Robert L Spitzer

Image: Truth Wins Out

In 2001, psychiatrist Robert L Spitzer claimed highly motivated gays could successfully change their sexual orientation. In 2003, a peer-reviewed scientific journal published his study — without peer-reviewing it. And in 2012, after over a decade of ex-gay groups such as NARTH, PFOX and Exodus International citing his research to prove their message that “change is possible,” Spitzer publicly apologized and announced he wanted to retract the paper.

Now the New York Times has profiled the story on its front page with the headline “Psychiatry Giant Sorry for Backing Gay ‘Cure'”:

The study — presented at a psychiatry meeting in 2001, before publication — immediately created a sensation, and ex-gay groups seized on it as solid evidence for their case. This was Dr. Spitzer, after all, the man who single-handedly removed homosexuality from the manual of mental disorders. No one could accuse him of bias.

But gay leaders accused him of betrayal, and they had their reasons.

The study had serious problems. 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.

By almost any measure, in short, the study failed the test of scientific rigor that Dr. Spitzer himself was so instrumental in enforcing for so many years.

“As I read these commentaries, I knew this was a problem, a big problem, and one I couldn’t answer,” Dr. Spitzer said. “How do you know someone has really changed?” … It took 11 years for him to admit it publicly.

Spitzer has written to Kenneth J Zucker, the Toronto psychiatrist who published the study in Archives of Sexual Behavior. In a draft of that letter obtained by Truth Wins Out last month, Spitzer wrote:

I believe I owe the gay community an apology for my study making unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy. I also apologize to any gay person who wasted time and energy undergoing some form of reparative therapy because they believed that I had proven that reparative therapy works with some “highly motivated” individuals.

Update: An earlier version of this article gave the name of the journal that published the Spitzer study as the Journal of Sexual Behavior — it is the Archives of Sexual Behavior.

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