It was a blockbuster news story when it first came out in 2001: a prominent scientist, Dr. Robert Spitzer, published a study claiming gays could be reformed into heterosexuality. Today, buried in a feature piece in The American Prospect magazine comes word that Spitzer wants the study retracted.
In an article titled “My So-Called Ex-Gay Life,” by Gabriel Arana, Spitzer is quoted as saying, about his 2001 study, "In retrospect, I have to admit I think the critiques are largely correct. The findings can be considered evidence for what those who have undergone ex-gay therapy say about it, but nothing more."
This development is now being trumpeted by gay-rights advocates. The 2001 study had previously been considered very significant because it was published by a respected journal, the Archives of Sexual Behavior.
“This is a landslide, an earthquake in terms of impact,” said Wayne Besen, executive director of the gay-rights group Truth Wins Out. “Our opponents in socially conservative organizations have long-touted this study as proof that people could either pray away the gay or change through therapy.”
Dr. Spitzer was already a major figure in the science and nature of homosexuality. In the early 1970s, he played an instrumental role in the decision to remove homosexuality's classification as a mental disorder in the diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association. The fact that Dr. Spitzer was a pro-gay atheist who had been raised Jewish strengthened the argument that homosexuals could become straight through therapy or other means. It was no longer seen as just a movement motivated by religious or conservative groups.
"Basically what this means, with Dr. Spitzer changing his position, is that Dr. Spitzer has changed his position," said Glenn Stanton, Director of Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family. "He is not the font of all information and knowledge and truth on this issue."
Dr. Spitzer's 2001 research was a shock to many. Besen criticized the study in his book, "Anything but Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth."
“There is no evidence that people can change,” said Besen. “Gay people, like myself, say it’s a very natural part of who they are, it’s a very core part of their identities and their attractions and who they love. It can’t be changed, it can’t be altered, and I think this study went against my view and the view of the established mental health establishment.”
Though Spitzer’s study was influential, it wasn't the only research claiming therapy could change homosexuals. In 1980, American clinical psychologist Joseph Nicolosi founded the Thomas Aquinas Psychological Clinic, which focuses on therapy to "diminish unwanted homosexuality" and "develop heterosexual potential." In 1997, Nicolosi co-founded the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, or NARTH, a non-profit that offers reparative therapy to change sexual orientation for those with unwanted same-sex attractions.
Spitzer's study simply added a scientific slant, which strengthened and legitimized reparative therapist's claims that homosexuality could be changed for those who wanted to change.
"Using the phrase 'pray the gay away' is just offensive because it simplifies a very important and very complex psychological and physiological issue," said Stanton. "But people have changed, and they exist out there. Where Robert Spitzer is today is not necessarily the truth and they stand as a declaration that, indeed, one can change."
Why has Spitzer changed his assertions? What impact could this have on the rhetoric, debate and politics of human sexuality?
Wayne Besen, Executive Director, Truth Wins Out
Glenn Stanton, Director of Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family