Psychiatrist Who 'Proved' Gays Can Be Cured Says It Was All a Big Mistake

It's been a major month for the gay rights community. First President Obama came out in support of gay marriage, and then this weekend the NAACP followed suit. Now we have word that Dr. Robert Spitzer, the famous psychiatrist who did the 2003 study that supposedly proved the gay people could be cured of their homosexuality, is recanting his findings and publicly apologizing for being wrong. In a letter that will be published this month by Archives of Sexual Behavior, the same journal where his infamous study appeared, he says,

I believe I owe the gay community an apology for my study making unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy. I also apologize 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 with some "highly motivated" individuals.

This is yet another boost for the gay community—and all of us, really—because this study is one of the primary justifications used by religious groups and other extremists (Ahem, Marcus Bachmann!) engaged in trying to "cure" gay people through reparative therapy, also known as sexual reorientation or conversion therapy. Not only does this "pray away the gay" strategy not work, it's actively damaging to patients who undergo it. A recent World Health Organization report deemed it, "a serious threat to the health and well-being — even the lives — of affected people."

The fact that Spitzer, an influential and well-respected psychiatrist, became the public face of proving it effective seemed odd to many, particularly because he was an instrumental figure in the 1973 fight that resulted in the American Psychiatric Association no longer classifying homosexuality as a mental illness. Nevertheless, Dr. Spitzer was interested in exploring the effects of the therapy, though the methods he employed turned out to be deeply problematic.

He did phone interviews with 200 men and women that had undergone the therapy in which he asked about their sexual feelings and behaviors before and after the treatment and rated the answers on a scale. He compared the before and after therapy scores and concluded,

The majority of participants gave reports of change from a predominantly or exclusively homosexual orientation before therapy to a predominantly or exclusively heterosexual orientation in the past year.

The research was rife with problems. It was relied on people's often inaccurate memories, and there was nothing to stop people from simply lying about their feelings. Some of the participants were ex-gay advocates who had a stake in the outcome of the study, and the therapy methods being used by people were all over the map; thus there was no standard method of therapy being proven effective. The journal that published Spitzer's paper made the unusual decision to run it without peer review, though it did print a number of commentaries, which were highly critical.

Still, Spitzer has always stood by his work, a position he now regrets deeply. So what changed his mind? Well, he's been unhappy for a long time with the way the results were interpreted by the public, but he told the New York Times that it was a meeting with Gabriel Arana, a journalist who interviewed him in March, that got the ball rolling. Arana had undergone reparative therapy himself and was recruited for Spitzers' study, though he didn't end up participating. He told Spitzer when they met how damaging the therapy had been to him, causing him to even contemplate suicide, even though he would have been viewed as a success by Spitzer's measure.

That was enough to convince Spitzer that he needed to go public with his regret. He's almost 80 and has Parkinson's disease, and this mistake is the one thing that haunted him from his long, successful career. So coming clean seemed worth it for the relief it would bring him and all the gay people being forced to undergo treatments that don't work.

Of course it would have been better if he'd never felt compelled to champion his flawed results in the first place, but at least he's come to his senses—better late than never—and had the courage to publicly admit he was wrong. Yes, his original thesis might have led to the harm and suffering of many gay people, though that was largely the doing of religious groups. But at least his recent words might help discredit these dangerous "Cures" and put an end to further pain being inflicted upon future generations of homosexuals.

Psychiatry Giant Sorry for Backing Gay ‘Cure' [New York Times]

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