Archive for April, 2012


On the psychopathology of homosexuality

April 30, 2012
Does it matter if Baha’is think reparative therapy works? Here is Spitzer’s retraction and why it matters.

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.

Robert Spitzer. M.D.

Prejudice makes me sick, illustration by Free to use.

“Prejudice against homosexuals is a part of any system that labels it an illness”


Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry, Columbia University, U.S.A.
25 April 2012, cited:

On April 11th the Huffington Post ran this headline: “Psychiatrist Behind Controversial ‘Ex-Gay’ Study, Retracts Original Claims”

Then a few days later this headline: “Dr. Robert Spitzer Apologizes to Gay Community for Infamous ‘Ex-Gay’ Study” was followed by a letter of apology by Robert Spitzer for his 2001 study which while it did not make any claims about the success rate of ex-gay therapy, concluded that “highly motivated” individuals could “successfully” change their sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual.

The news of his retraction has gone around the world because although his study was discredited by the scientific community it continues to be used as an argument for curing homosexuality. The “Rachel Maddow talkback show” (Her show begins with mention of the overturning of a death penalty for two consenting adults who were charged with sexual relations in the privacy of their home in Texas in 1998. The segment I am referring to starts at 2:08 minutes) demonstrates that his study was used in court by “Proposition 8” advocates (to remove existing marriage rights for homosexuals) in California, arguing that gays are not discriminated against if it is proven that gays can change. The argument being that to be treated equally all a homosexual needs to do is to change to being heterosexual!
The second part of this show has an interview with a lawyer to discuss the implications of gay rights in the context of civil rights. An interesting correlation for Baha’is is that the October 2010 letter from the U.H.J. instructs the Baha’i community to treat the same-sex-marriage akin to the Baha’i policy on party politics. That is, Baha’is are encouraged to vote, to be involved in secular electoral systems as individuals and individual voters, but as a community or as representatives, Baha’is are not to take a position.

I assume that this would mean that once same-sex marriage is legal then this would mean that in order not to practice discrimination, a Baha’i community would have no reason not to welcome legally married same-sex couples just as they would treat any other married couple who wish to join. However, even last week at a Baha’i event here in the Netherlands I was told by a Baha’i that a same-sex- married Baha’i couple was not possible. He was clear to state that gays are treated with equality but then compared homosexuality to alcoholism. I pointed out that one was an illness and the other was not. What was most surprising for me was that he just couldn’t conceive that such a thing would be possible. Here in the Netherlands same-sex-marriage has been legal for the past decade.

Needless to say there are no gay Baha’is in my local community. And this makes sense: in the Netherlands society welcomes gay couples and families as equals so the views of most Dutch Baha’is sound like prejudice. In a society where gays are not treated equally, the view that homosexuality is an illness wouldn’t stand out as prejudice. Alcohol is bad for your health, but it is prejudice that causes suffering for homosexuals. If gays are treated equally being gay is not bad for your health.

Unfortunately many Baha’is associate homosexual orientation with illness and from this deduce that because it is an illness it can be cured, and that’s the danger. It is one thing to decide someone else is diseased, but deciding that the other person, different to yourself, can be fixed (into your likeness) and if they aren’t fixed then it is their fault, removes the empathy which you might feel for them.

Teenagers subjected to such attitudes will hate themselves even more: they are not only being told they are diseased, they are too weak to be cured. No wonder there is a strong correlation between suicide and gay teenagers in communities where homosexuality is seen as an illness. Something just broke in me. I was trying to destroy myself because I had internalized all the homophobia from therapy.”

So now perhaps you see the implications of Spitzer’s study and why it is such a big deal that he has retracted his ‘gays can be cured’ claim. Spitzer’s study was particularly controversial because in 1973 he “spearheaded the removal of homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder in and of itself” from the American Psychological Association list of mental disorders.

He ruled that homosexuality would be deleted from the list of mental disorders and that a listing of “ego-dystonic homosexuality” be included; that is, homosexuality that causes distress to the individual…. He stated that the revision in the manual could provide the possibility of finding a homosexual to be free of psychiatric disorder.”

However his 2001 study put it back into the category of psychopathology – if it could be cured, then it was an illness.

When Spitzer’s study came out (published in 2003) there was a lot of criticism of the generality of his conclusions (for all homosexuals) based on a methodology in which there was no follow-up of individual cases, and the context of the individual cases was not considered.
Moreover the sample was pre-selected, for the cases were supplied to Dr. Spitzer by NARTH (National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality – an organization that views homosexuality as a disorder) and by Exodus International (which has the slogan: freedom from homosexuality). There was no control group, and no check that these individuals were not under pressure.

In the scientific world his study was discredited on scientific grounds.
(This page lists a brief history leading up to a 2009 American Psychological Association Taskforce which concluded that there were no grounds to support a cure for gays.
This page lists the flaws in the study.
Another study (Ariel Shidlo and Michael Schroeder, “Changing Sexual Orientation: A Consumer’s Report,” 2002) found that out of a sample of 202, eight stated that their sexual orientation had changed, and seven of these individuals for the ex-gay movement as counsellors or group leaders (2002, pp. 249–259). More references to reparative studies can be found here.)

I told Spitzer that Nicolosi had asked me to participate in the 2001 study and recount my success in therapy, but that I never called him.

“I actually had great difficulty finding participants,” Spitzer said. “In all the years of doing ex-gay therapy, you’d think Nicolosi would have been able to provide more success stories. He only sent me nine patients.”
“How’d it turn out for you?”
he asked.
I said that while I stayed in the closet for a few years more than I might have, I ended up accepting my sexuality. … —ten years after my last session with Dr. Nicolosi—I married my partner.
Gabriel Arana, 11 April 2012,

Spitzer’s research involved a single 45 minute phone interview with 200 individuals supplied to Spitzer by those who developed and promoted reparative therapy. Of these, 93% identified as being religious. He judged the basis of his findings on their own views and made no attempt to contact any of the clients for whom the reparative therapy had failed. Spitzer also made no distinction between bisexuals and gays. His conclusion that gays could be cured was based on finding that 66% of the males and 44% of the females were able to give him a believable testimony that they were now heterosexual most of the time.

Although Spitzer has made a public apology, if he is serious, he needs to be scientific about this. As the medical academic Alice Dreger noted, Spitzer claimed to want to retract his research, but in itself there is nothing wrong with the data only with Spitzer’s conclusions. Reading the available data myself, it seems likely that those whom Spitzer saw as functioning heterosexuals had actually become bisexuals, or were bisexuals to start with.

Dreger wrote: “All Spitzer has to do is put in writing that he no longer believes what he said about the interpretation of his data, and Zucker will publish his revision.” Spitzer will need to frame this in the manner according to scientific standards, as a revision of his views and conclusions.

It shouldn’t be hard for Spitzer to do this since, in a letter to Kenneth J Zucker, editor of Journal of Sexual Behavior, Spitzer wrote:

“Several months ago I told you that because of my revised view of my 2001 study of reparative therapy changing sexual orientation, I was considering writing something that would acknowledge that I now judged the major critiques of the study as largely correct. After discussing my revised view of the study with Gabriel Arana, a reporter for American Prospect’, and with Malcolm Ritter, an Associated Press science writer, I decided that I had to make public my current thinking about the study. Here it is.

Basic Research Question. From the beginning it was: “can some version of reparative therapy enable individuals to change their sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual?” Realizing that the study design made it impossible to answer this question, I suggested that the study could be viewed as answering the question, “how do individuals undergoing reparative therapy describe changes in sexual orientation?” – a not very interesting question.

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.

It could be argued that Spitzer was tricked by NARTH or Exodus International when he was supplied the list of 200 ‘cured’ gays. However it as a scientist it was his job to be thorough and the problem was his conclusion. It is a pity that 11 years have passed – 11 years where hundreds of teenagers have been pressured to be ‘cured’ and considered failures for not being cured.

A Baha’i commenter on this blog wrote: “See the NARTH website for current research which dispels the “born that way” theory argument, shows pro-heterosexual and etiology of gay lifestyle choice studies, lists inpatient treatment centres for gays who want to change and who move out of their living situations, and offers support for them every step of the way through recovery.

… Recovery from any addiction–especially sex addiction is difficult at best but it is achievable.

… Yes, many overcome the craving for the same sex as well, especially after intensive inpatient treatment which we have at hospital and mental health facilities in the U.S.” (I asked the commenter for actual numbers of ‘cured’ gays and you can read his response here.

So let’s see what NARTH has to say about Spitzer?

Well, they ignore Spitzer’s retraction, calling it “regrets he might be having about getting involved with research on unwanted homosexuality” (
Accessed 30 April 2012. The blog was removed sometime in 2013)

I note in the rest of their blog there is no attempt to engage scientifically with the reasons for his retraction. Instead they refer to “this modern “third rail of politics” (it used to be social security and old age benefits)” (ibid) and then state this is not about politics! The link they provide does likewise, providing no evidence to show that Spitzer’s original conclusion was valid, but instead attempt to confuse the issue. And just like the commenter who wrote on my blog, while they present themselves as scientific, words that “end in words” (Baha’u’llah, LAWḤ-I-MAQṢÚD (Tablet of Maqṣúd), Tablets After the Kitab-i-Aqdas, p.169) are not science. Just saying ‘someone is not born gay’ is an opinion; it is not scientific evidence even if the person stating the opinion is a therapist.

You might ask if it matters if Baha’is support the idea that homosexuality can be changed? It matters because Baha’is state they believe in the balance of science and religion and then ignore this when it comes to homosexuality. It matters because Baha’i youth are told they are wrong if they do not change to being heterosexual. It matters because it forces gay youth to hide their sexual orientation so that they are not pressured to undergo therapy. It matters because Baha’is such as the commenter on my blog then state things such as “The other two left therapy because they did not want to go through the tough work of changing, similar to other addicts who do not want to take the “road less traveled.””

Baha’is along with other religions have been listed since 2008 as supporters in the NARTH mission statement Here’s a (screenshot of this for the day when this reference is removed from the NARTH website).
And the Baha’i community (through its BNASAA program (Bahá’í Network on Aids, Sexuality, Addictions, and Abuse) continues to refer to NARTH as a resource on its page on sexuality (accessed 28 April 2012 ). In particular Lynne Schreiber has been travelling across the U.S. with the support of the Baha’i community to give presentations on overcoming homosexuality. Her article citing NARTH and EXODUS International as resources is widely circulated by Baha’i counselors (known as ‘assistants’) While Baha’is do not have clergy, the assistants have a pastoral function. Their advice is not authoritative, but some Baha’is give it great weight.

How do I know this? My gay Baha’i friends are bombarded by these attempts to get them to change.

Don’t let another day pass in which any Baha’i or Baha’i community tells a gay Baha’i that they should be cured.

Change starts with you, and in speaking out. To quote Baha’u’llah: “Our purpose is that thou mayest lift up thy head from the couch of heedlessness, shake off the slumber of negligence, and cease to oppose unjustly the servants of God. So long as thy power and ascendancy endure, strive to alleviate the suffering of the oppressed.”
Baha’u’llah, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 168

I’ve come to know a number of Nicolosi’s former patients and others who underwent therapy with NARTH members. …

Nicolosi’s ideas did more than haunt me. The first two years of college, they were the basis for how I saw myself: a leper with no hope of a cure. I stayed in the closet but had sexual encounters with classmates nonetheless. I became increasingly depressed but didn’t go to mental-health counseling for fear that a well-meaning therapist would inform my parents that I was living the “gay lifestyle.”

I planned for what I would do if my parents decided to stop paying my tuition. I would stay in New Haven and get a job. I would apply for a scholarship from the Point Foundation, which gives financial aid to gay kids whose parents have disowned them. I would not go back to Arizona. I would not see an ex-gay therapist.

I spent hours in front of the window of my third-story room, wondering whether jumping would kill or merely paralyze me. I had a prescription for Ambien and considered taking the entire bottle and perching myself on the ledge until it kicked in—a sort of insurance. I am not sure how it all came to a head. Perhaps it was academic pressure combined with the increasing conflict between my ideals and my behavior. But in the spring of my sophomore year, the disparate parts of myself I had managed to hold together—the part of me that thought being gay was wrong, the part that slept with men anyway, the part of myself I let the world see, and the part that suffered in silence—came undone. I slept in 20-minute spurts for two nights, consumed with despair. I eyed the prescription bottles on my dresser with anxious excitement. I had reached a point at which I feared myself more than what would happen if I were gay. Realizing how close I was to impulsively deciding to kill myself, I went to the college dean’s office and said I was suicidal. He walked me over to the Department of Undergraduate Health, and I was admitted to the Yale Psychiatric Hospital. During the intake interview, I had a panic attack and handed the counselor a handwritten note that said, “Whatever happens, please don’t take me away from here.” I had signed my full name and dated it. More than anything, I feared going home. …

I indeed had to go home for a year before returning to school. By then my father, who flew to New Haven the day I committed myself, realized that therapy—and the pressure he and my mother had placed on me—was doing more harm than good. “I’d rather have a gay son than a dead son,” he said.

The ordeal was a turning point. While it took years of counseling to disabuse myself of the ideas I had learned while undergoing therapy with Nicolosi, it was the first time I encountered professionals who were affirming of my sexuality, and the first time I allowed myself to think it was all right to be gay.”

And to finish, a few words from ‘Abdul-Baha: “The Papal See has constantly opposed knowledge; even in Europe it is admitted that religion is the opponent of science, and that science is the destroyer of the foundations of religion. While the religion of God is the promoter of truth, the founder of science and knowledge, it is full of goodwill for learned men; it is the civilizer of mankind, the discoverer of the secrets of nature, and the enlightener of the horizons of the world. Consequently, how can it be said to oppose knowledge? God forbid! Nay, for God, knowledge is the most glorious gift of man and the most noble of human perfections. To oppose knowledge is ignorant, and he who detests knowledge and science is not a man, but rather an animal without intelligence. For knowledge is light, life, felicity, perfection, beauty and the means of approaching the Threshold of Unity. It is the honor and glory of the world of humanity, and the greatest bounty of God. Knowledge is identical with guidance, and ignorance is real error.

Happy are those who spend their days in gaining knowledge, in discovering the secrets of nature, and in penetrating the subtleties of pure truth! Woe to those who are contented with ignorance, whose hearts are gladdened by thoughtless imitation, who have fallen into the lowest depths of ignorance and foolishness, and who have wasted their lives!” (my emphasis)
‘Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 125/6, U.K.edition (noted on the Baha’i Reference library as page 137)

See this blog for another view on treating homosexuality as an illness >> This is linked to the section on the situation in Turkey at the moment.