Some gays and lesbians can become straight if they are "highly motivated" to change, said Robert L. Spitzer in a controversial research paper presented at the American Psychological Association ( APA ) meeting in New Orleans May 9. The claim was immediately debunked by gay and lesbian organizations and even the APA itself.
Spitzer, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, recruited two-thirds of the 143 men and 57 women for the study from either "ex-gay" ministries or the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality ( NARTH ) . The seemingly benignly named NARTH is a small bastion of psychiatrists who do not accept APA's views on homosexuality. They use the discredited technique of "reparative therapy" to try to cure homosexuals of those tendencies.
The researcher never met his subjects, he only talked with them on the telephone, asking 60 questions over the course of a 45-minute interview. There was no fixed starting reference point or observation or direct measurement of the subjects over time.
The evaluation was essentially how the subjects perceived themselves. And we all know that gay men never lie, as everyone who has responded to a VGL personals ad can attest. Nor do "ex-gays" lie, as when Focus on the Family's poster-boy convert John Paulk proclaims to have lost his homosexual urges, yet somehow ends up at a Dupont Circle gay bar when in Washington, D.C. on business.
Spitzer concluded that 66 percent of the men and 44 percent of the women in the study achieved "good heterosexual functioning." He defined that as at least one heterosexual encounter a month, and self-rated emotional satisfaction with the encounter of at least a 7 on a scale of 10. The subjects had maintained their heterosexual orientation for at least five years. He conceded that the subjects were "unusually religious," likely not representative of most gays and lesbians.
Part of the controversy surrounding Spitzer stems from the ironic fact that in 1973 he played a leading role in the APA "curing" gays of their stigma of being mentally ill. He chaired the committee that removed homosexuality from a classification of mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders.
Frank Kameny led the gay activists who pressed for that change. He recently said, "Without Spitzer, removing homosexuality from the DSM would not have occurred."
But this round of research was another matter. "It's snake oil, it's not science," charged Tim McFeeley with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "Antigay groups like NARTH will grasp at any straw in their effort to ostracize and attack the GLBT community."
Wayne Besen, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign ( HRC ) , said that group had written to Spitzer last year urging him "to use objective physical measures to determine if his subjects were still attracted to same-sex partners," but he declined to do so.
One such approach used by some researchers involves attaching measuring devices to the male penis to detect arousal when pictures are flashed on a screen. A strictly heterosexual male will respond to pictures of naked women, a homosexual male to pictures of naked men, while some have varying responses in-between. One study has shown that homophobes often are aroused by gay porn but are loath to admit it. They react by attacking the object that threatens their sense of self-identity.
Many in the gay community noted that Spitzer appeared at a press conference last year [ held in Chicago and covered by Outlines ] with the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family, where he opposed allowing gays and lesbians to adopt children, get married, or serve openly in the military. They believe this biased his research.
Saul Levin, a psychiatrist and past president of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, rejected the simple duality of gay or straight. He pointed to the spectrum of sexual orientations made famous by Alfred Kinsey and often used by subsequent researchers.
"It isn't just a matter of who you have sex with, it's more complicated than that," said Levin. A man in prison may have sex with another man without becoming or identifying as homosexual. While homosexual men may physically perform in a heterosexual context without changing their underlying orientation. And some individuals truly are bisexual, with a varying degree of attraction to both sexes.
So Levin is not surprised that a portion of homosexuals who are unhappy with that orientation can, with extreme effort, come to better cope with living a heterosexual lifestyle.
The APA issued a statement from medical director, Steven Mirin, saying, "There is no published scientific evidence supporting the efficacy of reparative therapy as a treatment to change one's sexual orientation." That was a reiteration of APA policy adopted by the Board of Directors in December 1998 and May 2000.
It noted that Spitzer's paper, like many others presented at the conference, had "not been subject to traditional peer review, nor have they been published in the scientific literature." Furthermore, presentations at the conference do not necessarily represent APA policy.
Kameny says, "the symmetrical questions have to be raised at every turn" with regard to what causes heterosexuality. For example, if as some NARTH practitioners maintain, a distant father and a smothering mother produces male homosexuality, then the same dynamics theory should produce female heterosexuality. "So the question must be asked insistently," says Kameny, "Can heterosexuals change to homosexuality?"
A second paper at the APA conference was more to the liking of the gay community. New York psychologists Ariel Shidlo and Michael Schroeder used the Internet and direct mail to groups advocating reparative therapy to recruit subjects who had tried to change their sexual orientation through counseling programs. They found that only 6 of 202 gay men and lesbians achieved what they called "a heterosexual shift."
In an interview with Newsweek, Schroeder said, "We had students at religious universities tell us that they had been mandated into therapy as a requirement of completing their education or continuing to receive financial aid. Some of them said they had to mislead their therapist in order to graduate or get their checks. This was especially true at Mormon institutions."
Shidlo added, "We found the majority of the therapists these consumers saw were very antigay and thought homosexuality was really horrible and disgusting." If they discussed the APA position on homosexuality at all, it was in a derogatory manner.
Cashing in on the controversy, "Fifteen men who have 'come out' of homosexuality have started a new web site, www.peoplecanchange.com, telling why and how they changed." Neither the news release nor the site itself carried names of those 15 associated with the effort, while the release said the editor "writes under the name Ben Newman" ( catch the subtle symbolism ) . The site has a decidedly commercial tone and has links to NARTH, not the APA.
One interesting aspect of the controversy was the responses it generated in the news media across the country. Many "ex-ex-gays" wrote newspapers telling of failed attempts to change their sexual orientation.
A Florida columnist added to the derision. "Stay tuned for the association's future research findings...how if they really, really try, Democrats can vote Republican, how rich suburban teen-age Caucasians can pretend to be black, how Yankee fans can learn to love the Red Sox…"