Home / News / Dr. Robert Spitzer, famous for helping to remove homosexuality from mental disorder classification and for publishing study supportive of 'ex-gay conversion therapy,' retracts conversion therapy study, citing a fatal flaw
Dr. Robert Spitzer, famous for helping to remove homosexuality from mental disorder classification and for publishing study supportive of 'ex-gay conversion therapy,' retracts conversion therapy study, citing a fatal flaw

Dr. Robert Spitzer, famous for helping to remove homosexuality from mental disorder classification and for publishing study supportive of 'ex-gay conversion therapy,' retracts conversion therapy study, citing a fatal flaw

In 1973, Dr. Robert Spitzer helped to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), making it no longer a mental illness.  In 2001, he published an article stating that some homosexuals could change their orientation, which the anti-Gay Rights movement used extensively to fight equal rights for same sex couples.  His study was based on self-reports of individuals who claimed to have changed their sexual orientation.

The Spitzer study was the only piece of objective evidence available for the ex-gay "therapists" to support their claim that homosexuality can be changed … and now that study has been retracted.

Spitzer retracted the study this month, stating that it had a major flaw.  He  apologized to the gay community for the study, writing an open letter exclusively published at Truth Wins Out, which read in part:

" The Fatal Flaw in the Study –- There was no way to judge the credibility of subject reports of change in sexual orientation. I offered several (unconvincing) reasons why it was reasonable to assume that the subject’s reports of change were credible and not self-deception or outright lying. But the simple fact is that there was no way to determine if the subject’s accounts of change were valid.

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 with some “highly motivated” individuals."

Anti-gay organizations often quoted his 2001 study, which also triggered harmful therapies to force gay people to become straight with the use of “Pray Away the Gay” and other guilt-ridden therapies mainly used by religious organizations. "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," notes John M. Becker at Truth Wins Out.

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Other "treatments" used on gays to force them to change their lifestyle and orientation were electrocution and nauseating drugs.  Gabriel Arana wrote about some of the so-called treatments and practices used by religious organizations to force gays to change their sexual orientation, especially after Spitzer’s 2001 report, in his article called My So-Called Ex-Gay Life.

The ad appeared 23 years after the American Psychiatric Association (APA) declassified homosexuality as a mental illness. As a consequence of that decision, extreme forms of reorientation therapy—aversion therapy involving electrocution or nausea-inducing drugs, for instance—had stopped being used. A small group of therapists continued to practice talk therapy that encouraged patients to see homosexuality as a developmental disorder, but they remained on the fringe until the Christian right took up their cause. This was a calculated political move. 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.

It’s true that while in therapy, I did not feel coerced into believing his theories. Like nuclear fallout, the damage came later, when I realized my sexual orientation would not change. I could have told Nicolosi about my thoughts of suicide, my time in the mental institution. I could have told him that my parents still don’t understand me but that I’m grown up now and it has less of a bearing on my life. I could have told him that I married a man. But I realize it wouldn’t be of any use: I’ve changed since I left therapy, but Nicolosi has not. For years I shared my innermost thoughts and feelings with him. Now I want to keep this for myself.

According to The Huffington Post, Spitzer even admitted that therapies to change one’s sexual orientation “can be quite harmful” and then he requested Gabriel Arana, the author of My So-Called Ex-Gay Life, to print a retraction, “so I don’t have to worry about it anymore”.  Arana was also one of the original participants in Spitzer’s 2001 study and interviewed by Rachel Maddow.

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According to Care2, Spitzer wrote a letter to Zucker, editor of Archives of Sexual Behavior, who published the original study, in an effort to formally disavow his 2001 study due to the flaw.

Spitzer’s 2001 study used 200 participants, who worked with ex-gay therapists.  The study relied on their reports of their efforts to change their orientation.  The other flaw was that the study did not follow the participants for any length of time after therapy discontinued, to see if they maintained their reported change.

Despite the mainstream medical community rejecting the study as flawed, the media publicized the idea that this study had shown you really could “leave behind” homosexuality, and ex-gay groups like NARTH and Exodus have used this as a foundation for their work.

However, Spitzer’s study remains the only piece of research affirming ex-gay therapy to be published in a reputable journal. Spitzer’s rejection of the study is therefore of considerable importance.

Zucker refused to publish Spitzer’s retraction in the Archives of Sexual Behavior and formally retract the study.  Truth Wins Out published Spitzer’s letter to Zucker though.

Kenji Yoshino stated, in Maddow’s interview below, that these articles, which state that one cannot change their sexuality, and Spitzer’s retraction, show that the anti-gay arguments are nothing.

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About Mriana

Mriana is a humanist and the author of "A Source of Misery", who grew up in the Church of God, Anderson Indiana. After she became an adult, she joined the Episcopal Church, but later left the Church and became a humanist. She has two grown sons and raises cats. Mriana raised her sons in the Episcopal Church, but in their teen years, they left the Church and she soon followed. One of her sons became a "Tao Buddhist" and the other a None, creating his own world view. She enjoys writing, reading, science, philosophy, psychology, and other subjects. Mriana is also an animal lover, who cares for their welfare as living beings, who are part of the earth. She is a huge Star Trek fan in a little body.
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