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Gabriel Arana's "So-Called Ex-Gay Life" and Robert Spitzer's Recantation
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 04/11/12
Last updated on: 04/12/12
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Wayne Besen of Truth Wins Out discusses ex-gay therapy.

In a moving account in American Prospect of the effects of the reparative therapy he was subjected to as a teenager, journalist Gabriel Arana provides a valuable history of the "ex-gay" movement. He also elicits a recantation by Robert Spitzer of an influential 2001 study that was crucial to the credibility of the movement.

Arana's article explains how he became a patient of Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, a clinical psychologist in California who was then president of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), the country's largest organization for practitioners of ex-gay therapy. The organization was founded by Charles Socarides and others, including discredited "expert" George Rekers who was recently involved in a "rent boy" scandal.

Arana began therapy with Nicolosi in 1998, the same year that a $600,000 ad campaign--sponsored by 15 religious-right organizations, including the Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council, and the American Family Association--ran for several weeks in such publications as The Washington Post, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times promoting reparative therapy and promising the possibility of a "cure" for homosexuality.

The ad campaign signaled the embrace of reparative therapy by the Christian Right. As Arana notes, "Instead of fire-and-brimstone denunciations from the pulpit, the ex-gay movement allowed the Christian right to couch its condemnation of homosexuality in a way that seemed compassionate. Focus on the Family called its new ex-gay ministry Love Won Out and talked about healing and caring for homosexuals."

Although most reputable psychologists and psychiatrists dismissed the outlandish claims of high "success rates" by Nicolosi and other practitioners of reparative therapy, in 2001 the notion that sexual orientation might be changed through therapy received some credibility in a study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior by a distinguished psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Spitzer, who had helped lead the campaign to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness.

Dr. Spitzer's eminence 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 acivists, 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.

Meanwhile, Arana entered Yale University and began to experience the results of the therapy he had undergone with Nicolosi. During his first two years of college, he saw himself as "a leper with no hope of a cure. I stayed in the closet but had sexual encounters with classmates nonetheless. I became increasingly depressed but didn't go to mental-health counseling for fear that a well-meaning therapist would inform my parents that I was living the 'gay lifestyle.'"

In the spring of his sophomore year, Arana experienced a suicidal crisis. Luckily, after a harrowing night spent planning his death, he sought help and was hospitalized. For the first time, he received the kind of affirmative counseling that might have allowed him to come to terms with his sexuality in a healthy way.

As Arana writes, "While it took years of counseling to disabuse myself of the ideas I had learned while undergoing therapy with Nicolosi, it was the first time I encountered professionals who were affirming of my sexuality, and the first time I allowed myself to think it was all right to be gay."

In his article, Arana also reveals that he had occasion to visit Dr. Spitzer, who is now retired and suffering from Parkinson's Disease but is nevertheless still sharp. Spitzer revealed to Arana 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 has been 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."

In the video below, reparative therapy is discussed by Thomas Roberts and Wayne Besen as the result of an undercover investigation of Marcus Bachmann's "Christian" clinic.

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