P.S. I Was Wrong
It’s been almost forty years since homosexuality was removed from the official list of psychiatric illnesses. The unique driving force behind this momentous change in psychiarty was an ambitious, straight, Columbia University psychiatrist, Robert Spitzer. He later became the Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia and throughout his career he was an influential member of the American Psychiatric Association (APA).
In 2001, twenty-three years after the removal of homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual (DSM), the official handbook of mental illness, Spitzer presented the results of a study he had conducted on 200 “motivated homosexuals” who in Spitzer’s judgment had experienced “meaningful change” in their attempts to become heterosexual. The study was immediately seized upon by the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) the country’s largest organization for practitioners of ex-gay therapy, as well as by organizations pushing therapy for gays to become straight. To the ex-gay gang, Spitzer’s study was proof that gays could change to straight if properly motivated.
The Spitzer study was also immediately attacked by many psychiatrists and researchers on the basis that it was a small study and might not be predictive of larger groups of gay men; that the study was on a carefully selected group of participants who wanted the study outcome to support the thesis of change. And most importantly, the study was based on telephone interviews and there was no way to substantiate what the participants claimed. Furthermore, there was no long term follow up of the subjects who had supposedly experienced change.
My own feeling, when I read the 2001 study was, Let’s wait ten or twenty years and see how many of the men who experienced change to straight are still changed. I knew from personal experience that simple abstinence from gay sex doesn’t make one straight. I was in a traditional marriage for several decades and motivated to be straight. And there were periods in my life when I abstained from gay sex for several years. But the desire to be with another man was a constant. There has been a steady erosion of the NARTH and Exodus ranks as one “changed-to-straight” man or another makes the evening news for being arrested in a gay bar men’s room or deserting the cause.
I wasn’t straight simply because I abstained from gay sexual activity, nor was I straight because I was married and having sex with a woman.
One so-called-ex-gay is Gabriel Arana, who, while still in high school, entered therapy with the then president of NARTH. He continued therapy for three years until, during his freshman year at Yale, he became suicidal. At that point his father, who had urged Gabriel to enter the NARTH conversion therapy noted, “I’d rather have a gay son than a dead son,” and the conversion therapy ceased.
Arana is now the Web editor at The American Prospect and has written for Slate, The Advocate, and The Nation. This spring Arana visited Dr. Spitzer, now retired and living in Princeton, New Jersey. Spitzer suffers from Parkinson’s disease but his mind is still clear. In their conversation Spitzer acknowledged he was troubled by how the study was received in 2001 and the years following. “He did not want to suggest that gay people should pursue ex-gay therapy. His goal was to determine whether the counterfactual—the claim that no one had ever changed his or her sexual orientation through therapy—was true.”
“In retrospect,” he said, “I have to admit I think the critiques (of my study) are largely correct. The findings (of the 2001 study) can be considered evidence for what those who have undergone ex-gay therapy say about it, but nothing more.” In concluding the Arana interview, Spitzer made a final request. Would Arana print a retraction of the 2001 study, “so I don’t have to worry about it anymore?” On further reflection Spitzer decided the study needed a strong correction, directly from the author, not a journalist colleague.
In a front page May 20, 2012 New York Times article Benedict Carey wrote Psychiatry Giant Sorry for Backing Gay “Cure.” Spitzer is publishing an apology in The Archives of Sexual Behavior, the same journal in which his original study appeared in 2001. In other words his P.S. to the widely ballyhooed study is—I was wrong. Or more accurately, Spitzer reported correctly what study participants told him, but mis-interpretation assigned to the study by NARTH was wrong. Spitzer never intended to imply that gay people should pursue ex-gay therapy.
Gabriel Arana’s article, My So-Called Ex-Gay Life, was published April 11, 2012 on his website.
John Siegfried, a former Rehoboth resident, lives in Ft. Lauderdale. He is the author of Gray & Gay, A Journey of Self-acceptance. Email John Siegfried