Harmful Consequences of “Gay Cure” Therapy
by Kourosh Shaffy | Georgetown University
It is never easy to admit that you’re wrong, especially when doing so stands to jeopardize the value and worth of your career. But that’s exactly what esteemed psychiatrist Robert L. Spitzer had to do recently.
At 80 years old, Dr. Spitzer is today a legend in his field, considered by some the father of modern psychiatry. Yet, he has lived his recent years in regret over a study he conducted in 2001 “that supported the use of so-called reparative therapy to ‘cure’ homosexuality for people strongly motivated to change,” as The New York Times reported.
To provide some context: Dr. Spitzer in no way had shown bias against the gay community up to the point that he commenced his 2001 research. In fact, a pinnacle of his illustrious career is the way he helped advance the push for equal treatment of homosexuals by changing the psychiatric world’s definition of gay. Again, from The Times: “Up into the 1970s, the field’s diagnostic manual classified homosexuality as an illness, calling it a ‘sociopathic personality disturbance.”
Dr. Spitzer, challenging the well-regarded opinion of the many and the powerful, called for homosexuality to be described more appropriately and fairly as a “sexual orientation disturbance.” In 1973, the psychiatric association found itself in agreement with Dr. Spitzer’s definition and went with it.
At the time, many analysts offered treatments for gay people that could supposedly “cure” them. But there was never any sign that Dr. Spitzer would emerge as a supporter of such studies, especially in light of how he was being lauded by some in the gay community for helping the group avoid official recognition as a “sick” people.
By the time that Dr. Spitzer, in 1980, along with his now-wife, Dr. Janet Williams, published a 567-page psychiatric manual of his own, a magnum opus that immediately became a worldwide bestseller and set the standard for future psychiatric manuals, there seemed no question his legacy would ever be in doubt.
Upon completion of his infamous 2001 study on the gay “cure,” however, Dr. Spitzer’s legacy could not have seemed more uncertain. Many friends and colleagues of his fervently warned him not to have it published, yet Dr. Spitzer remained unconvinced. At the psychiatric association’s annual meeting in 1999 he had run into a group of people who genuinely intrigued him: self-proclaimed ex-gays. This was a group of people who, much “like the homosexual protesters in 1973, were outraged that psychiatry was denying their experience — and any therapy that might help.” Dr. Spitzer felt he was doing the field of psychiatry a disservice by not examining their claims.
For Dr. Spitzer, the main question worth asking was whether or not there was any actual effect to the gay-curing therapy. He found that previous studies on the matter had been largely biased and inconclusive. Considering his role in removing homosexuality from the “mental disorders” section of psychiatric manuals, Dr. Spitzer seemed like the perfect, unbiased candidate to do a thorough study.
After extensively studying and questioning 200 men and women from places performing the now-controversial therapy, and comparing their responses before and after the therapy, Dr. Spitzer concluded that, “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.”
Of course, many were outraged, believing that Dr. Spitzer was showing support for such gay-curing therapy. Prominent leaders in the gay community accused Dr. Spitzer of betrayal. And Dr. Spitzer’s study was far from fool-proof. As The Times pointed out, “it was based on what people remembered feeling years before — an often fuzzy record. It included some ex-gay advocates, who were politically active. And it did not test any particular therapy; only half of the participants engaged with a therapist at all, while the others worked with pastoral counselors, or in independent Bible study.”
Nowhere in his study did Dr. Spitzer seem to encourage such therapy or make the case that being gay is a choice. Nevertheless, socially right-wing groups began using the paper to help support anti-gay positions. Perhaps worst of all, the study in no way shows anything bearing even a semblance of scientific proof — it was, after all, based on what people told Dr. Spitzer. People lie all of the time, especially to themselves, so there’s no way of accurately knowing whether they told the truth, and whether they had actually changed as a result of the therapy.
“You know, it’s the only regret I have; the only professional one,” Dr. Spitzer said of his study, last month. “And I think, in the history of psychiatry, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a scientist write a letter saying that the data were all there but were totally misinterpreted. Who admitted that and who apologized to his readers.”
In light of how heated discussions of gay rights — particularly related to marriage — remain today, certainly an apology by Dr. Spitzer will not ultimately make a substantial difference in how each side views the issues. But it comes as a victory for gay rights advocates nonetheless, and as something of a closing chapter on the life of famed psychiatrist Dr. Spitzer.
And in this closing chapter, Dr. Spitzer calls his study a “fatal flaw” and apologizes to “any gay person” who has been hurt by his findings. In the end, though, this may not seem nearly enough. At Slate Magazine, Katie Roiphe claimed, “He should also be apologizing to their families for the violent assumptions behind that infamous study.”
This study has certainly been a bad mark on an otherwise amazing career for Dr. Spitzer. But the road toward apology has not been an easy one; it has taken him 11 years. Although he retired in 2003, Dr. Spitzer decided the time was finally right to come forward with a public apology after talking to a man, in March of this year, who was recruited for Dr. Spitzer’s 2001 study, who told him that the “reparative therapy ultimately delayed his self-acceptance as a gay man and induced thoughts of suicide.”
The man Dr. Spitzer spoke to in March is a journalist with the American Prospect, Gabriel Arana, who has written about his own time in therapy. Apparently, the “gay curing” therapy “ launched him into a self-hatred so harrowing and profound he almost jumped out of his dorm room window at Yale, and ended up committing himself to a psychiatric hospital.”
This sort of treatment, however, remains popular among certain niche groups still today. For example, Salt Lake City newspapers recently reported, “a Utah organization for Mormons (Evergreen International) plans to continue using so-called reparative therapy in its efforts to help or “cure” those with same-sex attraction.”
Interestingly enough, the director of the group, David Pruden, has chosen to ignore Dr. Spitzer’s apology and stand by his 2001 study’s original claims. Pruden serves as a perfect example of those people whom Dr. Spitzer believes misconstrue his study. In an email to The Tribune, Pruden writes that Dr. Spitzer “defended his methods for 10 years. To suggest that his feeling ‘sorry’ somehow changes the data in any way is totally unscientific.”
Meanwhile, in another part of the world, “A Christian psychotherapist lost her appeal last week against a ruling by the British Association for Counseling and Psychotherapy that her behavior in offering to therapeutically change a patient’s sexuality was negligent.” This woman, instead of helping a man who came to her and told her he feels uncomfortable being gay, immediately recommended he undergo the “gay cure” therapy.
The state of California is taking action against such “treatment,” with a bill before the state Senate that would ban so-called “conversion therapy” for minors and “require adults to sign a release form stating that the counseling is ineffective and possibly dangerous.” The justification for this bill: these treatments can “cause extreme depression and guilt,” feelings that can often lead to suicide, as was nearly the case with Gabriel Arana.
All this considered, it should be obvious why banning such treatments is so imperative. As young people, as a group of men and women growing into our own skin, we should not be forced into thinking one way or the other about ourselves. We should always be allowed to discover who we are without coercion.
To be forced to think against our own natures causes internal conflicts that might very well lead to dire results. These ridiculous “gay-cure” therapies attempt to warp young peoples’ minds, to forcefully reorient them rather than let them think freely for themselves about who they are. Our minds should be left free to contemplate the facts of our own existence, or else how can free thought truly exist? Truly, the free mind is a terrible thing to waste.Georgetown University student studying International Relations. Very interested in politics and sports. Follow @kshaffy