Dr. Robert Spitzer

Dr. Robert SpitzerProfessor of Psychiatry , Columbia University

In 1973, Dr. Robert Spitzer helped spearhead the removal of homosexuality as a mental disorder from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. So, it was quite a media sensation when Spitzer unveiled a controversial new study in 2001 suggesting that some very motivated homosexuals could switch sexual orientations.

The study was criticized by many academics and GLBT advocates for the following reasons:

** Ex-gay lobbyists were used in the study, some even on the payroll of right wing organizations, presenting a conflict of interest.

** Spitzer simply called these right wing activists on the telephone and asked if they had changed. There were no physical measures – such as the polygraph or penile plethysmograph – to corroborate this stated change.

** There were bisexuals used in this study, suggesting that the “changes” that took place were far from impressive.

** Many of the subjects seemed mentally fragile. For example, more than a third of subjects were suicidal before attempting their conversion, and roughly half were “markedly” depressed.

** Most important, even with the entire right wing establishment searching for so-called ex-gay subjects, it still took Spitzer a year and a half to find a mere 200 people for his study. This flies in the face of ex-gay groups, like Exodus International, which claim that there are “hundreds of thousands” of ex-gays.

Despite his differences with scientists and GLBT advocates, Spitzer made it clear that he did not want his study used to justify discrimination. He also strongly emphasized the fact that he did not think most gay people could become heterosexual and that change was extremely rare.
GLBT Advocates video

“I suspect that the vast majority of gay people – even if they wanted to – would be unable to make substantial changes in sexual attraction and fantasy and enjoyment of heterosexual functioning that many of my subjects reported,” Dr. Spitzer told TWO’s Besen in his book “Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth.

In a May 28, 2006 article in the Los Angeles Times, Spitzer reiterated what he said in Besen’s book.

Spitzer told the New York Times in Feb. 2007 that, “Although I suspect change occurs, I suspect it’s very rare. Is it 1 percent, 2 percent? I don’t think it’s 10 percent.”

“If some people can change – and I think they can – it’s a pretty rare phenomenon.”

Unfortunately, the results of Spitzer’s study have been misrepresented by right wing groups, particularly Focus on the Family, to make it seem like all gay people could become heterosexual if they prayed hard enough or entered conversion therapy.

For example, Focus on the Family has a “fact sheet” called “Myths and Facts about Homosexuality.” Under the heading “Fact” the organization makes the untrue statement, “There is freedom from homosexuality” and backs this up this false claim by citing Spitzer’s study.

Focus on the Family has also used Spitzer’s study to justify distorting the work of other researchers. For instance, in June 2006, Focus on the Family twisted a study by Canadian researcher Elizabeth Saewyc that showed teenage lesbians had a higher rate of suicide attempts. Canadian Press Melissa Fryrear, a spokesperson for Focus on the Family, blamed gay activists for causing the deaths, saying that teaching self-acceptance caused the young women to be suicidal.

“Regrettably, they think they have to embrace homosexuality because pro-gay advocates told them that they were born gay,” said Fryrear.

Saewyc disputed Focus on the Family’s assertions and charged that the group had “hijacked” her work for their political agenda. Fryrear defended her misuse of Saewyc’s research by bringing up Spitzer’s study in a Candadian Press article. Spitzer was forced to address this misrepresentation of his work:

“Unfortunately Focus on the Family has once again reported findings of my study out of context to support their fight against gay rights,” said Spitzer. “Although a third of the subjects in my study reported having had serious thoughts of suicide related to their homosexuality, not one of them blamed the gay rights movement’s advocating a ‘born gay’ theory of homosexuality as the cause of their suicidal thinking.”