Ex-gay Research: Analyzing the Spitzer Study And Its Relation to Science, Religion

by Jay Laird

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday June 30, 2006

Ex-gay Research: Analyzing the Spitzer Study And Its Relation to Science, Religion

In 1973, Robert Spitzer was instrumental in the removal of homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the official guide to diagnosis of mental illness from the American Psychiatric Association. In 1999, Spitzer embarked on a new mission: to prove that homosexuality could, in some cases, be "corrected". The funny thing is, he still supports gay rights, including the freedom to marry; his intention was to support the rights of a small minority of people who now feel persecuted for their claims that they are "reformed" homosexuals.

This evaluation of the now-infamous Spitzer study can't really be rated in a way that will predict whether or not you'll like it. It's not about "like" or "dislike"; it's more about comprehensiveness. And comprehensiveness it has in spades!

There are over 340 pages about the study from every angle: political, religious, scientific, and cultural. Probably 75% of the pages are devoted to deconstructing (in this case truly a polite word for "tearing apart") the study. Few pages are devoted to actual support of the study, and those pages come from fairly predictable sources, such as the founder of "reparative therapy" group NARTH (National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality).

The study itself is reprinted in the book, along with most of the material from the Archives of Sexual Behavior journal in which it was originally published. An entire issue of the Archives had to be devoted to the subject due to its controversial nature: 26 experts were invited to respond to the essay at the time of its publication, and many of these responses were included in the original publication. The reactions of the experts can be canvassed by the range of their titles: from the deeply academic Reparative Science and Social Responsibility: The Concept of a Malleable Core As Theoretical Challenge and Psychological Comfort" to the straightforward "Too Flawed: Don't Publish.

A few additional chapters not reprinted from the Archives further illuminate the subject matter, most notably one entitled Political Science". Written by Wayne Beson, a friend of Spitzer's who works for the Human Rights Campaign, the article discusses how HRC "warned" Spitzer not to publish his study. Unfortunately, according to this article, Spitzer was so caught up in helping another (as he saw it) "oppressed group" that he didn't think about the political Pandora's box he was about to open.

While Spitzer's 1973 work was based on casual conversation with gay political activists who convinced him to change his mind about homosexuality, and Spitzer never tried to pretend it was anything otherwise, his 1999 work is presented as an actual "study". However, the fatal flaw is easy enough to see: if someone doesn't want to be gay, then of course they're more likely to convince themselves that they have been successfully treated. The counterargument, that someone who wants to be gay might be able to trick himself into thinking he is, has, in the past, had an easy answer: "Who would choose to be gay?" But now, in the age of Will and Grace and Massachusetts marriages, is it really that far of a stretch to imagine someone being "attracted" to the gay "lifestyle?"

This is the fear that conservative groups play upon: it's become "too easy" to be gay, so of course more people are doing it! They tout the few people who have "recovered" from homosexuality, lauding them as "heroes" - but of course, plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests that few of these so-called heroes can even manage to stay on their own pedestals. And, for that matter, why should we even be worrying about whether homosexuality "can" be changed? Another new book, Evolution's Rainbow, suggests that homosexuality is found in over 450 species, and that it develops more often in socially sophisticated animals. Maybe there's something to the "queer elite" after all!

Spitzer's study is, as the contributors to this book will tell you repeatedly, flawed in many ways, and therefore it shouldn't have been more than a small blip on the political radar. However, the decision to publish an entire volume of archives of Sexual Behavior around the subject, brought it far more unwarranted attention. The fact that it was Spitzer, who seemed to be "flip-flopping" after a quarter century, didn't help, either. Some speculate that Spitzer, now 70, wanted to make one more big splash before the end of his career, and that he chose to do so with a very high dive.

The volume ends with an interview of Spitzer by one of the book's editors, Jack Drescher. In this interview, Spitzer somewhat ruefully admits that he didn't present his data well, but he never says that he regrets doing the study. He's had a heck of a time doing damage control, not only fending off attacks against his work, but also attacks on the gay community using his work. The study was actually brought in as evidence against the expansion of marriage to include gay couples in Finland, but to his credit, Spitzer got involved in making sure that the study was not misinterpreted in that case.

Ex-gay Research: Analyzing the Spitzer Study And Its Relation to Science, Religion is an interesting collection. It isn't the sort of thing one can read straight through (unless you really love footnotes, square brackets, and lengthy embedded citations), but it's worth dipping in to if you want to understand the complexities of science in modern politics. This volume is the perfect companion (and antidote) to the whole "Intelligent Design" debate: if nothing else, you'll come away from this book with a better idea of how bad data can deceive even the most scrupulous of scientists. Although I pick on its dryness and redundancy, it is far more readable than many other scientific texts (even some "pop science" texts), and it covers far too important a subject to be ignored entirely.

$34.95, paperback; $49.95, hardcover (Harrington Park Press)

When he's not writing reviews, Jay Laird writes games, comics, and the occasional Z-grade suspense film like "The Strangler's Wife". He is the founder of Metaversal Studios, a Boston-based entertainment company.