Studies on Gays Yield Conflicting Conclusions
Effectiveness of Efforts to Change Orientation Through Counseling Disputed
By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 9, 2001; Page A13
A controversial study has found that some gay men and lesbians are able to change their sexual orientation through psychotherapy or religious counseling, while a second study has concluded that most who attempt such a change fail and suffer lasting harm.
Robert L. Spitzer, a psychiatrist at Columbia University in New York, interviewed 153 men and 47 women who reported that they had changed their sexual orientation from homosexuality to heterosexuality after undergoing counseling and had maintained the change for at least five years. Each was asked about his or her sexual orientation, behavior and fantasies.
"The subjects' self-reports of change appear to be, by and large, valid, rather than gross exaggerations, brain-washing or wishful thinking," said Spitzer in a summary of his paper, which will be presented today with the second study at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, in New Orleans.
Spitzer cautioned that there is no information on whether such changes were the exception or the norm. He also said the results of the study "should not be misused to justify coercive treatment."
In the second study, conducted by New York City psychologists Ariel Shidlo and Michael Schroeder, 202 gay men and lesbians who had been through counseling were interviewed between 1995 and 2000 for an average of 90 minutes each. Of those, 178 failed to change their orientation, 18 reported becoming asexual or conflicted, and six reported becoming heterosexual.
The majority were left with a mistrust for >>> END COLUMN < mental health professionals and had to relearn how to form intimate relationships, Schroeder said. He added that many reported being misled by the counseling into thinking that homosexuality was caused by child abuse, bad parenting or a disorder.
"There are some people who became very injured by failing the therapy and entered a post-treatment reconstruction phase where they spent years trying to recover from the process," said Schroeder in a telephone interview. "There is a lot of self-blame."
American Psychiatric Association officials distanced the organization yesterday from Spitzer's research and said there will be no change in the association's conclusion that homosexuality is neither a mental disorder nor a condition in need of "treatment."
"There are a group of people who think all homosexual behavior must be changed and has to be changed and can be changed, and they try to impose their values on [gay men and lesbians], which is inappropriate," said Daniel Borenstein, association president and a psychiatrist at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Since 1973, when the association reversed its position that homosexuality was a mental disorder, all major medical groups have advised against attempts to persuade gay men and lesbians to seek treatment, noting that such attempts can be psychologically damaging. But some religious groups have waged a campaign over the past three years to convert gays to heterosexuality through counseling.
Advocates of conversion therapy seized on the findings of Spitzer, who helped the psychiatric association end the classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder.
"The very guy who had homosexuality removed from the list of mental disorders concluded that some individuals who participate in sexual reorientation therapy make sustained changes," said Janet Folger of the Center for Reclaiming America.
Phil Hobizal, director of Portland Fellowship, an Oregon counseling group for gay men and lesbians who are unhappy with their sexual orientation, disputed the suggestion that such counseling causes harm. "There are those people who did not find our program helpful and have chosen to embrace their homosexuality, and we say they have the freedom to do that," he said.
Scientists at the psychiatric meeting questioned Spitzer's conclusions and the manner in which his study was conducted. They noted that it did not follow patients over time, relying instead on their memories.
"Many of the people were referred by therapists who gave the names to Spitzer, and so the whole way in which these people were found is problematic," said Marshall Forstein, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. "Is there a cohort of people who were not referred because the treatment failed?"
Gay rights advocates said that attempts to change gays' sexual orientation have been rejected by the majority of Americans.
"It's simplistic and insulting to someone's intelligence to say you can be completely straight or completely gay," said Cathy Renna, a spokeswoman for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. "So many factors come into who we are as individuals."
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