A winding road from gay to straight. Can sexual orientation be changed? New study raises issues of conversion, coercion and research ethics

MSNBC, May 8, 2001 http://www.msnbc.com/news/570602.asp By Wayne Beson [sic: Besen], SPECIAL TO MSNBC.COM    

     WASHINGTON ¡X If there is one known fact about the conservative forces
that promote the idea that gay people can be ¡§cured¡¨ of their sexual
orientation, it is that their high-profile spokespeople have a way of seeming
duplicitous.  Most recently, it was Focus on the Family¡¦s John Paulk,
director of the conservative Christian organization¡¦s efforts to convert
gays, Paulk once graced the cover of Newsweek with his ¡§ex-lesbian¡¨ wife.  
Paulk was disciplined by his organization late last year after he was spotted
at a Washington gay bar.    
     Is it possible to truly change your sexual orientation?  A
controversial new study raises more questions than answers.
     In light of the double lives and double-talk exhibited by Paulk and
other prominent ¡§ex-gays,¡¨ it would seem absurd to base research on their
testimonies.  But that is exactly what Columbia University psychiatry
professor Dr. Robert Spitzer did in a new study, announced today, which
claims that it is possible for highly motivated gay people to change their
sexual orientation.
     Trouble is, the names of many of the 200 people in Spitzer¡¦s telephone
survey who claimed to have been transformed from gay to straight were
supplied by virulently anti-gay political groups.
     A year ago, the Human Rights Campaign urged Spitzer in a letter to use
objective physical measures to determine if his subjects were still attracted
to same-sex partners.  He declined, we believe, because he did not want
objective data to get in the way of his subjective and biased study.
    Aside from a tainted sample supplied by right-wing political extremists,
Spitzer¡¦s personal beliefs may have affected his conclusions.  At a press
conference last year with representatives from the Family Research Council
and Focus on the Family, Spitzer said he was against gay adoption, gay
marriage and opposed to gays serving openly in the military.         
     Spitzer and his allies on the political right claim that this study
shows that sexual orientation in some ¡§highly motivated¡¨ people may be
changeable, but the results actually show quite the opposite.  Even though
study participants were a hand-picked sample of activists ¡X with 78 percent
having spoken out publicly about conversion therapy ¡X only 17 percent of the
men and 55 percent of the women said they were 100 percent heterosexual after
at least five years of therapy.  Additionally, 56 percent of the men and 18
percent of the women said they still fantasized about partners of the same
sex.  Most observers would not objectively define these people as ¡§straight.¡¨
     Anti-gay activists have long claimed that tens of thousands of people
have gone from gay to straight.  But after a review of the most ¡§successful¡¨
200 cases they could provide, the failure rate of conversion therapy appears
extraordinarily high.  This is why Spitzer admitted having extreme difficulty
finding non-religious therapists who could provide his study with clients who
had successfully changed sexual orientations.         
     It is also unclear whether many of the people in the study are actually
lesbian or gay.  54 percent of the men and 67 percent of the women studied
admitted to having had heterosexual experiences before they entered therapy.  
20 percent of the participants were already married before therapy.  And 40
percent of the men and 60 percent of the women acknowledged some attraction
to the opposite sex before therapy.  20 percent of the male participants and
40 percent of females reported having little or no sexual attraction to the
same sex as teenagers.
     What is clear is that most of the participants were under extreme
duress and may have been coerced into claiming they were heterosexuals.  A
disproportionate number ¡X 37 percent ¡X of the individuals who took part in
this study were suicidal before therapy.  Religious pressure also figured
prominent[ly] in attempts to change, with 93 percent of subjects saying that
religion was ¡§extremely important¡¨ in their lives.
     Until society is free from anti-gay prejudice, some people will feel
compelled or coerced into attempting to change and claim success, even if
that has not occurred.  While new research on this controversial subject is
welcome, Spitzer¡¦s new study does not further enhance the current debate in
any substantial or meaningful way.  It only offers an unscientific,
politically motivated and personally biased study that is long on right-wing
political influence and woefully short of objective data.
     • Wayne Besen is associate director of communications at the Human
Rights Campaign, the nation¡¦s largest lesbian and gay advocacy organization