Psychiatrist’s Gay ‘Cure’ Apology – and the Vatican

Chris, here at QTC, and Bill Lindsey at Bilgrimage, have between them illustrated how the Vatican’s first use of the phrase “intrinsically disordered” to characterize same -sex attraction came two years after the American Psychiatric Association had concluded that, well no – it’s not disordered at all, and removed it from the clinical listing of mental disorders.

In an odd historical quirk, Dr Robert L Spitzer, who had been instrumental in that 1973 decision, much later published a piece of research that came to be widely used against us by the religious right, to support their claim that orientation is not completely fixed, and can be changed. In a 2001 paper, he reported that some “highly motivated” individuals could modify their orientation. In a study of 200 people, the majority of whom had been referred to him by ex-gay ministries or by the reparative therapy movement, he found that 66% of the men and 44% of the women had arrived at “good heterosexual functioning”. Spitzer’s own conclusions were cautious and guarded. Noting the extreme difficulty in even finding sufficient participants for the study, he concluded that any shift in orientation was extremely rare, and also that in no cases, had same – sex attraction been entirely eliminated. Even so, his study was widely criticized. The APA noted that it had not been peer-reviewed. When it was subsequently peer-reviewed in  Archives of Sexual Behavior, two-thirds of the reviews were critical, of the sampling method and of the criteria for “success”.

The limited scope of the findings and the negative reaction from the psychiatric profession did not deter the religious right from trumpeting Spitzer’s findings in support of their own conviction that orientation could be changed – and if it could be, it should be. In consequence, they insist, there is no need for legal protection from discrimination against the “sin” of homosexuality.

Spitzer himself has since concluded that even his limited endorsement of the possibility of change in orientation, was wrong. In an extended article for The American Prospect, Gabriel  Arana describes his own experience of ex-gay therapy, the history of Spitzer’s study – and a personal interview he conducted with Spitzer himself, earlier this year:

I asked about the criticisms leveled at him. “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.” He has, though, no doubts about the 1973 fight over the classification of homosexuality.

“Had there been no Bob Spitzer, homosexuality would still have eventually been removed from the list of psychiatric disorders,” he said. “But it wouldn’t have happened in 1973.”

Spitzer was growing tired and asked how many more questions I had. Nothing, I responded, unless you have something to add.

He did. Would I print a retraction of his 2001 study, “so I don’t have to worry about it anymore”?

- The American Prospect

Spitzer’s anxiety to have his retraction published shows clearly how concerned he is by the damage that it has caused. Since then, he has gone beyond retraction, to a public apology.

He pushed himself up and staggered into the dark. His desk seemed impossibly far away; Dr. Spitzer, who turns 80 next week, suffers from Parkinson’s disease and has trouble walking, sitting, even holding his head upright.

The word he sometimes uses to describe these limitations — pathetic — is the same one that for decades he wielded like an ax to strike down dumb ideas, empty theorizing and junk studies.

Now here he was at his computer, ready to recant a study he had done himself, a poorly conceived 2003 investigation that supported the use of so-called reparative therapy to “cure” homosexuality for people strongly motivated to change.

Dr. Spitzer’s fingers jerked over the keys, unreliably, as if choking on the words. And then it was done: a short letter to be published this month, in the same journal where the original study appeared.

I believe,” it concludes, “I owe the gay community an apology.”


In parallel news, the Pan American Health Organization (associated with the WHO) has released a report that reparative therapy is not just ineffective – it is dangerous.

Services that purport to “cure” people with non-heterosexual sexual orientation lack medical justification and represent a serious threat to the health and well-being of affected people, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said in a position statement launched on 17 May, the International Day against Homophobia. The statement calls on governments, academic institutions, professional associations and the media to expose these practices and to promote respect for diversity.

Pan American Health Organization

Independently of the PAHO report, the NY Times reports that the California State Assembly has been debating banning the practice outright – again, because it is dangerous.

At a far more simplistic level than scholarly disputes in academic journals, bloggers and commentators often quote the statistical high incidence of mental health problems (like depression, substance abuse and suicide) in the homosexual population as “evidence” that our orientation is obviously harmful. In fact, it’s the other way around. It is not homosexuality that causes mental health problems, but homophobia, external and internal, and the attempts to change it.  Ex-gay programmes and reparative therapy are harmful to your mental health.

In exactly the same way, “intrinsically disordered” is harmful to our spiritual health. As the phrase has its origins in the now discredited belief that homoerotic orientation is a form of mental illness, it should have been discarded decades ago. Instead, Vatican loyalists have repeatedly tried to side-step the problem by insisting that no, it should not be interpreted in that sense, but has a specifically theological meaning. But, as James Alison has demonstrated, on closer inspection, this supposed theological meaning – simply does not exist.  The “disordered” nature of our orientation is not an objective fact, from which the rest of the Vatican doctrine logically follows, but an assumption, born ignorance or prejudice – or a combination of both.

What is “intrinsically disordered” is not any particular sexual orientation – but the Vatican’s offensive abuse of the term

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2 comments for “Psychiatrist’s Gay ‘Cure’ Apology – and the Vatican

  1. Chris Morley
    May 20, 2012 at 2:39 pm

    Thanks for picking Spitzer’s apology up, explaining the context so well, and revealing how damaging it is to try to fix a non-existent fault, mental or spiritual. 

  2. Chris Morley
    May 20, 2012 at 5:08 pm

    He’s been a bad boy about pathologising Trans people too.
    A new comment from BarbieAnnR at Bilgrimage points out [ ]

    “However, while de-pathologizing same-sex orientation, Dr. Spitzer
    simultaneously directed a massive expansion of trans-pathology diagnoses
    in the [diagnostic Manual].”

    There’s a series of highlighted quotes by BarbieAnnR at Bilgrimage from ‘Gender Diversity, Scapegoating & Erasure in Medicine & Media’ which you can read in full at

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