Researcher Robert Spitzer Retracts Landmark Ex-Gay Study
April 11th, 2012
When I wrote about Gabriel Arana’s piece in The American Prospect about his experiences in ex-gay therapy under Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, I wanted to emphasize his personal story. It was both poignant and harrowing, and I think that ex-gay voices are too often unheard whenever we talk about the movement.
But there is another aspect of that story which, in the larger scheme of things, is quite significant. In 1973, Dr. Robert Spitzer, who was the chief editor of the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association (the manual which decided what was a mental disorder), had led the effort to remove homosexuality form the APA’s official list of mental illnesses. In 2001, Spitzer presented a paper to a meeting of the APA which, based on 200 interviews, concluded that ex-gay therapy worked for those who worked hard at it. (That paper was subsequently published in the prestigious Archives of Sexual Behavior in 2003.) It was a huge boost to the ex-gay movement, with headlines from the Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal.
For his article in The American Prospect, Gabe visited Spitzer at his home in Princeton:
Spitzer was drawn to the topic of ex-gay therapy because it was controversial—“I was always attracted to controversy”—but was troubled by how the study was received. 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.
I asked about the criticisms leveled at him. “In retrospect, I have to admit I think the critiques are largely correct,” he said. “The findings can be considered evidence for what those who have undergone ex-gay therapy say about it, but nothing more.” He said he spoke with the editor of the Archives of Sexual Behavior about writing a retraction, but the editor declined. (Repeated attempts to contact the journal went unanswered.)
Spitzer said that he was proud of having been instrumental in removing homosexuality from the list of mental disorders. Now 80 and retired, he was afraid that the 2001 study would tarnish his legacy and perhaps hurt others. He said that failed attempts to rid oneself of homosexual attractions “can be quite harmful.” He has, though, no doubts about the 1973 fight over the classification of homosexuality.
“Had there been no Bob Spitzer, homosexuality would still have eventually been removed from the list of psychiatric disorders,” he said. “But it wouldn’t have happened in 1973.”
Spitzer was growing tired and asked how many more questions I had. Nothing, I responded, unless you have something to add.
He did. Would I print a retraction of his 2001 study, “so I don’t have to worry about it anymore”?
In 2007, Spitzer spoke out against the ex-gay movement for misrepresenting the results of his study. At that time, he told the New York Times that he thought that if change occurs in ex-gay therapy, it was very rare. “Is it 1 percent, 2 percent? I don’t think it’s 10 percent.”