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Topics In the News
Dr. Spitzer Apologizes
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 04/26/12
Last updated on: 05/19/12
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Robert Spitzer in 2007.

In a post on April 11, I called attention to Gabriel Arana's account in American Prospect of having been subjected to reparative therapy as a teenager. In the course of researching the history of the "ex-gay" movement, Arana interviewed Dr. Robert Spitzer, the author of an influential 2001 study that lent some credibility to the movement. Arana reported that Dr. Spitzer had attempted to retract his article, which was published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. Now, Dr. Spitzer has formally apologized to the glbtq community.

Although most reputable psychologists and psychiatrists had for many years dismissed the outlandish claims of high "success rates" by Joseph Nicolosi and other practitioners of reparative therapy, the notion that sexual orientation might be changed through therapy received some scientific backing in Spitzer's 2001 study, not least because Spitzer was a distinguished psychiatrist who had helped lead the campaign to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness.

Spitzer's prominence in the profession gave credence to his study, which was based on 200 interviews with patients who claimed to have been converted from homosexuality. The study made no claims about the success rate of ex-gay therapy, but it contended that, at least for a highly select group of motivated individuals, it could work.

Although flaws in the study and its conclusions were quickly pointed out by many researchers, the study gained traction even as many of the leaders of "ex-gay" groups were exposed as frauds and charlatans. Although it was attacked by gay activists, Spitzer's study was cited over and over again by practitioners of reparative therapy, for it is the only peer-reviewed scientific study published in a prestigious journal that seemed to validate the possibility of successful therapy to change sexual orientation.

But, as Arana revealed, Spitzer, who is now retired and suffering from Parkinson's Disease but is nevertheless still sharp, told him that he now believes that his 2001 study was deeply flawed: "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."

Spitzer also revealed that he had offered to write a retraction of the study, but that the editor of Archives of Sexual Behavior declined the offer.

Dr. Spitzer's repudiation of his own work was hailed by Truth Wins Out's Wayne Besen as "a devastating blow to 'ex-gay' organizations because it decisively eliminates their most potent claim that homosexuality can be reversed through therapy and prayer."

Besen, who has frequently criticized the study, said that "Dr. Spitzer's repudiation of his 2001 study is an earthquake that severely undermines the validity of 'ex-gay' programs." He added, "Spitzer just kicked out the final leg from the stool on which the proponents of 'ex-gay' therapy based their already shaky claims of success."

Now, John Becker reports, Dr. Spitzer has written to Dr. Ken Zucker, the editor of Archives of Sexual Behavior, not only explaining the "fatal flaw" in his study ("There was no way to judge the credibility of subject reports of change in sexual orientation"), but also offering an apology to the gay community, especially those who have been harmed by reparative therapy.

"I believe I owe the gay community an apology for my study making unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy," Dr. Spitzer wrote. "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."

Becker comments, "Dr. Spitzer's apology to the victims of 'pray away the gay' therapy and the greater LGBT community marks a watershed moment in the fight against the 'ex-gay' myth. We commend him for it, because not only will it solidify his legacy as a respected doctor and significant historical figure, but it will help to greatly hasten the day when the scourge that is reparative therapy is eradicated forever and LGBT people can live openly, honestly, and true to themselves."

In the video below, from 2007, Spitzer speaks out against the misrepresentation of his study by anti-gay groups like Focus on the Family.

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