Spitzer, Zucker, And Reparative Therapy: Ex And Pre-Gay

Something remarkable happened last week in the scientific community, and the story is unfolding, finally being picked up by the mainstream media via Rachel Maddow of MSNBC in her April 18th interview with Gabriel Arana. In ‘My So-Called Ex-Gay Life,’ Arana wrote a moving account of his own horrific experiences with ex-gay ‘reparative’ therapy, the Christian Right’s ‘treatment’ intended to make homosexuals ‘go straight.’ Arana reports that Robert Spitzer, whose defense of ex-gay counseling in 2003 fueled far right Christian homophobes, now wants to ‘retract’  his original article.  Moreover, Spitzer is said to have asked the Editor of the Archives of Sexual Behavior for such a retraction and was refused.
The Editor of the Archives is Ken Zucker. Yes, the same Zucker who is head of the sex/gender work group for the  upcoming fifth revision of psychiatry’s ‘Bible,’ the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). The same Ken Zucker who practices ‘reparative therapy’ of his own. Only Zucker’s is not ‘ex-gay’ therapy, it’s ‘pre-gay’ – he works with gender variant children and tells parents if they enforce strict gender role adherence in their child they may be able to prevent transgenderism, if not homosexuality. He is sometimes called ‘throw away the Barbies’ Zucker.

Arana’s assertion is pretty shocking, if Spitzer is being quoted correctly, and it raised some controversy in the blogosphere. For a day Zucker and the Archives did not respond to requests for comment, but a few days ago blogger Alice Dreger published an account of a conversation SHE had with Zucker where he said he didn’t exactly ‘refuse’ to publish a retraction but was trying to ‘push back’ at Spitzer, and that he’d now welcome a letter to the editor. Zucker went on to explain all the reasons a ‘retraction’ isn’t appropriate, blah blah blah – including a statement that if they retracted Spitzer’s article they’d have to retract ‘hundreds.’

I’m incredulous at this statement.  It makes me want to scream “Are you living in a bubble?”  This is not just any article.  This article has played a huge role in encouraging and allowing the continuation of cruel and inhumane therapy that is not only unethical but is HARMFUL. For the Archives to retract this article would be an enormous aid to human rights for gay people.

At the very least, a full investigation of this is warranted.   Arana told Maddow that Spitzer not only regretted the interpretation of his data – he was questioning some of the data itself.  Zucker says one reason to ‘retract’ a study is if data has been falsified.  If  Spitzer now doubts the veracity of his subjects, that seems pretty ‘false’ to me.  And since Spitzer’s study was based entirely on self-report, doesn’t this constitute ‘fake data’ – not deliberately ‘faked’ by Spitzer, but fake nonetheless.

See, what makes me really uncomfortable is that I can think of a couple of big reasons why Zucker WOULDN’T want to publish a retraction, besides not wanting to bring adverse attention to the Archives.  Zucker’s ‘treatment’ of gender variant children was deemed ‘unethical’ just last September by WPATH, the world’s foremost organization for transgender health, that sets the universal Standards of Care (SOC) for treatment.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Zucker disagrees with the WPATH SOC 7 decision to label his treatment unethical.  Zucker doesn’t want another ‘defector.’  Spitzer’s defense of ex-gay therapy puts him in Zucker’s camp; his recant is another blow to Zucker’s position.

And Spitzer would be defecting.  Zucker is invested in the pathology paradigm of sex and gender variance.  He’s not an evil man, he’s a benevolent paternalist:  he – and Alice Dreger, for that matter- believe that LGBT people deserve civil rights in the same way that disabled people deserve them- they aren’t actually ‘normal’ but they are entitled to rights.   Zucker – and Spitzer, at least up until now – subscribe to a particular version of the ‘pathology paradigm,’ the psychoanalytic ‘nurture’ view that holds that ‘unfortunate’ conditions like being L,G,B, or T are fostered and heavily influenced by child/parent interactions.  If this is true, then parents can prevent these conditions and therapists can ‘cure’ highly motivated adult clients.

And here’s the dirty little secret that many psychiatrists and some other sexologists keep to themselves. What most people don’t understand is that old-school psychiatrists don’t actually think that sex and gender variance is normal, even homosexuality.  They won’t come right out and say it – that would be politically incorrect. But it pervades their thinking, their research, and their therapy.  Read Ronald Bayer’s history of how homosexuality actually got removed from the DSM in 1973.  Even most of the scant 51% of psychiatrists who voted for removal didn’t actually believe being gay was ‘normal.’  They thought homosexuality was a ‘suboptimal adjustment,’ just not at the level of a ‘psychiatric illness.’  Robert Spitzer himself, who was the ‘insider’ at the American Psychiatric Association arguably most responsible for removal, did not believe homosexuality was EQUAL to heterosexuality.  Knowing this makes his apparent ‘turn-around’ in 2003 understandable.  If homosexuality is suboptimal, and influenced by familial factors, then it is perfectly legitimate to try to cure someone who wants to be straight – in fact, it’s patient rights!

That’s why a true retraction by Spitzer would be a stab in the back to Zucker, who is already being left behind in the march of history – his avowal to keep some version of gender identity disorder in DSM 5 will soon leave him at odds with the rest of the world.  WPATH has recommend to the World Health Organization that ‘Gender Identity Disorder’ (GID) by renamed and  re-classified from a mental disorder to a medical condition.  Zucker and his pathology-paradigm colleagues are looking more and more like dinosaurs, and the last thing he wants is an admission that his journal published bad data on such a key issue.

So I’d like to ask for an investigation of Spitzer’s statements and the Archives situation by a group of LGBT professionals, the people most likely to detect fakery.   We know, for example, as a result of Thomas Maier’s biography of Masters and Johnson, that these esteemed leaders in the field falsified their ‘data’ in their 1979 book claiming they could ‘cure’ some homosexuals.  If Robert Spitzer is having misgivings about his data, I want to know more.  If he has suspicions about the veracity of his subjects, for example, a retraction by the Archives is very much in order, not just a ‘Letter to the Editor.’  This issue deserves more investigative reporting.  I’d like the dirty little secret  that old-school psychiatrists don’t actually think that sex and gender variance is normal to be exposed – and maybe some other secrets as well,  like how many sexologists secretly believe reparative therapy for gay people should be a viable therapeutic option.


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