Storm over gay 'cure'

October 3, 2003

The publication of research that claims psychiatric therapy can turn gay people heterosexual has sparked uproar in academe.

Bitter recriminations, attacks on the journal carrying the work and resignations from international organisations have greeted the new issue of the Archives of Sexual Behavior .

The study contradicts the widely held belief that sexual orientation cannot change. Critics of the study have highlighted flaws in its methodology, alleged that it ignores ethical concerns and said it could stoke anti-gay sentiments.

But Robert Spitzer, distinguished professor of psychiatry at Columbia University in the US, defended what he said was the first systematic study of the experiences of people who believed reparative therapy had changed them. "It questions the politically correct view that once you're gay that's it and suggests that there is more flexibility than many people have assumed," he said.

Professor Spitzer interviewed 200 "ex-gays" who volunteered for the study via reparative therapy organisations. All reported some change as a result of therapy. Most - 78 per cent of the men and 95 per cent of the women - said it had made them predominantly or exclusively heterosexual. Professor Spitzer accepted that such cases were probably rare.

Although most reparative therapists believe same-sex attraction reflects a developmental disorder, Professor Spitzer, who was pivotal in removing homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association's list of mental disorders in 1973, insisted he was not anti-gay. But he did admit that gay activists would find this study "threatening" while Christian fundamentalists would be "delighted". He said its political interpretation had to be viewed separately from its scholarly worth.

The academic response has been mostly hostile.

One sceptic is Qazi Rahman, a lecturer in psychobiology at the University of East London who last week published evidence that sexual orientation was "hard-wired" before birth. "I strongly doubt whether these individuals' underlying 'core' sexual orientations have changed," he said.

After Professor Spitzer's paper was rejected by the American Journal of Psychiatry , the Archives of Sexual Behavior agreed to carry it with open peer commentaries from 42 experts. Two-thirds of them were critical of it.

One member of the International Academy of Sex Research, which supports the journal, resigned in protest. Other academics have openly criticised the decision.

Kenneth Zucker, editor of the journal, said he was disappointed by academic attempts to "censor" the research. He said the journal was the ideal forum to debate controversial issues.

Lawrence Hartmann, professor of psychiatry at Harvard University and a past president of the American Psychiatric Association, insisted that the paper was too flawed to publish and was likely to cause harm. "For all its dignified-looking data, scientific journal format and partial disclaimers, it is in essence irresponsible and unscientific," he said. He noted that there was no control for self-delusion or deception in the study participants.

The volunteers' strong Christian beliefs might provide ideological pressure to give misleading statements, academics noted.

Milton Wainberg, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia, was among those who had tried to persuade Professor Spitzer not to publish.

He said: "I'm angry that just because he is Spitzer, he gets to publish this poorly designed study that overlooks harm with total disregard for the consequence of validating a homophobic, stigmatising treatment that aims at attacking homosexuality."

He complained that no account was taken of the psychological damage that, in his experience, reparative therapy could cause.

Peter Tatchell, a leading British gay activist, said: "Everyone I have spoken to who has been through this so-called treatment says that it has not only failed to convert them to heterosexuality but it has also caused them immense psychological and emotional harm."

But Dean Byrd, clinical professor at the University of Utah School of Medicine, said Professor Spitzer's courage had broken a barrier of silence to start a long overdue debate. "A commitment to the basic civil rights of gays and lesbians does not require a belief in the false notion that homosexuality is fixed in all people," he said.

Martin Daly, assistant director of the UK-based True Freedom Trust, an "orthodox Christian" charity that helps people "struggling with homosexuality", welcomed the work. "We have folk who have lived an active homosexual life but then go on to get married and live happily ever after."

But Martin Milton, a member of the British Psychological Society's gay and lesbian section, said: "You have to ask what on earth is the gain of trying to overturn someone's sexual orientation?"

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