Can therapy turn gay people straight?
Eleven years ago, Robert Spitzer said it could. Spitzer is the professor of psychiatry who led the fight in the 1970s to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder. But in 2001, he released a study—published two years later in Archives of Sexual Behavior—purporting to show that therapy, commonly known as conversion or “reparative” therapy, could change a patient’s sexual orientation. Anti-gay political groups seized on the report, using it to argue against acceptance of homosexuality.
Spitzer didn’t agree with this interpretation of the study. Now, in failing health, he has apologized for how he presented it. He wants to retract what he wrote. And now it’s the pro-gay groups who are seizing on his words. “Dr. Spitzer’s apology to the victims of ‘pray away the gay’ therapy … marks a watershed moment in the fight against the ‘ex-gay’ myth,” says Truth Wins Out, an organization dedicated to fighting “anti-gay religious extremism.” “It will help to greatly hasten the day when the scourge that is reparative therapy is eradicated forever.”
Hey, I’m as gay-friendly as the next guy. But let’s back off the eradication talk. That kind of zeal was unwarranted and dangerous back when the alleged scourge was homosexuality. It’s still unwarranted and dangerous.
Homosexuality is fundamentally personal, not political. Like heterosexuality, it varies from person to person, and it can evolve over a lifetime. Experience and research suggest it’s extremely unlikely that you can change your sexual orientation, and you’re better off accepting who you are. But what’s true for you may not be true for someone closer to the margins of homosexuality. Tempting as it is to politicize Spitzer’s apology and dismiss the malleability of sexual orientation, resist that urge. Morally and therapeutically, it’s better to treat people as individuals.
Overconfidence and overgeneralization have always corrupted our treatment of gay people. First we mistook homosexuality for a sin. Then we mistook it for a lifestyle. Then we mistook it for a disorder. In the past 20 years, purveyors of conversion therapy, led by psychologist Joseph Nicolosi, have used a Freudian cookie cutter to diagnose every unhappy gay patient as a victim of gender-driven parenting errors. Last month, Gabriel Arana, an editor at the American Prospect, recounted his experience as a patient of Nicolosi's, indoctrinated by Nicolosi’s books, Healing Homosexuality and Reparative Therapy of Male Homosexuality:
Another sheet illustrated the “triadic relationship” that led to homosexuality: a passive, distant father, an overinvolved mother, and a sensitive child. … According to Nicolosi, identification with a parent of the other gender is out of step with our biological and evolutionary “design.” Because of this, it was impossible to ever become whole through gay relationships. … Like a rabbi instructing his student in understanding the Torah, Nicolosi encouraged me to interpret my daily life through the lens of his theories.
What’s chilling in Arana’s account isn’t that Nicolosi failed to understand him, but that he didn’t even try. For Nicolosi and other practitioners of conversion therapy, the theory drives everything. The patient is just an instance, an opportunity to apply the model. When Arana asked Nicolosi about gay men who didn’t fit the model, Nicolosi told him: “After almost 30 years of work, I can say to you that I’ve never met a single homosexual who’s had a loving and respectful relationship with his father.”
This blind commitment to generalization, framed as science, drove the rise of conversion therapy and its promulgator, the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality. Politics hardened the theory, as religious conservatives used NARTH and conversion therapy to argue that homosexuality could be cured and therefore need not be accommodated. A similar cookie-cutter ideology arose on the left, attributing homosexuality, like skin color, to genes.
This was the polarized world into which Spitzer waded with his study of conversion therapy. He wasn’t trying to vindicate either side’s theory. He wanted to find out whether self-described ex-gays were correct that some people could change their orientation. His answer—yes—instantly became political fodder for the right. In the same way, his apology has now become fodder for the left. But Spitzer’s study never proved anything about patients of conversion therapy in general, much less about homosexuals. It wasn’t designed that way.