’t be otherwise. But it wasn’t enough.
Maybe that’s the biggest difference; the one that makes the “sissy boy experience” survivable, and the reason the “sissy boy experiment” isn’t survivable; at least, it wasn’t for Kirk Murphy.