For a decade, ex-gays have relied on the results of a 2001 study to prove their claim that “change is possible.” But if they continue to promote its flawed research, they will do so only in the knowledge that its author, psychiatrist Robert Spitzer, has now publicly disowned it.

In an article in the May issue of The American Prospect magazine, Spitzer tells Gabriel Arana he wants his retraction of the landmark study on the record:

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

Spitzer, now 80, was a key figure in the American Psychiatric Association’s 1973 decision to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness. Despite his pro-gay stance, he later published research claiming that some gays and lesbians could, with effort, change. In 2001, his paper “Can Some Gay Men and Lesbians Change Their Orientation?” was met with criticism from his APA colleagues. In 2003, it was published in the peer-reviewed journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, thus gaining an academic status that ex-gay groups such as NARTH and Exodus International could point to as evidence that the research was on their side.

But the flaws were obvious: To arrive at his conclusion that “some highly motivated individuals” could make “substantial change” to their sexual orientation, Spitzer had interviewed, by phone, 200 ex-gays — all referred to him by the very groups that had a vested interest in proving ex-gay therapy could work.

Over the years, Spitzer has disassociated himself from such groups, denouncing them where he believed they distorted his findings. He says he asked Archives of Sexual Behavior to publish a retraction, but its editor refused.

What will ex-gay groups do with this revelation? Spitzer’s presence on the NARTH website is ubiquitous — an internal Google search turns up almost 200 results. One article by Daniel Byrne declares boldly that “another attempt to discredit the Spitzer study … has failed.” How will NARTH react by this new attempt to discredit the study — by its own author?

As of today, the Exodus International website contains no less than five direct references to the 2001 Spitzer study to support its message. The 2009 article “What Does Science Say?” for example, cites it as evidence that “sexual orientation can successfully be changed.” The FAQ “What Does Exodus Believe About Sexual Orientation & Change?” says it shows that “efforts to change sexual orientation can produce significant success,” by which it means “a significant shift from homosexual to heterosexual attraction … sustained … for at least five years.” The site also reprints a May, 2001, Wall Street Journal article in which Spitzer leans on his conclusions to argue that sexual orientation is not fixed and ex-gay therapy can work.

Exodus International has already purged its bookstore of NARTH materials, and its president, Alan Chambers, declared earlier this year that “99.9 percent of the people I know have not changed their orientation.” He later “clarified” that he was referring only to “complete orientation change.” So yes, he says, gays can and do change, much as Spitzer claimed in 2001.

So, will Chambers and Exodus now purge Spitzer from its archives the way it purged NARTH and the pseudoscience of reparative therapy? Will Chambers perhaps finally admit that the “change” Exodus has promoted for 40 years hardly happens at all? That it might be possible to manage choices and behaviour, but that fundamental change in sexual attractions is a pipe-dream? With Spitzer’s retraction, the hope of academic support for the ex-gay paradigm grows ever dimmer.


Update: Now the article is online in full, here is a lengthier quote to give a better idea of the context:

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.” … [Spitzer] 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”?

Spitzer asked Arana to print his retraction — and there it is.

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