New York Times, May 9, 2001
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Scientist Says Study Shows Gay Change Is Possible
By ERICA GOODE
A psychiatrist at Columbia University who contends that the mental
health profession has "totally bought the idea that once you are gay you
cannot be changed" will report today that some "highly motivated" gays can
The researcher, Dr. Robert Spitzer, said his study was based on
45-minute telephone interviews with 143 men and 57 women who had sought help
to change their sexual orientation. He and his colleagues found that 66
percent of the men and 44 percent of the women had achieved "good
heterosexual functioning," he said.
"If somebody wants to change and it's not because they are just
responding to pressure, it shouldn't be automatically assumed that it's
irrational or giving in to society," Dr. Spitzer said in an interview.
But the findings, to be described today in New Orleans as part of a
symposium at the American Psychiatric Association's annual meeting, conflict
with those of another study also to be presented at the same session. That
study, by two psychologists in New York, found that of 202 homosexual
subjects who had received therapy to change their sexual orientation, 178
reported that their efforts "failed," many were harmed by the attempt to
change and only 6 achieved what the researchers called "a heterosexual
Dr. Spitzer's study was criticized by gay rights groups, which noted
that most subjects in the research study had been recruited through groups
that condemn homosexuality, like Exodus, a Christian ministry that describes
itself on its Web site as "promoting the message of `freedom from
homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ.' "
"It's snake oil, it's not science," David Elliot, the communications
director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, a lobbying group in
Washington, said of the study.
The study has not been published or submitted for professional
Scientists do not know what determines whether someone becomes
heterosexual or homosexual. But most believe that biology plays a strong
role in sexual orientation. And most mental-health organizations have
passed resolutions discouraging the use of so-called reparative therapies
intended to change homosexuals into heterosexuals, saying no scientific
evidence exists to show they are effective.
Dr. Spitzer led the task force that in 1973 removed homosexuality
from the official list of mental disorders contained in the psychiatric
association's diagnostic manual.
But he said he decided that a study was needed after talking with
protesters objecting to the association's policy discouraging such
"It occurred to me that maybe the general consensus, which was that
the behavior can be resisted but sexual orientation couldn't be changed, was
wrong," Dr. Spitzer said.
Still, he added that the number of homosexuals who could successfully
become heterosexual was likely to be "pretty low." And he conceded that the
subjects in the study were "unusually religious" and were not necessarily
representative of most gays and lesbians in the United States.
Of those who participated in the study, 78 percent had spoken
publicly in favor of efforts to convert homosexuals to heterosexuality; 93
percent said religion was "extremely" or "very" important in their lives.
About 40 percent said that before they decided to change their orientation
they had been exclusively attracted to partners of the same sex.
Dr. Spitzer said the subjects expressed different reasons for wanting
to become heterosexual. They included the feeling that a gay "lifestyle"
was "not emotionally satisfying" (81 percent of subjects); the belief that
their religion conflicted with being gay (79 percent of subjects); and the
desire to get married or to stay married (67 percent of the men, 35 percent
of the women).
Some subjects - 11 percent of the men and 37 percent of the women -
Dr. Spitzer said, reported being entirely free of homosexual feelings or
sexual fantasies in the year before they were interviewed. But 29 percent
of the men and 63 percent of the women said they were "only slightly
bothered" by such feelings.
The researchers defined "good heterosexual functioning," as having
been in a "loving and emotionally satisfying heterosexual relationship" for
the year leading up to the interview, having engaged in satisfying
heterosexual sex at least monthly and having never or rarely thought of
same-sex partners during heterosexual sex.
In contrast, Dr. Ariel Shidlo and Dr. Michael Schroeder, both
psychologists in private practice in Manhattan, found that the vast majority
of the subjects in their study, who were recruited through the Internet and
direct mailings to groups advocating reparative therapy, reported failure in
their efforts to change through reparative therapies.
Their study has also not yet been published or submitted for
professional review. Dr. Schroeder said 18 subjects who deemed themselves
"successes" in becoming heterosexuals "don't fit into what the public sees
"They were celibate or they continued to really struggle with
homosexual desire or behavior," he said.
Many subjects, Dr. Schroeder said, had invested 5 to 15 years in the
therapies, and when they were not successful experienced "an inordinate
sense of loss."
Washington Post, May 9, 2001
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Studies on Gays Yield Conflicting Conclusions
Effectiveness of Efforts to Change Orientation Through Counseling Disputed
By Shankar Vedantam, Washington Post Staff Writer
A controversial study has found that some gay men and lesbians are
able to change their sexual orientation through psychotherapy or religious
counseling, while a second study has concluded that most who attempt such a
change fail and suffer lasting harm.
Robert L. Spitzer, a psychiatrist at Columbia University in New York,
interviewed 153 men and 47 women who reported that they had changed their
sexual orientation from homosexuality to heterosexuality after undergoing
counseling and had maintained the change for at least five years. Each was
asked about his or her sexual orientation, behavior and fantasies.
"The subjects' self-reports of change appear to be, by and large,
valid, rather than gross exaggerations, brain-washing or wishful thinking,"
said Spitzer in a summary of his paper, which will be presented today with
the second study at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric
Association, in New Orleans.
Spitzer cautioned that there is no information on whether such
changes were the exception or the norm. He also said the results of the
study "should not be misused to justify coercive treatment."
In the second study, conducted by New York City psychologists Ariel
Shidlo and Michael Schroeder, 202 gay men and lesbians who had been through
counseling were interviewed between 1995 and 2000 for an average of 90
minutes each. Of those, 178 failed to change their orientation, 18 reported
becoming asexual or conflicted, and six reported becoming heterosexual.
The majority were left with a mistrust for mental health
professionals and had to relearn how to form intimate relationships,
Schroeder said. He added that many reported being misled by the counseling
into thinking that homosexuality was caused by child abuse, bad parenting or
"There are some people who became very injured by failing the therapy
and entered a post-treatment reconstruction phase where they spent years
trying to recover from the process," said Schroeder in a telephone
interview. "There is a lot of self-blame."
American Psychiatric Association officials distanced the organization
yesterday from Spitzer's research and said there will be no change in the
association's conclusion that homosexuality is neither a mental disorder nor
a condition in need of "treatment."
"There are a group of people who think all homosexual behavior must
be changed and has to be changed and can be changed, and they try to impose
their values on [gay men and lesbians], which is inappropriate," said Daniel
Borenstein, association president and a psychiatrist at the University of
California at Los Angeles.
Since 1973, when the association reversed its position that
homosexuality was a mental disorder, all major medical groups have advised
against attempts to persuade gay men and lesbians to seek treatment, noting
that such attempts can be psychologically damaging. But some religious
groups have waged a campaign over the past three years to convert gays to
heterosexuality through counseling.
Advocates of conversion therapy seized on the findings of Spitzer,
who helped the psychiatric association end the classification of
homosexuality as a mental disorder.
"The very guy who had homosexuality removed from the list of mental
disorders concluded that some individuals who participate in sexual
reorientation therapy make sustained changes," said Janet Folger of the
Center for Reclaiming America.
Phil Hobizal, director of Portland Fellowship, an Oregon counseling
group for gay men and lesbians who are unhappy with their sexual
orientation, disputed the suggestion that such counseling causes harm.
"There are those people who did not find our program helpful and have chosen
to embrace their homosexuality, and we say they have the freedom to do
that," he said.
Scientists at the psychiatric meeting questioned Spitzer's
conclusions and the manner in which his study was conducted. They noted
that it did not follow patients over time, relying instead on their
"Many of the people were referred by therapists who gave the names to
Spitzer, and so the whole way in which these people were found is
problematic," said Marshall Forstein, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical
School. "Is there a cohort of people who were not referred because the
Gay rights advocates said that attempts to change gays' sexual
orientation have been rejected by the majority of Americans.
"It's simplistic and insulting to someone's intelligence to say you
can be completely straight or completely gay," said Cathy Renna, a
spokeswoman for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. "So many
factors come into who we are as individuals."