In 1973, Columbia University professor Robert Spitzer helped spearhead the removal of homosexuality as a mental disorder from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. So, it was quite a media sensation when Spitzer unveiled a controversial new study in May 2001 suggesting that some very motivated homosexual study subjects provided by anti-gay organizations could switch sexual orientations.

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Dr. Robert Spitzer tells TWO how hard it was to gather a sample group for the study

GLBT leaders and many researchers pointed to methodological flaws in the study. These included:

  • Using subjects provided by anti-gay lobby groups
  • His weak methodology centered on calling these handpicked subjects on the telephone to report if they had become heterosexual
  • Not accounting for bisexuality
  • Not including the vast majority of people who leave ex-gay programs dissatisfied
  • Not using physical tests to measure the veracity of his subjects’ statements or their sexual attractions.

Despite his differences with scientists, Spitzer made it clear that he did not want his study used to justify discrimination. He also strongly emphasized the fact that he did not think most gay people could become heterosexual and that change was extremely rare.

Unfortunately, anti-gay organizations repeatedly misused his study to claim that all gay people could go from gay to straight through prayer or therapy. His study results were deliberately misinterpreted so often, that Spitzer has been forced to repeatedly set the record straight. Here are examples of Spitzer saying either that change was highly improbable or that right wing organizations had misapplied his work to fit their political agenda.

“Although I suspect change occurs, I suspect it’ very rare. Is it 1 percent, 2 percent? I don’t think it’ 10 percent.” (New York Times, Feb. 2007)

“If some people can change — and I think they can — it’ a pretty rare phenomenon.” (Los Angeles Times, May 28, 2006)

“Unfortunately, Focus on the Family has once again reported findings of my study out of context to support their fight against gay rights. Although a third of the subjects in my study reported having serious thoughts of suicide related to their homosexuality, not one of them, blamed the gay rights movement’ advocating a “born gay’ theory of homosexuality as the cause of their suicidal thinking.” (June 20, 2006 letter sent to Focus on the Family after the group tried to use his study to justify the group’ suggestion that lesbian teenagers were more likely to commit suicide because gay activists told them they could not change.)

“I understand that you are publicizing my statement that sexual orientation can be changed. I ask that you do not do this unless you also add my belief that such change is probably extremely rare.” (July 19, 2006, Spitzer wrote a letter to Focus on the Family’ James Dobson asking him to stop exaggerating his study on the group’ website.)

“In advance of NARTH’ press conference in New Orleans, I want to express hope that my research will not be exaggerated or used as a wedge to deny gay people equal rights. My research shows that some homosexuals can change their orientation but I believe that such change is rare. In many cases, attempts to change sexual orientation can be harmful. In the spirit of research and solid science I hope that all sides in this debate stick to the facts.” (In August 2006, NARTH was preparing to picket the American Psychological Association’ annual meeting in New Orleans. Dr. Spitzer, aware that the group had misused his work in the past to support its political agenda, sent NARTH a letter August 10, 2006.)

“I did anticipate, and in my presentation warn, that it would be a mistake to interpret the study as implying that any highly motivated homosexual could change if they were really motivated to do so. I suspect that the vast majority of gay people — even if they wanted to — would be unable to make substantial changes in sexual attraction and fantasy and enjoyment of heterosexual functioning that many of my subjects reported.” (Anything But Straight; Wayne Besen; Haworth Press, 2003; pg. 240.)