Kirk Andrew Murphy (1965-2003)

Kirk was a beautiful and vibrant kid who was exposed to some of the worst parts of humanity when he was four years old. He was a brother, an uncle, and a gay man. He deserved better.

What is retraction?

When a scientific journal retracts a published article, that journal is saying that the article is so seriously flawed that it should no longer be part of the scientific literature. Journals let people know that the article is retracted by doing things like stamping the PDF file of the article with the word "retracted", updating the title, and publishing commentary on why the paper is so flawed.

Are we asking for something out of the ordinary?

No. We're not. Academic journals are actively retracting racist, sexist, and homophobic literature. At best, these papers reflect outdated norms and values that we've long since left behind. At worst, these papers describe the physical and psychological abuse of people from historically-marginalized backgrounds, like people who are LGBTQ. Rekers and Lovaas (1974) is one of those papers.

How Can I Help?

There are different ways that you can help retract Rekers and Lovaas (1974) and end gender conversion therapy in ABA.

1. Understand gender conversion therapy

When you think of gender conversion therapy, you probably think about camps where kids go to be scared straight. What we don't usually think about are the small, everyday decisions we make about who kids are and what's best for them. People who work in ABA must understand modern-day gender conversion therapy and how it impacts their practice; assess yourself for these practices here. If you want to share content on social media about conversion therapy, you'll find those files here. We've got images, videos for social media stories or reels, long-form infographics...all for your use in advocacy.

2. Sign the petition

Immediately after the decision to not retract Rekers and Lovaas was announced, members of the ABA community alongside Beautiful Humans and Upswing Advocates started an online petition to retract this paper. You can sign your name here.

3. Get fluent

One of our members, Worner Leland, has made a set of training documents for folks who want to get involved. You can gain fluency in your skills in working towards retraction by using the instructions found here, and once you've got that down, you can quiz yourself here or, for a more gamified version, you can go here.

4. Share and advocate

If you're doing a presentation somewhere, you can insert a QR code into your title slide so that folks can get to this site and learn more about Kirk Murphy. You can find images with the QR code here (or, you know, it's also just to the left). We've also put together a social media kit for folks to use when spreading the word about Rekers and Lovaas (1974). It includes images to use on Facebook, whole sets of images for Instagram or an Instagram Story, and all sorts of good stuff that we're adding to all the time. Click here to access them. Professor Austin Johnson has prepared a 25-minute presentation on what happened to Kirk Murphy and the rationale for the retraction of Rekers and Lovaas (1974), which you can find below and is linked here.

Watch: the rationale for retraction

A full transcript for the video is available here, and a PDF of the slides is available here.

Kirk Andrew Murphy

Kirk and "Kraig"

Kirk Andrew Murphy was born in 1965. When he was four years old, his mother took him to a UCLA clinic which specialized in therapy for young children who behaved in ways not associated with their assigned sex, in order to prevent those children from becoming gay. At that clinic, Dr. George Rekers, then a graduate student advised by Dr. O. Ivar Lovaas, used procedures rooted in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) like differential reinforcement and token economies to determine whether he could reduce the gender-non-conforming behaviors of Kirk and other young children.

During their work with Kirk in the UCLA lab (who they called "Kraig"), Drs. Rekers and Lovaas coached Kirk's mom to ignore him when he played with feminine-associated toys. After the treatment shifted to Kirk's home setting, Drs. Rekers and Lovaas began using a token economy (as in, point systems and sticker charts) with Kirk. He got blue poker chips when he engaged in "gender-neutral" behaviors like cleaning up. He got red chips when he did something feminine. When Kirk got too many red chips, his father physically abused him. Mark, Maris, and Donna (Kirk's brother, sister, and cousin) described the red chips and their consequences to journalist Jim Burroway:

Mark today regards the chips as an extremely painful chapter in his life. When I first asked him to describe how they were used, he broke down and sobbed for several minutes, and it took him a long time before he could compose himself. When he finally gathered himself up again, he still couldn’t approach this topic directly ... Mark took a deep breath and explained, “My goal was to take the beating for my brother.” Mark had long been accustomed to getting into trouble and being punished for it, and so he reasoned that he could take the beatings more easily than his younger brother. “I saw my brother’s whole back side bruised so badly one time, my dad should have gone to jail for it. Of course, he was somewhat carrying out instructions from the therapist. But my dad whipped my bare ass so many times before that, I figured I could take it. I mean that’s the way we got spanked. You dropped your pants, you bent over the bed, and he whipped your bottom with a belt.” (from Burroway, 2011)
Maris doesn’t really remember the chips per se, but she does remember the whippings. “After a belt evening, it was always very quiet,” she said. “We’d all be in our rooms, my Dad would drink and my mom would yell.” Maris remembers sneaking into Kirk’s room at night just so they could hug each other. (from Burroway, 2011)
“I remember Kirk having a complete meltdown because of the poker chips,” she [Kirk’s cousin Donna] said. “One time he begged his mom to take the poker chips away. I knew it was very traumatic for Kirk because he got spanked because of the chips." (from Burroway, 2011)

Excerpt from Anderson Cooper 360: Mark and Maris discuss the beatings.

Mark and Maris divide Kirk's childhood into "before" and "after" his experiences with Rekers and Lovaas. Kirk attempted suicide multiple times and he grew increasingly anxious and isolated. After high school, Kirk joined the Air Force, came out, and went to college for a Bachelor's and Master's degree. After joining a business and finance company, Kirk distinguished himself in his work and moved to India for his company in 2003. That December, Kirk committed suicide.

There's no better source for information about Kirk's life than Jim Burroway's blog Box Turtle Bulletin. Jim did an astonishingly deep profile into Kirk, his life, what happened to him, and the broader context within which it took place. We can't recommend his work enough, and are deeply indebted to him for his care and dedication.


Rekers and Lovaas, 1974

Drs. Rekers and Lovaas conducted their research with Kirk in 1970. In 1972, Rekers defended his dissertation, and in 1974, it was published in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (JABA).

The Rekers and Lovaas paper from 1974 describes what these two researchers did to Kirk in excruciating detail. They state that Kirk “appeared to be very skilled at manipulating [his mother] to satisfy his feminine interests," writing that "intervention on deviant sex-role development in childhood may be the only effective manner of treating [i.e., preventing] serious forms of sexual deviance in adulthood."

Reflecting on the outcomes of their study, Rekers and Lovaas wrote that “before therapy, Kraig was a ‘crybaby’,” but after being punished for engaging in feminine behaviors, “Kraig’s mother began to complain to us that her son had become a ‘rough-neck’...we reassured the mother that such ‘mildly delinquent’ behavior was much easier to correct in future years than feminine behaviors would be.” In the discussion section of the paper, the authors describe Kirk’s behavior before their research began:

When we first saw him, the extent of his feminine identification was so profound (his mannerisms, gestures, fantasies, flirtations, etc., as shown in his ‘swishing’ around the home and clinic, fully dressed as a woman with long dress, wig, nail polish, high screechy voice, slovenly seductive eyes) that it suggests irreversible neurological and biochemical determinants. (from Rekers & Lovaas, 1974, p. 187)

Two UCLA researchers sat down and wrote a paper where they described a four-year-old as having "slovenly, seductive eyes." Rekers and Lovaas were somewhat discouraged early on in their study when Kirk's behavior wouldn't decrease like they wanted, but once his dad started hitting him, they had much better luck:

The disobedient behaviors did sharply decrease, however, when the red tokens were backed up by spanking. Kraig was told that he would get one “swat” from his father for each red token he collected. (from Rekers & Lovaas, 1974, p. 185)

Rekers would go on to write about his "success" with Kirk in over 20 written publications.

The Field Responds, As Does Rekers

Immediately after publication, five researchers in ABA wrote to JABA to submit criticisms of the Rekers and Lovaas paper. Their criticisms were ultimately published in 1977 alongside a response to those criticisms by Rekers.

These five critical authors were split across two different articles: Winkler (1977) and Nordyke, Baer, Etzel, and LeBlanc (1977). The "Baer" in that article is Donald Baer, who is one of the most foundational figures in ABA. He was also the lead author on the paper which laid out the unique foundational principles of ABA: Baer, Wolf, and Risley (1968).

Nordyke, Baer, Etzel, and LeBlanc begin their response to Rekers and Lovaas with the following sentence:

In their recent article, Rekers and Lovaas (1974) appear to be not only accepting but also supporting sex-role stereotyping, thereby failing to contribute to the solution of a larger social problem. Although they admit that social and parental pressure led them to conduct sex-role therapy, their work raises the question of the responsibility for the nature of the therapy. (from Nordyke, Baer, Etzel, & LeBlanc, 1977, p. 553)

With this mention of "the solution of a larger social problem," the authors are referring to a guiding principle of ABA proposed by Baer and colleagues in 1968, where they state that the "applied" in "Applied Behavior Analysis":

is not determined by the research procedures used but rather by the interest which society shows in the problems being studied. (from Baer, Wolf, & Risley, 1968, p. 92)

Baer is one of the most prominent members of the ABA community. He co-founded JABA. He wrote the document which is still cited today (Baer, Wolf, & Risley, 1968) as the foundational principles of the field. And immediately after Rekers and Lovaas was published, he wrote with his colleagues to JABA to tell them that this research did not meet the fundamental criterion for meaningful research in ABA.

In his response to these critiques, Rekers wrote that they provided no evidence that "most parents, if given a choice, would consider it desirable to foster homosexuality, transsexualism, or transvestism in their child," and that:

a parent could legitimately request the prevention of homosexual behavior, for example, on the basis that it is morally wrong, even if it were possible for the child to develop as a contented homosexual (from Rekers, 1977, p. 563)
there are specific behaviors that are inappropriate for males in all is an important socialization process for the boy to learn that he will not grow up with the biological possibility of having sexual intercourse with a man (from Rekers, 1977, p. 566)
nurturant behavior in a boy is desirable, but when that behavior is accompanied by verbalizations of a female identity, it is undesirable (from Rekers, 1977, p. 567)

Despite Rekers' insistence to the contrary, the world was not as hateful a place as he wanted it to be. While a long ways from equality, change was happening. A few months prior to the publication of Rekers and Lovaas, the American Psychiatric Association had removed homosexuality from its tome of mental illnesses, the DSM.

Excerpt from Anderson Cooper 360: Rekers is confronted and denies blame for Kirk's suicide.


What is Retraction?

When a scientific journal retracts a published article, that journal is saying that the article is so seriously flawed that it should no longer be part of the scientific literature.

Journals let people know that the article is retracted by doing things like stamping the PDF file of the article with the word "retracted", updating the title, and publishing commentary on why the paper is so flawed.

The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) is an organization which provides guidance to the scientific community on how to address issues of ethics in publishing. In their Retraction Guidelines, they specify nine central reasons why an article would be retracted, including:

It reports unethical research.

Journals may also publish Statements or Expressions of Concern, which can be used if "an editor has inconclusive evidence to support retraction, or is awaiting additional information such as from an institutional investigation."

Efforts to Retract

Beginning at least in early 2020, members of the ABA community formally approached JABA to request the retraction of Rekers and Lovaas (1974).

The paper had been used by Rekers in at least 20 additional publications to support his vociferously anti-gay positions. It described behavior that could clearly be described as unethical. It seemed like retraction would be inevitable for a publication like this one.

But in October 2020, without consulting those individuals who had brought these concerns to them, the journal publicy disclosed in a published journal article that it would not be retracting Rekers and Lovaas. Instead, the journal stated that it instead would be making a Statement of Concern, as described in that self-same Statement:

The actions of Retraction and Expression of Concern were carefully reviewed to determine whether the original study met the established criteria for those actions. The criteria for retraction are primarily based on clear and defensible evidence of scientific misconduct, falsification or fabrication of data, or clear ethics violation. By today’s standards and in light of our current scientific knowledge, the study would be considered unethical and would not be published in JABA. However, the available evidence does not make it clear that the original study was unethical by the standards of that day.(from SEAB & LeBlanc, 2020, p. 1832)

As noted earlier, COPE does not require that an article needed to have been unethical by the standards of that day. It only requires that the research be unethical. As described by Retraction Watch:

But LeBlanc argues unsatisfyingly against retraction of the paper, for which, she writes “the evidential criteria were not met”. Except that they were. As LeBlanc notes:

"By today’s standards and in light of our current scientific knowledge, the study would be considered unethical and would not be published in JABA. However, the available evidence does not make it clear that the original study was unethical by the standards of that day."

By that logic, the journal could keep on its books a how-to guide on tooth extraction by Martin Hellinger. (from Retraction Watch, 2020)

The article in Retraction Watch goes on to quote NYU medical ethicist Dr. Arthur Kaplan, who stated that:

I doubt you can retract all unethical studies from the literature. But, I find it troubling that this note says the study was not wrong by the standards of the day. I think many would have found punishing this behavior wrong by the standards of the day so I am not persuaded this note is accurate. (from Retraction Watch, 2020)

In response to this lack of action by JABA and the inaccurate application of retraction guidelines to a study which sexualizes a preschool-age child, describes his physical abuse by his father as coached by two university-level researchers, and was used continuously by George Rekers during his career-long anti-gay crusade, we have initiated this effort to demand the retraction of Rekers and Lovaas (1974). However, we're not the first to point out the long history of Kirk's abuse and experiences at the hands of Rekers and Lovaas.

Have Similar Articles Been Retracted By Other Journals?

Yes! Other journals have retracted papers which caused or perpetuated harm against people who are LGBTQ.

In December 2020, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease retracted a 1951 article by Benjamin Glover in response to a request from Dr. Simon LeVay. Glover's article was ostensibly a case study of his experiences with and attempts at sexual orientation conversion therapy with gay men. It was replete with hateful stereotypes and tropes regarding LGBTQ people. Glover wrote:

These people represent a parody and a paradox in emotions; in a sense they burlesque love as a heterosexual knows it and yet they are a continual tragedy of failure to find either sex gratification or a person through whom they may enjoy continuously that measure of sex gratification they attain. They are devoted to their loves with an expressed passion; yet they have little if any feeling for their parents and doubt that they would be upset beyond a small measure of inconvenience if death or severe illness were to involve them. (from Glover, 1951, pp. 381-382)

In his note describing the retraction decision, Editor-In-Chief John Talbott wrote the following:

Simon LeVay, PhD, who wrote the groundbreaking study of brain differences between homosexual and heterosexual men almost 30 years ago (LeVay, 1991) has asked that the journal retract an articlewritten 70 years ago (Glover, 1951). The 1951 Glover article supports long discredited beliefs, prejudices, and practices (e.g., conversion therapy) and will be retracted as requested. It will, however, be keptin the journal's archives for its historical value.

As an editor of scientific journals for more than 50 years, I have witnessed the changes brought about by scientific discovery (e.g., that peptic ulcers are caused by bacteria, not worries) as well as societal advances (e.g., same sex marriage). But journals like this one, published papers in the past reflecting many other beliefs we find abhorrent today, such as those on eugenics, the disabled, women, Blacks, sexual problems, and yes, sexuality.

The editor would like to express his gratitude for Dr LeVay's perception, precision, and service toscience. The 1951 Glover article is but one that deserve a relook, reappraisal, and perhaps retraction. I invite your responses. (from Talbott, 2021, p. 915)

This article is still available online. However, the title has been revised to state "RETRACTED," and that label has also been added to the top left of every page of the corresponding PDF. Alongside the editor's note describing the decision to retract, the journal also published the rationale presented by Dr. LeVay, who first requested the retraction. In it, he provides his simple rationale for retraction:

Scientific journals have a responsibility to examine their past and acknowledge their mistakes. Glover was responsible for the content of his article, but the journal's then Editor, psychiatrist Nolan Lewis, must have reviewed it and selected it for publication. Therefore, in my view, the article should be marked as retracted by the Journal (although not removed from the record), just as has happened with some articles that espoused racist beliefs, including some by deceased authors (Elsevier, 2020; Marcus and Oransky, 2020). By retracting Glover's article, the Journal would make clear its repudiation both of antigay rhetoric and of the Journal's own complicity in its dissemination. (from LeVay, 2020, p. 917)

Public Awareness

Box Turtle Bulletin

On June 7, 2011, a blogger and journalist named Jim Burroway published an extensive seven-part series on Kirk's life and his experiences with Rekers and Lovaas.

For his series, What Are Little Boys Made Of?, Jim spoke with numerous members of Kirk's family, conducted extensive research into the careers of Rekers and Lovaas (and particularly Rekers), and provided an incredible amount of insight into what life was like for Kirk before and after his abuse. There really is no more comprehensive source than Jim's blog for information on Kirk Murphy and what happened to him.

Anderson Cooper

The same day that What Are Little Boys Made Of? was published, Anderson Cooper aired the first in a three-part series on Kirk's life and abuse by Rekers and Lovaas.

In their description of the series, CNN wrote:

His doctors called him “Kraig.” His parents were afraid he was too effeminate, so at age 4, Kraig was enrolled in a government-funded program at UCLA where Kraig was plunged into a series of experiments using aversion therapy. The behaviors judged effeminate were beat out of him—literally and figuratively—and Kraig’s case was judged a success. But at age 38, this “poster child” for changing gender identity disorder was so depressed and disturbed he committed suicide.

Anderson Cooper 360: The Sissy Boy Experiment.

Conversion Therapy


  • Beautiful Humans: The Social ChangeCast
  • Cara Dillon M.Ed. (she/her)
  • Arin Donovan, M.Ed, BCBA (they/them)
  • Kaitlin (Flinn) Eberhardt, M.A., BCBA (she/her)
  • Denisha Gingles (she/her), MS, LGPC, BCBA, LBA
  • Rose Jaffery, PhD, NCSP, BCBA-D (she/her)
  • Austin Johnson (he/him), PhD, LP (CA#29540), BCBA
  • Worner Leland (they/them) MS, BCBA
  • Sarah Prochak (she/her), MA, BCBA
  • Denice Rios (she/her)
  • Janani Vaidya (they/them), M.S., BCBA
  • and other collaborators
(In alphabetical order by last name)