In this week's American Prospect, Robert Spitzer, author of the controversial and oft-cited 2001 study that concluded that some gay people could become straight if they tried hard enough, tells reporter Gabriel Arana that he now rejects that research, and that he tried to retract the paper soon after it was published.
When Spitzer's study came out, the ex-gay movement claimed it as scientific validation for the belief that homosexuality could be "cured" through therapy. While the study did not suggest that the therapy was particularly effective, it concluded that the method did work for a "highly select group of motivated individuals." This conclusion, as Arana writes in My So-Called Ex-Gay Life, was a "godsend" for the "let's cure homosexuality" folks.
The irony of all this is that Spitzer was a key figure in the successful fight to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973. And, indeed, he seems to believe that his study's results were misinterpreted to serve the ex-gay movement.
Arana, who himself went through ex-gay therapy at his parents insistence, reports:
Spitzer ... 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.
The study got heat from both gay rights activists and the scientific community, which criticized the research, saying, among other things, that it was based on the self-reporting of people who wanted to believe they had become straight. Spitzer, who is now 80 and suffers from Parkinson's, has joined his own detractors.
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.
While the American Prospect story brings Spitzer's retraction into the spotlight, the psychiatrist has for years been uncomfortable with how his study on ex-gay therapy has been used. A few months after the paper was published, politicians in Finland cited it in their argument against a proposed law legalizing gay marriage.
When asked about this debate in December 2001, Spitzer told Psychiatric News, "Gay people, like anyone else, are entitled to full civil rights whether or not some can change their sexual orientation."