What do John Paulk, Jeremy Marks and Wade Richards have in common? They were
all high profile “ex-gays” who came out of the closet in the past year – or
in Paulk’s case, was photographed at a gay bar in Washington. If there is
one known fact about “ex-gays,” it is that one cannot always take their
stories of “change” at face value.
In light of the double lives of prominent “ex-gays,” it seems
questionable to conduct a “scientific” study on whether people can “change”
their sexual orientation – if it is based solely on their testimonies. Yet
this is exactly what psychologist Dr. Robert Spitzer did. Moreover, many of
his 200 subjects were involved upon the referral of several virulently
anti-gay political groups.
The most obvious flaw in Spitzer’s study was the clear role played
by these groups. The “ex-gay” ministries referred 43 percent of the subjects
to Spitzer. The anti-gay National Association for the Research and Therapy
of Homosexuality referred 23 percent. Unbelievably, among the subjects were
right-wing activists and lobbyists. For example, anti-gay activist Anthony
Falzarano, who has lobbied against gay civil rights legislation in Maine,
Louisiana, Maryland as well as in countless major media appearances, was
among the 200 participants in Spitzer’s study. Falzarano told CBS News that
Satan “uses homosexuals as pawns and then he kills them.” Surely, reasonable
people can agree that Spitzer’s inclusion of Falzarano is not a reasonable
step toward conducting an objective scientific study.
“His sampling method was totally inadequate,” Dr. Lawrence Hartmann, a
professor at Harvard and a longtime researcher on homosexuality told
Newsday. “For 30 years, Bob Spitzer may have been considered a careful
researcher. But with this study, he no longer is. It is far from good
A year ago, the Human Rights Campaign urged Spitzer in a letter to use
objective physical measures in determining whether his subjects were still
attracted to the same sex. Why did he decline? Is it because he did not want
objective data to get in the way?
Spitzer and his allies on the political right claim that the new study shows
that sexual orientation in some “highly motivated” people may be changeable.
But the results show quite the opposite. Even though study participants were
a hand-selected sample of activists — with 78 percent having spoken out
publicly about conversion therapy — only 17 percent of the men and 55
percent of the women characterized themselves as 100percent heterosexual
after at least five years of therapy. Additionally, 56 percent of the men
and 18 percent of the women still said they fantasized about the same sex.
Most people would not objectively define these people as straight.
Anti-gay activists have long claimed that tens of thousands of people have
gone from gay to straight. But after a review of the most “successful” 200
cases, it is clear that the failure rate of conversion therapy is
extraordinarily high. This is why Spitzer acknowledged having “great
difficulty” in finding non-religious therapists able to refer clients whom
had successfully changed their sexual orientation.
It is also unclear whether many of the study’s subjects are actually gay.
Forty percent of the men and 60 percent of the women acknowledged some
attraction to the opposite sex before therapy. Twenty percent of the male
participants and 40 percent of females had little or no sexual attraction to
the same sex as teens.
What is clear is that most of the subjects were under extreme duress. And
they may have been coerced into claiming they were heterosexuals. Further,
a disproportionate number — 37 percent — of them were suicidal before
therapy. Religious pressure also figured prominent in attempts to change —
93 percent of the subjects said that religion was extremely important in
Another study released this week, by Ariel Shidlo and Michael
Schroeder, represents a more realistic picture of conversion therapy
efforts. The New York psychologists studied 202 subjects who tried to change
their sexual orientation, and found that 97 percent failed to change in any
meaningful way. And of the 3 percent who claimed to have fully changed, all
but one made their living as “conversion” counselors, thus reflecting
Until society is free from anti-gay prejudice, people will feel compelled or
be coerced into attempting to change. And they will claim success even if it
has failed to occur. While new research on this controversial subject is
welcome, Spitzer’s study does not further enhance the current debate in any
substantial or meaningful way. It only offers an unscientific study that is
long on right-wing political influence and woefully short of objective data.