Prominent psychiatrist Spitzer retracts study saying “ex-gay” therapy works

For three and a half years, I underwent therapy to change my sexual orientation, from gay to straight, with Joseph Nicolosi, co-founder and former president of the National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). I’ve written a piece for The American Prospect magazine that tells the story of the ex-gay movement over the last 20 years, as well as recounting my own experiences in therapy (spoiler alert: it failed miserably). I encourage AMERICAblog readers to check it out, but there is one key piece of information I wanted to share.

Robert Spitzer—the guy who led the charge to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973—published a controversial study in 2001 saying that some gay people could change their sexual orientation. The study continues to be cited by proponents of “ex-gay therapy” (the notion that you can pray away the gay) as the chief piece of evidence that such therapy works; the fact that he is not a flack for the ex-gay movement and is an atheist made it hard to say he was biased. But when I met Spitzer in March, he asked me to retract the study:

Spitzer was drawn to the topic of ex-gay therapy because it was controversial—“I was always attracted to controversy”—but 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.

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. (Repeated attempts to contact the journal went unanswered.) …

Spitzer was growing tired and asked how many more questions I had. Nothing, I responded, unless you have something to add.

He did. Would I print a retraction of his 2001 study, “so I don’t have to worry about it anymore”?

It’s quite a stunning reversal, and I got the sense that this had troubled Spitzer for some years.

While I share the criticisms many psychiatrists and gay-rights supporters levied at the 2001 study, it strikes me that Spitzer’s decision to pursue it evinces an admirable characteristic.  When we spoke, Spitzer told me it’s important to question “whether everything you’ve been taught is wrong.” In the early ’70s, there was a near consensus in the psychiatric community that homosexuality was a mental disorder—and a pretty bad one at that. Interactions with gay-rights activists made Spitzer doubt the conventional wisdom in the same way that encounters with ex-gay activists made him question whether change therapy worked (and led him to pursue the 2001 study). In the latter case, the result was more harmful than good, but the drive to think independently—even when there is enormous social pressure to hew to the party line—seems the defining mark of a true intellectual. Of course every strength is also a weakness, but were it not for Spitzer’s capacity for self-doubt, my husband and I might be sitting in a psychiatric ward instead of happily married.

On a broader note, this has been a story I’ve wanted to tell since I first became a writer. The experience of researching and writing it, however, was difficult. It’s one thing, to paraphrase Joan Didion, for a writer to sell other people out; it’s another to give away embarrassing details about yourself and your past (which, in the service of truth, I had to). Reaching into my painful adolescence was a bit dislocating. It cut loose a lot of memories from therapy, of being an insecure teenager—a time I’m sure many would prefer to forget.

But, at the risk of being aggrandizing, I think the way my story ends is edifying. I’m convinced that we never really “get over” traumatic experiences—whether it’s a parent or spouse’s death, a car accident, or childhood abuse; they remain part of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.

I’m an atheist, but whenever I think about trauma, I’m reminded of a passage in one of Christian writer C.S. Lewis’ books (I can’t remember which). He compares the human condition to a symphony; the fall of Adam and Eve, he says, is like a wrong note that threatens to spoil the entire composition. But the divine composer comes to the rescue by turning the errant note into the start of a new melody.

With trauma, one must indeed turn the errant note into the start of a new and better symphony.

Gabriel Arana is a senior editor at The American Prospect in Washington, D.C. His pieces have appeared in The Nation, Slate, The Advocate, the Daily Beast, and other publications. He is a graduate of Yale University and a native of Nogales, Arizona.

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