Retired psychiatrist and Columbia University professor Robert Spitzer has repudiated his own much-criticized 2001 study that has been used for years by anti-gay activists to buttress their claims that gay men and lesbians can be “cured” of their homosexuality through therapy.
In the controversial study, Spitzer claimed that some “highly motivated” LGBT people could become straight. His repudiation came in an article about the fringe “ex-gay” movement in the American Prospect. In an interview, Spitzer asked the author, Gabriel Arana, to print a retraction of the 2001 study so that he “wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore.”
Since its publication, the study has been one of the major weapons wielded by anti-gay groups, which frequently cite it as “proof” that LGBT people choose to be gay and can thus change their sexual orientation. At the heart of this argument is the belief that homosexuality is an unnatural deviation from normal sexual development, a form of mental disorder.
The ex-gay movement, according to Arana, “has relied on the Spitzer study as the single piece of objective evidence that therapy can work.”
Ironically, Spitzer, who is now 80, was one of the psychiatrists who pushed the American Psychiatric Association to stop classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder, a step the organization took in 1973. His 2001 study came as a shock and disappointment to many, and it received a storm of criticism over its suspect methodology and design.
Participants had been referred to Spitzer by ex-gay therapy practitioner groups like the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) and Exodus International. Their claims were self-reported, and Spitzer did not compare participants to a control group. Yesterday, Spitzer told Warren Throckmorton, a psychology professor at Grove City College, that he “has regret for what he now considers to be errant interpretations” of study participants’ reports. He also said that he had “second thoughts” about the study and now believes that “his conclusions don’t hold water.”
“I actually had great difficulty finding participants,” Spitzer told Arana in the American Prospect. “In all the years of doing ex-gay therapy, you’d think [Joseph] Nicolosi would have been able to provide more success stories. He only sent me nine patients.” (Nicolosi is a clinical psychologist who practiced ex-gay therapy and helped found NARTH.)
Ex-gay therapy, also known as “reparative” or “conversion” therapy, has been widely discredited by the scientific community. Most strikingly, in 2006, the American Psychological Association (APA) stated: “There is simply no sufficiently scientifically sound evidence that sexual orientation can be changed.” The APA added, “Our further concern is that the positions espoused by NARTH and Focus on the Family create an environment in which prejudice and discrimination can flourish.”
Since his study’s publication, Spitzer has tried to make it clear that he didn’t want it used to justify discrimination against the LGBT community, and he emphasized that he did not think that most LGBT people could become heterosexual. Nevertheless, the study became a major part of the anti-gay movement’s arsenal, with claims that here, at last, was “proof” that “all” gay people could become straight through prayer or therapy. Spitzer attempted to point out over the years that such change was either highly unlikely or that anti-gay organizations had misused his research.
It’s not the first time anti-gay groups have used suspect studies or misused legitimate ones to further anti-LGBT sentiment.
In January, Seton Hall professor Theodora Sirota issued a statement taking NARTH’s Rick Fitzgibbons to task for using one of her studies to oppose adoption by same-sex couples. Sirota said that no conclusions about LGBT parents or the “fitness” of LGBT parents can be drawn from her findings. Fitzgibbons has yet to correct his own article or remove the Sirota citation from it
Several other legitimate researchers have publicly asked anti-gay organizations stop distorting their research. Now, with Spitzer’s on-the-record retraction, it remains to be seen whether they will stop using his 2001 study to justify their claims.
Don’t hold your breath.