Prominent Researcher Disavows His Own Study Supporting Ex-Gay Therapy

Robert Spitzer

Robert Spitzer has a storied history in the LGBT movement. In 1973, he utilized his position of power in the American Psychiatric Association to help rewrite the definition of homosexuality so that it was no longer a mental illness (a story perhaps best told in the This American Life episode, “81 Words.”) But in 2003, the seeming savior of gays and lesbians everywhere published an extensive study claiming that ex-gay therapy works for some people, for which he was largely criticized by the LGBT community and lauded by its opponents. Now, in an interview with The American Prospect at age 80, Spitzer has completely retracted his own study, pointing out that some people can say that ex-gay therapy worked for them, but there is no evidence that it does:

“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 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”?

Spitzer also told Warren Throckmorton in a follow-up interview this week that he now believes “his conclusions don’t hold water.”

The magnitude of this disavowal cannot be overstated. Almost every anti-gay organization has used Spitzer’s 2001 study to help justify its opposition to LGBT equality, including the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, and numerous ex-gay organizations like PFOX and NARTH. National Organization for Marriage spokesman Frank Turek once highlighted Spitzer’s study as his sole proof that ex-gay therapy works. Jerry Falwell himself cited the study to defend his belief that God commands that “homosexuals must change.” And as Jeremy Hooper points out, Focus on the Family’s Candi Cushman still uses the study to support the “Day of Dialogue,” which encourages Christian students to condemn their gay classmates as a response to GLSEN’s Day of Silence.  Will these groups purge their websites and resources of citations to Spitzer’s research per his retraction?

Ex-gay therapy is harmful and ineffective, and no research has ever found otherwise. If conservatives continue to promote it, they are not practicing a religious belief, but in fact imposing a lie in an attempt to stigmatize — if not erase entirely — the gay community.