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Researcher Apologizes for Flawed Ex-Gay Study

Jim Burroway

April 25th, 2012

Robert Spitzer, who recently retracted his landmark 2001 study claiming to “prove” that people who underwent ex-gay therapy could change their sexual orientation, issued an apology to the gay community. He also acknowledged that his study suffered from what he called a “fatal flaw”: “The simple fact is that there was no way to determine if the subject’s accounts of change were valid.”

Those statements were included in a letter to Dr. Kenneth Zucker, the editor of the Archives of Sexual Behaviorwhich published the study in 2003. (An earlier version of the study had been presented before a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in 2001. It was press accounts of that 2001 presentation which garnered nationwide attention.) In the letter obtained by Truth Wins Out and posted on their web site today, Spizer wrote:

I believe I owe the gay community an apology for my study making unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy. I also apologize to any gay person who wasted time and energy undergoing some form of reparative therapy because they believed that I had proven that reparative therapy works with some “highly motivated” individuals.



David Waite
April 25th, 2012 | LINK

I salute Robert Spitzer’s attempt to make amends for his scientifically fatally flawed listening-to-the-choir which masqueraded as research. I pointed out its flaw to friends at the time it was first publicized, puzzled that a scientist I had respected could so completely disavow the early work which made his professional reputation, while simultaneously destroying his credibility as a researcher with a study whose parameters wouldn’t have been accepted from an undergraduate by the student’s professors.

As an old man, I recognize a possible desire to face a nearing death bed with a cleaned up record. In that spirit of understanding I accept (as far as I have any right to do so) his apology and conditionally endorse its apparent sincerety.

My “conditional” is down to what was left out of that apology. I looked in vain for this sentence: “Lastly, I apologize to the loved ones of any gay individual who committed suicide, directly or indirectly as a result of my flawed study being used to justify the practice of unsuccessful reparative therapy on them.”

Perhaps it is another of the ways my early religious upbringing limits my generosity of mind and spirit; perhaps my lack is inherent to my nature irrespective of nurture: For me a 95% mea culpa is never completely sufficient, particularly if it overlooks the most egregious part of the harm done.

April 25th, 2012 | LINK

I will forgive him as soon as all the state constitutional amendments that were added with the help of his “research” are retracted. Perhaps their are mythology groups that will get on that right after Sunday crackers.

April 26th, 2012 | LINK

Actually the study never claimed to prove change so your first sentence is erroneous. The study only claimed to provide how individuals *describe* their experience in reparative therapy.

It is not the study, but rather those who misappropriated it, who said it offered proof.

Jim Burroway
April 26th, 2012 | LINK

What the study claimed was this, in the abstract:

Thus, there is evidence that change in sexual orientation following some form of reparative therapy does occur in some gay men and lesbians.

From the body of the study:

P413: Finally, real change in sexual orientation seems plausible (again, at least to the author) as the participants used change strategies commonly effective in psychotherapy (Mahoney, 1991). For example, participants often developed a narrative linking childhood or family experiences to current problems, received support from a group or individual, used thought stopping, and avoided situations that triggered homosexual feelings.


P414: Critics of reparative therapy assert that the claims of success in changing sexual orientation are limited to anecdotal reports of individuals who have had the reparative therapy, or of therapists who provide such therapy. This study, with the database available to other researchers, clearly goes beyond anecdotal information and provides evidence that reparative therapy is sometimes successful.

[From Robert Spitzer, “Can some gay men and lesbians change their sexual orientation? 200 participants reporting a change from homosexual to heterosexual orientation.” Archives of Sexual Behavior 32, no. 5 (Oct 2003): 403-417.]

Spitzer went much farther than stopping at how individuals described their experience. He said their descriptions were accurate, that they weren’t lying, and that they really did change, and devoted some half-dozen paragraphs to that argument. He now disavows that argument.

I’m not sure what you mean by “it is not a study.” It was a study of 200 people, and it fits the profile of other studies published not just in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, but hundreds of other journals as well. Our criticism was never that it was not a study, but that it was a deeply flawed one.

April 26th, 2012 | LINK

Such a tepid apology for the incredible amount of damage his endeavor caused.

Career professional through and through.

April 26th, 2012 | LINK

I stand corrected. Thanks for the info. I am confused then by Spitzer’s statement that he changed the research question from proof to description . . .

April 26th, 2012 | LINK

So – when some homophobe uses the derogatory remarks that so many people have directed at Dr. Spitzer to justify homophobia

will you hold yourselves accountable?

We get irate when some bigot takes the Michael Swifts; “gay manifesto”, misrepresents or exaggerates it, and uses it to condemn homosexuals. By the lack of logic so many are employing regarding Dr. Spitzer’s study, Michael Swift is responsible for all the ways his words have been misused.

And when some homophobe uses the essays here, like “The Heterosexual Agenda” – to foment further abuse of GLBTQ people, will Jim apologize?

Jim Burroway
April 26th, 2012 | LINK


You’re not making any sense. The issue wasn’t that “homophobes,” as you call them, misrepresented Spitzer’s study and that’s why he apologized (although some anti-gay people did misrepresent his study). The issue was that Spitzer’s very poorly constructed study which Spitzer himself tried to spin into something the data did not and could not say. That’s why Spitzer apologized.

As for Swift (and me), he has nothing to apologize for. One can’t apologize for the misbehavior of others.

Priya Lynn
April 26th, 2012 | LINK

Dante said “Michael Swift is responsible for all the ways his words have been misused.”.

No he isn’t. He specified at the beginning of his writing that it was satire, he’s not responsible for dishonest bigots pretending it was serious, heartfelt and excluding his disclaimer when they reproduced it.

April 26th, 2012 | LINK

“You’re not making any sense. ”

Nice empty dismissal.

I expected Jim and Priya to make excuses for their double standard – and that’s what they did.

“One can’t apologize for the misbehavior of others.”

Oh the irony.

April 26th, 2012 | LINK

I think the issue is one of intent. I think the study failed as a result of lax standards, not because it was an intentional attempt to harm the gay community. That doesn’t lessen the harm done, but it does inform my willingness to forgive, and what I expect of this person when he makes an apology.

Should he have known better? Yes, he should have. Did he intentionally set out to have this impact? I really don’t think so. Did he feel that his career had possibly been unbalanced precisely because of his impact in the 70’s in removing homosexuality as a disorder, and perhaps wanted to put in some work that maybe supported how he sees himself (more balanced, not an activist)? I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

It’s all very sad, and he should never have waited this long. That said, as a former research scientist, let me remind everyone here how extremely rare it is to have someone come out and not only disown, but apologize for their previous research. Usually, they fight tooth and nail (including sabotaging other researchers grants and publications, etc.) before they’ll ever admit an error of the nature he admits here: a poorly constructed study that failed in the basics of scientific rigor.

His adminition comes at a very high price, professionally. I appreciate it for it’s intent.

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