Spitzer Retracts Findings
If you go to the PFOX web site right now, you will see prominently displayed on their home page a video of Dr. Robert Spitzer saying "I think that it's just not true" that homosexuals cannot change their sexual orientation. Spitzer's famous 2001 study was really the only peer-reviewed, published research they could point to that suggested that sexual orientation could be changed by therapy. Spitzer had used a kind of "unique" and controversial research technique where he asked around for names of people who had claimed to stop being gay, then he interviewed them on the phone and concluded that some of them had actually changed.
The individuals Spitzer interviewed had been recommended by anti-gay therapists and religious ministries. These were mostly people who had undergone "conversion therapy" in order to become straight, and a few of them were convinced at the time of their interviews that the therapy had been successful. Spitzer concluded that a small number of highly motivated individuals might be able to change their orientation.
Today American Prospect has a blockbuster article where Spitzer retracts his research. He says he contacted the journal that had originally published it, the Archives of Sexual Behavior, and they had not responded, so he asked a journalist to please publicize his disavowal of his previous research:
In 2001, the year I started college, the ex-gay movement’s claims received a significant boost. In 1973, Columbia professor and prominent psychiatrist Robert Spitzer had led the effort to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness. Four years after Stonewall, it was a landmark event for the gay-rights movement. But 28 years later, Spitzer released a study that asserted change in one’s sexual orientation was possible. Based on 200 interviews with ex-gay patients—the largest sample amassed—the study did not make any claims about the success rate of ex-gay therapy. But Spitzer concluded that, at least for a highly select group of motivated individuals, it worked. What translated into the larger culture was: The father of the 1973 revolution in the classification and treatment of homosexuality, who could not be seen as just another biased ex-gay crusader with an agenda, had validated ex-gay therapy.An Associated Press story called it “explosive.” In the words of one of Spitzer’s gay colleagues, it was like “throwing a grenade into the gay community.” For the ex-gay movement, it was a godsend. Whereas previous accounts of success had appeared in non-peer-reviewed, vanity, pay-to-publish journals like Psychological Reports, Spitzer’s study was published in the prestigious Archives of Sexual Behavior.Spitzer’s study is still cited by ex-gay organizations as evidence that ex-gay therapy works. The study infuriated gay-rights supporters and many psychiatrists, who condemned its methodology and design. Participants had been referred to Spitzer by ex-gay groups like NARTH and Exodus, which had an interest in recommending clients who would validate their work. The claims of change were self-reports, and Spitzer had not compared them with a control group that would help him judge their credibility.This spring, I visited Spitzer at his home in Princeton. He ambled toward the door in a walker. Frail but sharp-witted, Spitzer suffers from Parkinson’s disease. “It’s a bummer,” he said. I told Spitzer that Nicolosi had asked me to participate in the 2001 study and recount my success in therapy, but that I never called him. “I actually had great difficulty finding participants,” Spitzer said. “In all the years of doing ex-gay therapy, you’d think Nicolosi would have been able to provide more success stories. He only sent me nine patients.”“How’d it turn out for you?” he asked. I said that while I stayed in the closet for a few years more than I might have, I ended up accepting my sexuality. At the end of college, I began to have steady boyfriends, and in February of last year—ten years after my last session with Dr. Nicolosi—I married my partner.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 said that he was proud of having been instrumental in removing homosexuality from the list of mental disorders. Now 80 and retired, he was afraid that the 2001 study would tarnish his legacy and perhaps hurt others. He said that failed attempts to rid oneself of homosexual attractions “can be quite harmful.” He has, though, no doubts about the 1973 fight over the classification of homosexuality.“Had there been no Bob Spitzer, homosexuality would still have eventually been removed from the list of psychiatric disorders,” he said. “But it wouldn’t have happened in 1973.”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”? My So-Called Ex-Gay Life
After presenting his results in 2001, Spitzer told the Washington Post that the research "shows some people can change from gay to straight, and we ought to acknowledge that." The findings became the centerpiece of a particularly awkward branch of the anti-gay movement, the "ex-gay" movement, which claims that thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of gay people have become straight. Unfortunately, nobody can ever find one of those converted individuals, except for the leaders and spokespersons of the "ex-gay" movement itself.
I received an email saying that the editor of the Archives of Sexual Behavior is now waiting for a formal statement from Spitzer explaining the nature of his retraction. This is a big event in the war against bigotry.