A few weeks ago, I asked the question – would you change your sexuality if you could, prompted by a fictional film called Hard Pill set in a world where a pharmaceutical company claims to have created an “ex-gay” drug.
Truth is, of course, in the real world there is no such pill, and the vast majority of “professional” organizations dedicated to “helping” people to change their sexuality are of the “pray away the gay” type. Religious groups, and the odd fringe psychiatrist backed by them.
Despite ongoing blows to their credibility, perhaps the most definitive of which was back in the early 80s when the two male founders of Exodus International – still the world’s largest ex-gay movement – divorced their wives and married each other, the fundies keep on keeping on with their “you can change” mantra.
In 2003, the ex-gay movement got a major boost when a study was published in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour, giving a qualified “maybe” to the claim that gays could change their sexuality. A media feeding frenzy ensued, particularly because the man behind the study – Dr Robert Spitzer – was previously something of a hero to gays and lesbians: he was part of the team who had homosexuality removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental illnesses in 1973.
Much of the shoddy methodology behind the study never made it through the media filter.
Spitzer’s study was borne out of a desire to scientifically study the claims of “ex-gays”, as at the time only anecdotal evidence from “therapists” had been provided. From the outset, he was clear that his study subjects would be people that (a) had once identified as gay or lesbian, (b) had attempted to “change” through contact with an ex-gay ministry or one of the minority psychiatrists in the US who still engage in reparative therapy, and (c) now consider themselves heterosexual.
As you can see, he was on shaky ground to begin with. Spitzer had no proof that the subjects he found were even gay in the first place, as evangelical Christians (whom the majority of these subjects are) do not, by and large, recognise bisexuality. Spitzer himself did not take bisexuality into account during the study, as he deemed it unquantifiable.
After searching for nearly a year and a half, Spitzer found only 274 suitable candidates in the whole of the United States, of which 200 were chosen for study. This is in a country where ex-gay ministries like Exodus claim to know “thousands” of men and women who have “left homosexuality”.
45-minute telephone interviews were eventually conducted with these hand-picked subjects, and results showed that of this group 86% of the men still had same-sex attraction. This is 86% of a group referred by evangelical Christians, with a “highly motivated” desire for change. More than half of the men, and these included men who Spitzer concluded had “good heterosexual functioning”, used same-sex fantasies when masturbating.
The study was eviscerated by peer review, with 32 out of 42 commentaries published alongside it in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour criticising it.
Of course, the results of the study were like manna from heaven for the ex-gay groups, who wrapped it in a chastity belt and ran a marathon with it, ignoring its flaws and heavy qualifications and citing it as evidence for the miracle “cure” they’d be claiming was possible all along.
Spitzer expressed “horror” in the Wall Street Journal at the distortions of his work, and noted in another interview with The Advocate that he was concerned at the way the results of his study were being twisted by the Christian right. One could say that, at best, he was incredibly naive to think this wouldn’t happen.
Before beginning the study, Spitzer faced opposition from many of his peers in the American Psychiatric Association who foresaw exactly what might occur if reputable psychiatrists attached their names to such a discourse, but he said, “I think we ought to be able to talk about anything in a dispassionate way.”
Now, more than a decade on, he’s retracted the work , in an interview with Gabriel Arana in The American Prospect:
“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.”
One might say it’s too little, too late. I reported on this study at the time for GayNZ.com, as it had been given huge coverage here in the Sunday Star-Times by reporter Lauren Quaintance, in an article that she later admitted was based on a similar article in Britain’s Sunday Telegraph.
In the research I conducted, reports from the US about the impact of this study on gays and lesbians were disturbing.
The Human Rights Campaign received several calls from distressed young men and women. One man’s previously accepting parents had changed their minds after reading slanted coverage about the study and had told him he could be straight if only he could “try harder”. A college professor called to say an openly gay student was being harrassed by other students saying she should seek help to change because Spitzer’s study says she could (see Anything but Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth by Wayne Besen).
I also discovered another study, presented to the American Psychiatric Association at the same time as Spitzer’s by New York psychotherapists Ariel Shidlo and Michael Schroeder, which studied 202 randomly recruited subjects and discovered that 88% failed to change their sexual orientation, and a further 9% were celibate or still struggling.
But despite all this, the beat goes on.
Ex-gay proponents in Britain are fuming that their attempt to promote their dubious change claims on London buses have been vetoed by the Mayor. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that such groups are still very active in Australia.
In New Zealand, groups exist, but operate much more quietly. An attempt by Exodus International to start up a branch here in 2010 was met with resistance from the Charities Commission, who rejected their application for charitable status, Pink News reported:
The Commission gave various reasons for denying the application, stating that “the Applicant’s purposes were not exclusively charitable and the Commission was unable to determine whether the Applicant provided a public benefit.”
That’s an understatement.
Like many fundamentalist groups, the ex-gay movement is happy to use pseudoscience cloaked as evidence when it suits them, but when the Wizard’s curtain is pulled away, we can see what remains.
Here are some examples of what ex-gay therapy entails, as practiced by one of America’s leading reparative therapists, Dr Richard Cohen (this from Cohen’s own book, Coming Out Straight):
- Telling clients that there is no such thing as a happy gay or lesbian person, and that gay and lesbian relationships don’t last
- Telling clients that gays and lesbians are a menace to society, quoting falsified research from discredited psychiatrist and homophobe Paul Cameron, who was booted out of the APA in 1983
- Touch therapy – the client spends time being hugged and petted (in a non-sexual way) by a same-sex heterosexual person
- Intrauterine memory recovery – helping clients to recover traumatic memories from when they were in the womb, supposedly to discover the “cause” of their homosexuality
- Prayer and inspirational/scriptural reading
- Gratitude: recognising pleasant things in your life (fifty to five hundred daily)
I can identify with that last one. I think we should continue to be grateful, as often as we can, that people like this are being pushed more and more to the fringe, where they will eventually fall off the edges of their flat earth.