Transgender People and Behavior Analysis’ Dark Past

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By Chelsea Wilhite, M.A., BCBA (chelsea.wilhite@gmail.com)

bSci21 Contributing Writer

As Caitlyn Jenner makes her debut on the July cover of Vanity Fair, followers are cheering her bravery for showing the world the person she truly is. Many people in the behavior analytic community are among those supporting Jenner’s transition. But some are unaware of the dark past behavior analysis has in regard to transgender people.

In 1974, George A. Rekers and O. Ivar Lovaas published a research article detailing their method for training a young boy to stop engaging in “feminine” behaviors and instead engage in “masculine” behaviors. The article, Behavioral Treatment of Deviant Sex-Role Behaviors in a Male Child, was published in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (JABA) and followed by several other articles in various journals throughout the mid- to late-1970s. In it, Rekers trained the boy’s parents to be his therapists in a clinic and the family’s home. In short, the mother used a token system to reinforce typical “boy” behaviors and punish typical “girl” behaviors. Backup reinforcers included candy and favored activities; backup punishers included timeout (from family activities and television access) and spankings from the boy’s father.

Results showed the procedure was very effective in changing the boy’s behaviors. An early reversal in the clinical setting and a multiple-baseline across behaviors in the home demonstrated experimental control. By the conclusion of the intervention, the boy consistently engaged in only “masculine” behaviors. In fact, in follow-up interviews, the mother complained her son had become so “rough-neck” that he was at risk of hurting himself and damaging furniture because his play had become so aggressive and violent. Results aside, however, many people, even in 1974, questioned the ethics of the treatment.

In 1977, a response to the 1974 Rekers and Lovaas article was published in JABA (Nordyke, Baer, Etzel, & LeBlanc). The authors of this article pointed out that Rekers and Lovaas conducted the treatment in response to the parents’ concerns not the child’s. Furthermore, they challenged all four of the reasons Rekers and Lovaas stated for going forward with the treatment, including the need to relieve the boy’s suffering, the idea that the “problems” would continue into adulthood, that an early intervention may be the only treatment that worked, and that “the parents were becoming alarmed.”

While the Rekers and Lovaas were called to task for their decision to treat the boy, their reasons for that decision, and the methods by which they achieved the outcomes, this is a black spot on the history of behavior analysis. In fact, Rekers went on to conduct similar interventions with many other children. However, change is always possible. The Nordyke, Baer, Etzel, & LeBlanc response was a good start. Now, forty years after the original article was published, behavior scientists can continue to contribute to bettering the lives of all people, including those who happen to be transgender.

As news media and social media exploded Monday morning with the glamorous image of Caitlyn Jenner, I reached out to a former teacher of mine to help shed some light on what people like Jenner often experience. Karen Adell Scot was my high school science teacher. Back then, she was called Gary Sconce. It wasn’t until 2013 that Scot began her transition. And while she tells me she wanted a quiet, personal experience, the school district she worked in for decades “outted” her, making the process very public.

“I was instantly doubted as to the veracity of my authentic play as a girl,” Scot said when I asked her what it was like when as a child she engaged in what are typically thought of as “feminine” behaviors. “I knew I was a girl from two years old and played house, mommy, princess, and acted out what I saw other girls and women modeling.” As behavior analysts might suspect, it was the reactions to her “girl” play that had an impact on when and where she engaged in it.

“I never stopped acting like me until [I was] around five years old and entering school. My female self was covered up then, and I had to present as a little boy,” Scot said. Her brother played a large role in Scot avoiding acting like a girl, “He called me horrible names and would torment me daily to stop acting like a girl. He is one of the reasons I was lost as ‘me’ and totally behaved like a boy during school years.” Her family’s reaction to any “boy” type behavior also played a role in how often she did “boy” things.

“They were very pleased with me,” Scot says of her family’s reactions to her doing “masculine” things. “My father was a hyper-masculine football/track coach and a PE teacher. He expected me to be tough and to do sports. When I did them, he was happy.” As you can see, despite the lack of systematic manipulation of variables, Scot’s childhood experiences of being forced to stop acting like a “girl” and start acting like a “boy” were very similar to the child in the Rekers and Lovaas study.

“I was shaped to continually present as a male,” Scot adds. She says positive attention from her family created what she has dubbed “Cultural Gender Inertia” or CGI.

“CGI is the unstoppable force that propels transgender people to behave as their assumed birth gender for so long. I kept doing the male behaviors as this took pressure off of me. I continued to drown and bury my real female self. This caused immense pain and loneliness. I never fit in with anyone and was nearly always alone.”

So, what can behavior scientists to do make life better for transgender people? Scot’s answer is both simple and complex.

“Scientists need to amplify to the general public the tremendous and repetitive research that shows the evidence for the congenital formation of transgender human beings as an alternate birth difference in the [continuum] that makes all of us slightly different,” she says. “Psychologists and psychiatrists must mandatorily be trained in how to help transgender people to become their real selves to alleviate the gigantic and completely unnecessary suicide attempt rate from the stress of having a true gender brain in an opposite gender body.” Scot also points to experts going before lawmakers to push for insurance coverage for transgender-related treatments and surgeries. “Finally, science needs to step up the investigation into why we transgender people are who we are and publish it far and wide… Transgender men were always men, and transgender women were always women.”

Click here to read my entire conversation with Karen Adell Scot, and to learn about her new company, TransCare, visit transcare.org.

George Alan Rekers went on to become an academician at several universities, an ordained Southern Baptist Minister, a founding member of the Christian lobbying organization Family Research Council, and an officer of and adviser to the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). In 2010 he was caught in a male prostitute sex scandal.

The boy described in the Rekers and Lovaas 1974 article was later identified by his younger sister a Kirk Murphy, a person who struggled with sexual orientation and gender identity before committing suicide in 2003. For a thorough recap of the events leading the discovery of Murphy’s identity, see this CNN report.

We would love to hear your opinion on this issue in the comments below!  Also, don’t forget to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

About the Author:

Chelsea Wilhite, M.A.

Chelsea Wilhite, M.A., BCBA has always wanted to better understand the world around us. As a television journalist, Chelsea worked her way up the ranks to produce the number one rated television news broadcast in the Fresno television market, an area covering five California counties. Along the way, she won two regional news Emmys and a Radio and Television News Directors Award for best news producer. In an effort to further her understanding of natural phenomena, Chelsea left television after more than a decade, turning to Behavior Analysis. She is currently a doctoral student at the University of Nevada, Reno. While behavior science research and instruction is now her primary interest, Chelsea never lost her passion for journalism and regularly contributes to behavior science oriented blogs, magazines, and newsletters.

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12 Comments on "Transgender People and Behavior Analysis’ Dark Past"

  1. Alison Szarko | June 3, 2015 at 11:21 am | Reply

    Great article, Chelsea! It’s important for us to understand BA’s dark past to avoid making similar mistakes in the future.

  2. Thank you for this important information!

  3. Thank you! And thank you for reading!

  4. Gary Wilkes | June 4, 2015 at 5:43 pm | Reply

    I’m confused. If sexuality is physiological in nature and therefore unethical to change, why aren’t all physiological behaviors off limits? “Male” behaviors are generally denigrated at all levels in the media, in education and psychology. They are punished for being males in a systematic attempt to remove their natural behavior from society. Little boys are routinely punished for playing too rough, pretending to be soldiers and creating male dominance hierarchies in schools. They are prodded continuously to be other than male into adulthood. Male stoicism is considered “insensitive” while emotional displays in public are aggrandized. Males are penalized for their physical strength in “dumbed down” physical testing for police, fire and military positions that favors women of lesser ability. If someone’s natural behavior is sacred because they are transgender, why is it any less so for someone who is naturally behaving as a male? Must a man pander to his “feminine side” (a clearly sexually biased term)to be accepted? Pretty much.

    • Interesting thoughts! Thanks for sharing.

    • Thank you for reading!

    • I believe you are confusing socially conditioned “male” behaviors with someone’s gender identity. Someone can present a gamut of gendered behaviors regardless of their gender identity. This study, at its core, wasn’t just about behavior change. It was about completely disregarding someone’s gender identity, telling them there was something fundamentally wrong with who they were as a person.

      The experiences of transgender people is in no way comparable to society as a whole rejecting damaging, stereotypical “masculine” behaviors. If a transgender person demonstrates highly aggressive or violent behavior, they aren’t any more or less a problem than if a cisgendered man does it. The difference is that transgender people have been historically persecuted for expressing the gendered behaviors of the gender they identify as. Historically, cisgender males have been able to do whatever they want. It is only now that exaggerated, stereotypical male behaviors are being challenged, and it represents a shift from the status quo and ultimately signifies a power exchange that men find threatening.

  5. Not sure why you cracked this can of worms. If we discussed transgenderism or even homosexuality as learned behavior and not as natural, one would be hard pressed to not define those acts as maladaptive. Indeed, the fact that they were able to change the child’s behavior in the study would back up the former position, not the latter. We don’t even have the conversation due to of societal norms, not strictly because of science. That said, ABA has no place is society’s discussion of what is normal- let’s leave that to the people who write the DSM.

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