Dr. Spitzer’s “Fixer Upper” Turns into a House of Tumbling Cards

In a letter to the very journal that published his poorly conceived 2001 survey, Robert Spitzer, M.D., deemed the father of modern psychiatry, last week apologized to “the gay community.” Calling his study “fatally flawed,” Spitzer apologized 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.” http://www.New York Times, 5/18/12
Reparative Therapy:  Repair What?

His study supported use of reparative therapy, so-called conversion or ex-gay therapy, to “cure” people of their homosexuality. The World Health Organization Report, released on May 16th, calls this type of therapy that uses behavior modification so homosexuals can act straight, “a serious threat to the health and well-being – even lives- of affected people.” This echoes the American Psychological Association’s declaration in 2009 that mental health professionals should not tell gay clients they can become straight through reparative therapy. According to a July 25, 2011 poll, the Human Rights Campaign found that 69% believe such practices are ineffective. Yet, these pray-away-camps proliferate in such states as Florida while the California State Legislature debates a bill to ban the therapy as dangerous.
No one, it seems, has studied the long-term effects of reparative therapy, and therein lies the problem and the concept of Spitzer’s study. Using information from extensive telephone interviews Spitzer conducted and questionnaires of 200 gays from centers such as Exodus International and NARTH (National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality), men and women were asked about their sexual urges, feelings and behaviors before and after therapy. But the study didn’t test any particular therapy and the findings were all based on what people remembered, in some cases, many years before. It wasn’t scientific enough with no solid evidence that change is permanent.
Out-of-Character

Dr. Spitzer, now 80, and suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, was considered a giant in the field of psychiatry. He was instrumental in declassifying homosexuality as a mental disorder in the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual in 1973. Sexual reorientation is based on Freud’s idea that people are born bisexual and can move along a continuum from one end to the other. Affiliated with Columbia University, Spitzer was later counselled against conducting reparative studies. Yet, was he unfairly criticized?
Enemies and Allies

Proponents of ex-gay therapy( religious and social conservatives) used aspects of his study for their political agenda holding it up as proof that gay people could successfully become straight if they motivated to do so. Was Spitzer being “framed?” and becoming a scapegoat for the camps that espouse self-hatred?
Allies of Spitzer such as psychiatrist Jack Drescher, M.D., co-editor of Ex-Gay Research: Analyzing the Spitzer Study and Its Relation to Science, Religion, Politics and Culture, stated that Spitzer corrected misperceptions when the study was misused for political purposes that defended the stance that gays should be “cured.” Wayne Besen, The Executive Director of Truth Wins Out, a nonprofit that fights for gay rights, says that “Dr. Spitzer no way implied in the study that being gay was a choice or that it was possible for anyone who wanted to change to do so in therapy.”

When Your Child is Gay

When Your Child Is Gay: What You Need To Know

For more detailed advice, see book, co-authored with a mother of a gay son and a psychiatrist, Jonathan L. Tobkes, M.D.

Wesley Cullen Davidson

Wesley Cullen Davidson

Wesley Cullen Davidson is an award-winning freelance writer and journalist specializing in parenting as well as gay and lesbian content. For the past two years, Wesley has concentrated almost exclusively on the lesbian and gay community, specifically on advising straight parents of gay children on how to be better parents and raise happy, well-adjusted adults

1 Comment

  1. Avatar Mom of Three on June 11, 2012 at 8:17 pm

    Wesley,
    Dr. Spitzer's retrospective study was like many many reputable psychological studies. It appropriately qualified its conclusions in the study itself due to those very limitations. You cannot say it was not scientific. The study stands. "It appears that he may have originally wished to retract the 2003 study, but the editor of the journal in which the study was published, Kenneth Zucker, Ph.D., denied this request. Zucker has been quoted regarding his exchange with Spitzer as observing:

    You can retract data incorrectly analyzed; to do that, you publish an erratum. You can retract an article if the data were falsified—or the journal retracts it if the editor knows of it. As I understand it, he’s [Spitzer] just saying ten years later that he wants to retract his interpretation of the data. Well, we’d probably have to retract hundreds of scientific papers with regard to interpretation, and we don’t do that. (Dreger, 2012)"
    http://narth.com/2012/06/2532/

    There certainly are NO research reports that prove that reparative therapy is harmful at this point in time, either. If there were, they would have been referenced in the APA Task Force report.

    However, there are reports from the CDC that show in 1 in 5 men who have sex with men across 21 American cities are HIV positive. http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6021a3.htm
    Sadly, those are the hard cold facts. It is this tragedy that should be the lead topic on activist websites. Such a waste for some of our most gifted children. I can understand why I have met many who want help and I have met some who say they have changed. That of course does not mean that everyone should or could change. We have no basis for saying that. But it means that someone who wants help should be able to get it along with disclosure of how the science stands at this moment in time.

    I am personally glad that NARTH as an organization has been involved in encouraging research investigating what most helps such people who want help. It brings its expertise to an issue where churches would otherwise be on their own in the ex gay ministries and makes those ministries kinder and gentler and more effective and realistic in expectations. I think Janelle Hallman personifies this important movement with the reparative therapy contingent in her extraordinary book "The Heart of Female Same-Sex Attraction: A Comprehensive Counseling Resource." She talks about the commitment, hard work, preparation and compassion it takes for a therapist who has the privilege of walking with a client on this journey.

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