The author of the controversial study on ‘conversion therapy’ for gay men and lesbians, Dr Robert Spitzer, has issued an apology to the gay community, and to those who underwent so-called ‘gay cure therapies,’ for having made the study public in the first place.

The apology is contained in a letter, addressed to Dr Ken Zucker, obtained by the website, Truth Wins Out. The full text of the letter can be found at the bottom of this article.

Earlier this month, Dr Spitzer had, in an interview with American Prospect, said that he would like to retract the study which had claimed that ‘highly motivated’ gay people can ‘become’ straight.

In 2001, Dr Spitzer presented the controversial paper “Can Some Gay Men and Lesbians Change Their Sexual Orientation? 200 Participants Reporting a Change from Homosexual to Heterosexual Orientation”, a study which looked at those who attended gay ‘cure’ therapy.

The American Psychological Association distanced itself from the study, which said 66% of the men and 44% of the women Spitzer spoke to had achieved “good heterosexual functioning” after seeking therapy for their sexual orientation.

To meet the required standard of “heterosexual functioning”, Dr Spitzer, who was ironically enough instrumental in declassifying homosexuality as a disorder in the US in 1973, measured them against five criteria.

Former patients needed to be in a loving heterosexual relationship during the last year, have overall satisfaction in emotional relationship with a partner, have heterosexual sex a few times a month, achieve physical satisfaction through heterosexual sex, and not think about another person of their sex more than 15% of the time they were sleeping with an opposite sex partner.

The paper was later published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior and had become the subject of widespread criticism. The study’s sampling methods were commented upon, as most subjects, 66 percent, were referred by ex-gay ministries and the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality. 93 percent had been motivated to attend therapy by religious feeling.

The study was also criticised for not examining the risk of self-deception on the part of the respondents, for not having a control group and no set ‘treatment’ to compare a control group with.

In the interview with Gabriel Arana of the American Prospect, he admitted that earlier critiques of his study were “largely correct.” He added: “The findings can be considered evidence for what those who have undergone ex-gay therapy say about it, but nothing more.”

The full-text of the letter, obtained by Truth Wins Out, is given below:

Several months ago I told you that because of my revised view of my 2001 study of reparative therapy changing sexual orientation, I was considering writing something that would acknowledge that I now judged the major critiques of the study as largely correct. After discussing my revised view of the study with Gabriel Arana, a reporter for American Prospect, and with Malcolm Ritter, an Associated Press science writer, I decided that I had to make public my current thinking about the study. Here it is.

Basic Research Question. From the beginning it was: “can some version of reparative therapy enable individuals to change their sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual?” Realizing that the study design made it impossible to answer this question, I suggested that the study could be viewed as answering the question, “how do individuals undergoing reparative therapy describe changes in sexual orientation?” – a not very interesting question.

The Fatal Flaw in the Study – There was no way to judge the credibility of subject reports of change in sexual orientation. I offered several (unconvincing) reasons why it was reasonable to assume that the subject’s reports of change were credible and not self-deception or outright lying. But the simple fact is that there was no way to determine if the subject’s accounts of change were valid.

I believe I owe the gay community an apology for my study making unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy. 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.

Robert Spitzer. M.D.
Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry,
Columbia University