May 9, 2001 -- Can gay men and women become heterosexual?
A controversial new study says yes — if they really want to. Critics, though, say the study's subjects may be deluding themselves and that the subject group was scientifically invalid because many of them were referred by anti-gay religious groups.
Dr. Robert Spitzer, a psychiatry professor at Columbia University, said he began his study as a skeptic — believing, as major mental health organizations do, that sexual orientation cannot be changed, and attempts to do so can even cause harm.
But Spitzer's study, which has not yet been published or reviewed, seems to indicate otherwise. Spitzer says he spoke to 143 men and 57 women who say they changed their orientation from gay to straight, and concluded that 66 percent of the men and 44 percent of women reached what he called good heterosexual functioning — a sustained, loving heterosexual relationship within the past year and getting enough emotional satisfaction to rate at least a seven on a 10-point scale.
He said those who changed their orientation had satisfying heterosexual sex at least monthly and never or rarely thought of someone of the same sex during intercourse.
He also found that 89 percent of men and 95 percent of women were bothered not at all or only slightly by unwanted homosexual feelings. However, only 11 percent of men and 37 percent of women reported a complete absence of homosexual indicators.
"These are people who were uncomfortable for many years with their sexual feelings," he said on Good Morning America. But they managed to change those feelings, he added.
The study reopens the debate over "reparative therapy," or treatment to change sexual preference. Spitzer argues that highly motivated gays can in fact change that preference — with a lot of effort.
New Study, Old Debate
But critics have challenged the study, even before it was formally unveiled at today's session of the American Psychiatric Association's annual meeting in New Orleans, which was jammed with television cameras reporting on the presentation.
Another study presented today even contradicted the finding. Ariel Shidlo and Michael Shroeder, two psychologists in private practice in New York City, found that of 215 homosexual subjects who received therapy to change their sexual orientation, the majority failed to do so.
A small subset reported feeling helped.
That study has also not been published or reviewed.
Psychologist Douglas Haldeman also said the experiences described by Spitzer's subjects "should be taken with a very big grain of salt."
The people in Spitzer's sample, he said, may be fooling themselves.
"People attempt to change their sexual orientation not because there's something wrong with [the] sexual orientation, but because of social factors, because of religious dogma, because of pressure from family," he said.
"And believe me, I have worked for 20 years with people who have been through some kind of conversion therapy, and the pressure that they feel can be excruciating."
Hurt by Therapy
Spitzer doesn't question that many gay people have been hurt by therapy.
"There's no doubt that many homosexuals who have been unsuccessful and, attempting to change, become depressed and their life becomes worse," he said. "I'm not disputing that. What I am disputing is that is invariably the outcome."
In fact, he said, many of his subjects had been despondent and even suicidal themselves, for the opposite reason — "precisely because they had previously thought there was no hope for them, and they had been told by many mental health professionals that there was no hope for them, they had to just learn to live with their homosexual feelings."
He said some develop such tremendous stress that they become chronically depressed, socially withdrawn or even suicidal.
But Spitzer says his study shows that some homosexuals making some effort, usually for a few years, make the change.
Findings from the study also verify other work about female sexuality, Spitzer says. "We found that women in our sample moved from a less extreme homosexual to a more heterosexual level than did men," Spitzer says. "Now that's actually what you might expect from the literature. It is known that female sexuality is more fluid.
"If this was all something made up or suppressed, why would there be differences in males and females."
A Religious-leaning Sample?
Haldeman, however, noted that some 43 percent of those sampled were referred by religious groups that condemn homosexuality. Another 23 percent were referred by the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, which says most of its members consider homosexuality a developmental disorder.
"The sample is terrible, totally tainted, totally unrepresentative of the gay and lesbian community," said David Elliot, a spokesman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Washington.
But Spitzer says while the people in his sample were unusual — more religious than the general population — it doesn't mean their experiences can be dismissed. And, he said, it doesn't mean they aren't telling the truth.
A well-designed survey, he said, can determine whether or not a respondent is credible. And his respondents, each of whom was asked some 60 questions over 45 minutes, have all the earmarks of credibility.
In fact, he said, to dismiss his survey would be to dismiss an awful lot of psychological and psychiatric research. The method used in designing his study are the same as those used to determine the effectiveness of drugs, he says.
"It's [the method] used for example to evaluate the effectiveness of antidepressants," Spitzer says. "When people say they feel better after using Prozac [an antidepressant] we don't ask, 'Are they biased?'"
He said he asked very detailed questions not only about sexual attraction, but about fantasies during masturbation and sex, and yearnings for romantic and emotional involvement with the same sex and a variety of other variables that indicate sexual orientation.
"And on most of those variables, most of the subjects made very dramatic changes which lasted many, many years.
Battling an Agenda?
Rick McKinnon, who is openly gay and works as an editor at the weekly Seattle Gay News, is concerned the study results can be used to forward an anti-gay agenda.
"Conservative, anti-gay, anti-diversity folks are going to embrace it and they're gonna use it for their own agenda to push their point of view that, yes, you don't need equality in American society for gay people because they can change," he said. "And I think that's so bogus."
But Spitzer — who described himself as a "Jewish, atheist, secular humanist" with no axe to grind — says maybe there are gays who are happy being gay and ex-gays who are happy being straight, and that both sides deserve more respect.
Ironically, Spitzer had until now been something of a hero in the gay community. In the early 1970s, he spearheaded the effort to get homosexuality removed from the American Psychiatric Association's list of mental disorders.
ABCNEWS Radio contributed to this report.