Thursday, May 24, 2012

Dr. Spitzer’s “Fixer Upper” Turns into a House of Tumbling Cards

In a letter to the very journal that published his poorly conceived 2001 survey, Robert Spitzer, M.D., deemed the father of modern psychiatry, last week apologized to “the gay community.” Calling his study “fatally flawed,” Spitzer apologized 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.” http://www.New York Times, 5/18/12

Reparative Therapy:  Repair What?

His study supported use of reparative therapy, so-called conversion or ex-gay therapy, to “cure” people of their homosexuality. The World Health Organization Report, released on May 16th, calls this type of therapy that uses behavior modification so homosexuals can act straight, “a serious threat to the health and well-being – even lives- of affected people." This echoes the American Psychological Association’s declaration in 2009 that mental health professionals should not tell gay clients they can become straight through reparative therapy. According to a July 25, 2011 poll, the Human Rights Campaign found that 69% believe such practices are ineffective. Yet, these pray-away-camps proliferate in such states as Florida while the California State Legislature debates a bill to ban the therapy as dangerous.

No one, it seems, has studied the long-term effects of reparative therapy, and therein lies the problem and the concept of Spitzer’s study. Using information from extensive telephone interviews Spitzer conducted and questionnaires of 200 gays from centers such as Exodus International and NARTH (National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality), men and women were asked about their sexual urges, feelings and behaviors before and after therapy. But the study didn’t test any particular therapy and the findings were all based on what people remembered, in some cases, many years before. It wasn’t scientific enough with no solid evidence that change is permanent.


Dr. Spitzer, now 80, and suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, was considered a giant in the field of psychiatry. He was instrumental in declassifying homosexuality as a mental disorder in the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual in 1973. Sexual reorientation is based on Freud’s idea that people are born bisexual and can move along a continuum from one end to the other. Affiliated with Columbia University, Spitzer was later counselled against conducting reparative studies. Yet, was he unfairly criticized?

Enemies and Allies

Proponents of ex-gay therapy( religious and social conservatives) used aspects of his study for their political agenda holding it up as proof that gay people could successfully become straight if they motivated to do so. Was Spitzer being “framed?” and becoming a scapegoat for the camps that espouse self-hatred?

Allies of Spitzer such as psychiatrist Jack Drescher, M.D., co-editor of Ex-Gay Research: Analyzing the Spitzer Study and Its Relation to Science, Religion, Politics and Culture, stated that Spitzer corrected misperceptions when the study was misused for political purposes that defended the stance that gays should be “cured.” Wayne Besen, The Executive Director of Truth Wins Out, a nonprofit that fights for gay rights, says that “Dr. Spitzer no way implied in the study that being gay was a choice or that it was possible for anyone who wanted to change to do so in therapy.”