In 1973, the iconoclastic Dr. Robert Spitzer led the charge to successfully have homosexuality removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), which is its list of mental disorders. This was a major victory and remains one the gay movement’s signature achievements.
Given his stature and key role in declassifying gay people as sick, it was quite a surprise when Spitzer published a controversial 2001 study in the prestigious Archives of Sexual Behavior that claimed some “highly motivated” gay people could become straight through prayer and therapy.
For the gay community, the timing of his study could not have been worse. In 1998, 15 social conservative organizations launched the $600,000 Truth in Love campaign with a full-page ad in The New York Times and several other major dailies featuring “former homosexuals.” This was a major assault that included former Green Bay Packers football star Reggie White, who urged gays to get help. Hopes ran so high for this effort that Robert Knight, who worked for the Family Research Council at the time, called the campaign the “Normandy landing in the larger cultural wars.”
Enthusiasm for the effort began to wane in September 2000, after I photographed the campaign’s ex-gay poster boy, John Paulk, who had graced the cover of Newsweek with his wife in 1998 inside a Washington, D.C. gay bar. Spitzer’s research reinvigorated this flagging campaign and gave a veneer of scientific legitimacy to what had largely been a Christian Right endeavor.
In my 2003 book, Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth, I criticized many aspects of Spitzer’s methodology. For example, Spitzer’s results were derived from calling 200 subjects on the telephone for 45-minute conversations, asking each person if he or she had experienced a shift in sexuality. An astonishing 43-percent of his sample was supplied by the same religious groups behind the politicized Truth in Love campaign and another 23-percent came from a closely affiliated “ex-gay” therapy group.
Spitzer should probably have abandoned his research when it took two years for these organizations, which had previously claimed that tens of thousands of former homosexuals existed, to provide him with his paltry sample size.
“For 30 years, Bob Spitzer may have been considered a careful researcher. But with this study, he no longer is,” said Dr. Lawrence Hartmann, a professor at Harvard.
For more than a decade, Spitzer’s research has been particularly harmful because he remains the only non-religiously oriented scientist to produce a study claiming some people could “pray away the gay.”
“This man is an atheist, so he’s not Bible thumping and doesn’t have an ax to grind,” said Greg Quinlan, president of Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays (PFOX). Quinlan is not alone in trumpeting Spitzer’s work. Virtually every anti-gay organization in the country quotes this study to justify everything from support for “ex-gay” therapy to voting against gay rights under the theory that because homosexuality is mutable, homosexuals don’t qualify for equal rights as other minorities do.
In a considerable blow to “ex-gay” programs and anti-gay organizations, Spitzer repudiated his 2001 study this week. His retraction occurred in an American Prospect magazine article where he asked writer Gabriel Arana if he would print a retraction of his 2001 research, “So I don’t have to worry about it anymore.” Spitzer also implored the Archives of Sexual Behavior to write a retraction, but so far the editor has declined.
“In retrospect, I have to admit I think the critiques [against his study] are largely correct,” Spitzer told the American Prospect in an article titled “My So-Called Ex-Gay Life.” “The findings can be considered evidence for what those who have undergone ex-gay therapy say about it, but nothing more.”
Fortunately, the Archives of Sexual Behavior can choose to honor Spitzer’s wishes and retract his study. They have an ethical and moral obligation to act as quickly as possible to right this wrong that has fueled anti-gay campaigns for more than a decade.
While it took too long for Spitzer to renounce his study, it is a relief to see what anti-gay activists considered a crowning achievement in their efforts to promote sexual conversion reduced to a crown of thorns.
Wayne Besen is a columnist and author of the book “Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth.”