Missing Hearts and Souls

I’m going to ask for the indulgence of my readers, and quote a relatively long excerpt from an article that recently appeared in the Miami New Times in the wake of revelations about George Rekers, a leading Christian Right figure. (If somehow you missed those revelations, the short version is that Dr. Holier-than-Thou visited “Rentaboy.com” and engaged the services of a male prostitute who accompanied him on a European trip. To—ahem—“carry luggage.”) Here’s the excerpt:

“In 1974, Rekers, a leading thinker in the so-called ex-gay movement, was presented with a 4-year-old “effeminate boy” named Kraig, whose parents had enrolled him in the program. Rekers put Kraig in a “play-observation room” with his mother, who was equipped with a listening device. When the boy played with girly toys, the doctors instructed her to avert her eyes from the child.

According to a 2001 account in Brain, Child Magazine, “On one such occasion, his distress was such that he began to scream, but his mother just looked away. His anxiety increased, and he did whatever he could to get her to respond to him… Kraig became so hysterical, and his mother so uncomfortable, that one of the clinicians had to enter and take Kraig, screaming, from the room.”

Rekers’s research team continued the experiment in the family’s home. Kraig received red chips for feminine behavior and blue chips for masculine behavior. The blue chips could be cashed in for candy or television time. The red chips earned him a “swat” or spanking from his father. Researchers periodically entered the family’s home to ensure proper implementation of the reward-punishment system.

After two years, the boy supposedly manned up. Over the decades, Rekers, who ran countless similar experiments, held Kraig up as “the poster boy for behavioral treatment of boyhood effeminacy.”

At age 18, shamed by his childhood diagnosis and treatment, Rekers’s poster boy attempted suicide, according to Gender Shock, a book by journalist Phyllis Burke. Rekers, whose early experiments were the first to ostensibly demonstrate a “gay cure,” resigned from the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) last week, after it was revealed the gay escort had given him nude sexual massages. NARTH, however, stands by his science.”

It is one thing to diagnose Dr. Rekers; self-hate and projection explain a lot. I have a different question. What in the world was wrong with those parents?

My husband and I have five children and four grandchildren. Believe me, I know how easy it can be to react badly to childish provocations, how hard it is to parent adequately. I’ve second-guessed my own mothering skills more times than I can remember. That said, however, I can’t imagine treating any child the way these people treated this little boy, even for behaviors that we would all see as unequivocally and objectively wrong. Here, there was no dangerous or destructive behavior; the child was simply “effeminate,” whatever that means. Where is it written that being effeminate is a trait to be scorned or an affliction to be cured? What is it about the prospect of a child growing up gay that is so terrifying that it justifies the infliction of such unbelievable emotional abuse?

In the years since he came out, my son has periodically shared heartrending stories about friends or acquaintances whose parents rejected them. Many of them came from “religious” families—families in which “bible-believing” is a euphemism for self-righteousness, rigidity and intolerance. Some of these young people were later able to overcome the damage and achieve a measure of self-acceptance; others never did. Some haven’t spoken to their parents in years. Some developed substance-abuse problems. Others engaged in risky sexual behaviors, or gave other indications of self-loathing.

I think about all the people who cannot conceive, about the couples who wait years to adopt a child, about loving adults who want nothing more than to nurture and rear a child—and then I wonder at the unfairness of a world in which fertile people procreate easily and then abandon, neglect or mistreat the human beings entrusted to their care.

I try to understand, but I never will.


  1. Since I became a parent, I project these stories – to one extent or another – onto my kids. So, when I hear about a parent like this, what I see in my mind’s eye is my sweet, loving, trusting boy being mistreated. They rely on you to do the right thing. It’s a profound trust. And to see it betrayed and a child hurt in the name of irrational nonsense is infuriating. These parents were gratuitously refusing a boy who just wanted his mom and dad to love him.

  2. Recently, a documentary, For the Bible Tells Me So, aired on the Sundance channel. It mixes compelling stories of gay men and women who grew up in religious families with commentary from prominent international clergy.

    Of course, it was made c. 2007, so you may already have seen it. My only objection to anything in the movie is they’re still researching why people are gay. I think it’s time to settle on the fact that some people are, unless we’re working on a cure for homophobia, an actual pathological disease.

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