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.