Frail and aged, a giant apologizes

A leading figure in the study of homosexuality recently recanted his belief that some gays can change. There was no need to apologize, says a Dutch psychologist.
Gerard van den Aardweg | 31 May 2012
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Supporters of same-sex marriage notched up a public relations coup earlier this month with the news that Dr Robert Spitzer had recanted his views on the possibility of changing a homosexual orientation. “Psychiatry Giant Sorry for Backing Gay ‘Cure’” was the front-page headline in the New York Times.

Spitzer was indeed a giant. In 1973 he was responsible for deleting homosexuality from an official list of psychiatric disorders. Over the next few decades this effectively normalised homosexual behaviour. But in 2003, something unexpected happened. He published a study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior which showed that some homosexuals could change. He immediately became a traitor to the gay community and a hero for social conservatives.

But now Dr Spitzer, who has just turned 80 and is suffering from Parkinson’s disease, has repudiated this study. He has just published a letter of apology in the Archives of Sexual Behavior: “I believe I owe the gay community an apology for my study making unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy,” he wrote. “I also apologize to any gay person who wasted time and energy undergoing some form of reparative therapy because they believed that I had proven that reparative therapy works with some ‘highly motivated’ individuals.”

The gay community and the New York Times have hailed the letter as a devastating blow to the notion that homosexuals can change. A leading gay advocacy website, ThinkProgress, declared that “Any organization that claims his prior work as valid proof that sexual orientation can be changed is lying with malicious — and harmful— intent.”  

What’s the real story? MercatorNet interviewed Gerard van den Aardweg, a Dutch psychologist who has written extensively on homosexuality.

MercatorNet: Were you surprised by Dr Spitzer’s apology to the gay community?

Gerard van den Aardweg: At first, yes. But after a short while, not very much, for the following reasons.

Some time after his 2003 article I had a conversation with him on the telephone. I asked him if he would continue his research, or even if he would try to guide a few people with homosexual problems and who sought “alternative” professional help, that is, help and support to change as much as possible from homosexual to heterosexual interests.

In his interviews with people who had walked along that path, he certainly had learned a lot, among other things, the great need among many homosexually inclined persons for this kind of help. I felt that Dr Spitzer was the kind of psychiatrist who could do much good for some of these persons. So why not give it a try?

His reply was adamant. No, he would never touch the whole subject ever again. He had nearly broken down emotionally after terrible personal attacks from militant gays and their supporters. There was an outpouring of hatred.

A man can indeed be broken by such a traumatizing experience. At the time, I thought that his stance was perhaps not the most courageous one, but it was certainly understandable. After all, his cautious recognition of the reality of changes in some people with a homosexual orientation already represented an enormous about-face. He had been one of the leading figures of the lobby which in 1973 succeeded in normalizing the definition of homosexuality in the Diagnostic Manual of the American Psychiatric Association. Now the hero of the gay movement had suddenly become a Judas.

But fear is seldom a good counsellor. My guess is that Dr Spitzer in 2003 only dabbled in the water, because he didn’t dare to dive. Unfortunately, his neutral, withdrawn attitude towards the subject of homosexuality did not protect him from fierce pressure to distance himself from his “betrayal”.

In psychiatric and psychological circles it is already very difficult for an ordinary professional to maintain himself and endure hostility, taunting, and marginalization if it becomes known that he or she thinks homosexuality is a disturbance (of whatever sort) and not irreversibly programmed. For a prominent psychiatrist as Dr Spitzer, with his gay-friendly past, this must have been a torment.

So this is my surmise. Not having the conviction and inner dynamic to wholly convert to the pre-1973 position that homosexuality is disordered sexuality, he finally succumbed to pressure.

MercatorNet: Does Dr Spitzer’s recantation really deliver a devastating blow to “ex-gay” organisations and prove that reparative therapy is 20th century snake oil?

I don’t think it is such a serious setback. In the world of ex-gays it is a well-known phenomenon that persons who at first were enthusiastic later feel disillusioned. They might feel that change is not as rapid or deep as they wanted, or they come to doubt whether it is worth all the effort, or they have too superficial an understanding of the emotional and personality or character malformation underlying same-sex attractions.

That is true for people with same-sex attractions (SSA) themselves and sometimes for professionals. I could illustrate this with the case of a Dutch psychiatrist who, though in his heart believing SSA is a psychological disturbance, yet, in a stressful period in his life, publicly regretted his former “disturbance” statements.

In any case, Dr Spitzer has not said that his observations and impressions about change in the individuals he interviewed were false, or that they had lied to him. In his article, he himself brought up this hypothesis, but he was convinced what he heard was on the whole reliable. 

His retraction does not change his results and his results are the only thing that counts. This whole retraction affair is in fact merely a question of media manipulation, not a matter of science. Some nuclear scientists may have regretted their work when they saw its consequences in the field of nuclear weaponry. However the knowledge they acquired was not affected by their regret. (In Dr Spitzer’s case, the results were in fact benign, of course.)

Apart from all this, the need of many persons troubled by SSA is so persistent and universal, as is the common sense insight that something is amiss with homosexuality, that therapy and other constructive efforts will always go on -- if not within academic psychology and psychiatry, then outside of it.

MercatorNet: In his brief letter to the Archives of Sexual Behavior, Dr Spitzer mentions two serious flaws in his 2003 study – that the study design was flawed and that memories of change are scientifically unreliable. Do you think that the study was really flawed?

That the design was flawed is not a new argument. Spitzer made it crystal-clear in his original article that he only wanted to call the attention to the fact that “some” people can deeply change from homosexuality to heterosexuality. The fact that he interviewed volunteers from the ex-gay and therapeutic community was clearly stated.

Now he says his selection was flawed (as in fact are all selections of SSA people in the literature!). But what does this mean? That “I did not demonstrate that all homosexuals can radically change”? No one has ever maintained that. That “Some people with SSA do radically change and others, and more than one of them, substantially change”? That is what he found, no more, no less. His remarks on the skewed distribution of his sample do not invalidate this conclusion.

Memories of change are unreliable? What does he mean?

That, for instance, people who were “profoundly changed” were fantasizing about their past emotions and conflicts? Then his remark is the same as the standard gay contention that those who are changed have never been “really” homosexual.

Well, in that case he proved in 2003 that efforts to change at least can free troubled people from the “delusion” that they were homosexual, and from the concomitants of such delusions, like same-sex cruising, obsessions, partnerships etc. This implies that we need to define homosexual orientation as a same-sex attraction that can never change. Which also implies that you need to have sustained efforts to change to know whether your SSA is real or pseudo.

I do not believe Dr Spitzer believes this argument himself.

A few years ago, I sent him a report on an ex-lesbian woman who after many years was still completely free of same-sex feelings whatsoever, even though she had severely suffered from them until in her mid-30s. Of course Dr Spitzer did not reply that she had merely imagined the infatuations, lesbian jealousies, erotic obsessions, depressions, inferiority feelings and so on. He found the story very interesting, but he asked “but how frequently does this occur?” A good question, of course, but however rare it may be, the reality of her memories (as examined by a sceptical psychiatrist) is beyond doubt.

Suppose memories of former sexual (or other emotional) states cannot be trusted. This means that an enormous part of psychological and psychiatric research, where memories play a role, should be rejected. Naturally, memories of one’s previous sexual life can be inexact, exaggerated, distorted, and embellished. But there is no justification for the contention that in principle they are untrustworthy. Dr Spitzer is clearly seeking a “scientific” justification for his recantation.

MercatorNet: When he published the original article, some psychiatrists invoked the Nuremberg Code of ethics to denounce it as morally wrong. Was it? 

Morally wrong? Not at all. The idea that psychotherapy or other counselling procedures in cases of SSA and studies of their effects in clients or patients who voluntarily participated in such interventions violates a person’s integrity is simply bizarre. There is a stronger case for saying that propaganda for homosexual promiscuity among minors (with consequences such as STDs, HIV infection, enhanced suicide risks, and much psychological misery) is profoundly unethical.

MercatorNet: I’m a bit puzzled by the public attention given to Dr Spitzer’s change of heart. The original article seemed to make a fairly modest point – that it is possible for some homosexuals to change their orientation after some form of reparative therapy. What’s so disturbing about that?

You are right. And I think most ordinary people will see it that way. The whole thing is a media beat-up to support the agenda of the gay movement and the social and political powers that want to impose it on the population. In the US, gay marriage has become a hot political issue. For supporters, it is a PR coup when a prominent psychiatrist like Dr Spitzer suggests he has found evidence for the two gay dogmas: you are born that way and you cannot change.

MercatorNet: New York University constitutional law professor Kenji Yoshino has claimed that Spitzer’s recantation shows that homosexual orientation is immutable. If this is the case, then any form of discrimination against gays will be illegal, just like race, sex, non-marital parentage, and so on. Your comments?

Professor Yoshino confabulates. Dr Spitzer has not contended, let alone proven, that homosexuality is immutable. He only tries to relativize his results. If it were immutable, no conclusion could reasonably be drawn about its legal, moral, or whatever status. The comparison with race, sex, etc. has not a leg to stand on. Allegedly immutable traits, attitudes, or orientations that you are born with can still be disturbances or defects. Would Professor Yoshino advocate the same for people with “immutable” inclinations towards paedophilia, for instance?

MercatorNet: My impression is that very little is known about changes in sexual orientation. But now people are afraid to discuss the topic. Is that the case?

There is much more knowledge and experience in this field than most people realize. Too often it appears that we are groping in the dark regarding the causes, dynamics, and change-possibilities of homosexuality. That is certainly untrue. There is a lot of solid insight and there is a body of well-established facts.

As for change, the Spitzer statistics still belong to this pool of evidence. Profound and lasting changes do occur in a minority of people who make prolonged efforts. Substantial improvements happen more often. Other studies give about the same picture. These are modest results, but hopeful.

People do fear to express their opinions about homosexual behaviour. Professionals fear dissenting from the prescribed ideological “wisdom” about homosexuality. Politicians fear to say anything in public that would irritate the gay community, etc. The ideology of militant gays is being imposed on the West. It implies that the search for the truth about homosexuality, its causes and changeability, has almost become a forbidden activity.

Gerard van den Aardweg is a Dutch psychologist who specialises in homosexuality and marital problems. 

This article is published by Gerard van den Aardweg and MercatorNet.com under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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