Robert Spitzer

Retired Professor of Psychiatry

He didn’t have to do it. Robert Spitzer was retired. He was weak from Parkinson’s disease. As the chair of the task force that had developed the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—the version of the mental-health establishment’s bible that had, in 1980, famously pried psychiatry loose from its Freudian underpinnings—his enshrinement in the history of psychiatry was secure. Even his place in the history of civil rights was assured: he had been the driving force behind the American Psychiatric Association’s removal of homosexuality from the official realm of psychopathology in 1973; until then, the APA had classified gays as mentally ill. It would have been easy for him to drift quietly off into well-respected posterity; he didn’t have to publicly admit error, to reckon openly with an episode that might stain his reputation.

The episode: At a conference in 2001, Spitzer delivered a paper on “reparative therapy”—commonly known as “ex-gay therapy”—called “Can Some Gay Men and Lesbians Change Their Sexual Orientation?” His answer, based on interviews he’d conducted with 200 men and women who claimed to have changed their sexual orientation, was yes. The study, later published in a peer-reviewed journal, provoked huzzahs from “ex-gay” advocates (the man who’d normalized homosexuality was now declaring it could be treated!) and cries of disbelief from colleagues and homosexuals. In the face of the onslaught, Spitzer stood by his research.

Then, last spring, Gabriel Arana, an editor at The American Prospect who had undergone several years of reparative therapy in his teens, called on Spitzer at his home in Princeton, New Jersey. Arana, as he wrote movingly in an essay he later published in the magazine, had been driven to depression and nearly to suicide by the treatment, before he (and his parents) came to terms with his homosexuality. When Arana asked Spitzer about the criticisms that had been leveled against his paper, Spitzer told him, “In retrospect, I have to admit I think the critiques are largely correct,” and then went on to ask Arana if he would print a retraction of the study so that he wouldn’t “have to worry about it anymore.”

On April 25, Spitzer himself wrote a letter to the editor of the Archives of Sexual Behavior, which had published his study. His letter didn’t merely acknowledge his study’s “fatal flaw” (there was no way to determine whether the test subjects who claimed they had changed their sexual orientation really had) but also took responsibility for its consequences: “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.”

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Image credit: Alex di Suvero