|Reporter Lauren Quaintance last Sunday told the nation that gays can change, courtesy of a high-profile feature article in broadsheet tabloid Sunday Star-Times. Now it's time for the truth.
Ex-gay ministries. You thought they'd gone away by now, hadn't you? Well, they are still around, but most people are able to ignore them in the face of Everest-rivalling mountains of data that have proved it is not possible, and indeed often harmful, to change one's sexual orientation. But now we're being told that's not entirely true. Thanks to research carried out by Dr Robert Spitzer at Columbia University, we have more claims surfacing from a handful of "ex-gays" that say they have indeed changed. Big deal, right? Unfortunately, yes, because New Zealand's favourite broadsheet tabloid Sunday Star-Times would have the public believe that thanks to Spitzer's research, gays and lesbians at large can change, and they've found people in New Zealand to back up their story! That's right, the newspaper which ruined the career of a gay police officer by publishing emails obtained via subterfuge from a gay dating website, and led two media witch hunts over two irresponsible gay dog owners, both before and after their trial and sentence, published a huge feature article in its last Sunday Focus section entitled "Going Straight" - a piece so unbalanced one had to turn the newspaper upside down in order to read it. It looked bad from the start. "A reputable American study has found that gays can change their sexuality," ran the first sentence by reporter Lauren Quaintance. Leaving aside the word reputable, which we'll look at in a moment, this very sentence implied that a fact had been proven. But when taking into account the enormous failure rate of this treatment, it's comparable to saying "A study has shown some people are born with a penis and a vagina".
Reporter Lauren Quaintance did not only mislead readers in New Zealand with her definition of a "reputable" study, she also claimed it was new. This is entirely false.
In other words, it's meaningless and inflammatory without the statistical context, which Quaintance did nothing to enlighten readers fully of in her sprawling two-page advocacy piece for the likes of Exodus International, a group that was already discredited not long after it began in the 1970's when its two male founders, Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper, divorced their wives and married each other. But lets get back to reputable. On what basis, GayNZ.com asked Lauren, did she consider this study reputable? For her, Spitzer's credentials were good enough. After all, this is a man who was one of a team of psychiatrists responsible for removing homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association's list of mental illnesses in 1973. If this baby's turned, it must be reputable, runs her logic. Sorry, Lauren, but no. One look at the methods used, and indeed, a proper examination of the results in this study will yield the truth. Spitzer's study was borne out of a desire to scientifically study the claims of "ex-gays", as thus far only anecdotal evidence from "therapists" had been provided. From the outset, he was clear that his study subjects would be people that (a) had once identified as gay or lesbian, (b) had attempted to "change" through contact with an ex-gay ministry or one of the minority psychiatrists in the US who still engage in reparative therapy, and (c) now consider themselves heterosexual. As you can see, we're on shaky ground to begin with. Spitzer would have no proof that the subjects he found were even gay in the first place, as evangelical Christians (whom the majority of these subjects are) do not, by and large, recognise bisexuality. Spitzer himself did not take bisexuality into account during the study, as he deemed it unquantifiable.
"Our sample was self-selected from people who already claimed they had made some change. We don't know how common that kind of change is...I'm not saying that this can be easily done, or that most homosexuals who want to change can make this kind of change. I suspect it's quite unusual." Dr Robert Spitzer
After searching for nearly a year and a half, Spitzer found only 274 suitable candidates in the whole of the United States, of which 200 were chosen for study. This is in a country where ex-gay ministries like Exodus claim to know "thousands" of men and women who have "left homosexuality". 45-minute telephone interviews were eventually conducted with these hand-picked subjects, and results showed that of this group 86% of the men still had same-sex attraction. This is 86% of a group referred by evangelical Christians, with a "highly motivated" desire for change. More than half of the men, and these included men who Spitzer concluded had "good heterosexual functioning", used same-sex fantasies when masturbating. Let's come back to Lauren. She liberally quoted Dr Spitzer, albeit selectively, in her piece, to add credibility to her interpretation of the facts. One example: "I came to this study a sceptic. I believed a homosexual, whether born or made, was a homosexual and that to consider their orientation a matter of choice was wrong. But the fact is that if I found even one person who could change, the door is open, and a change in sexual orientation is possible." But there is a huge difference between possibility and probability, and Spitzer has been at pains to point this out in many other interviews, such as in the Wall Street Journal where he said: "I suspect the vast majority of gay people would be unable to alter by much a firmly established homosexual orientation." Or this, in an interview with CNN: "Our sample was self-selected from people who already claimed they had made some change. We don't know how common that kind of change is...I'm not saying that this can be easily done, or that most homosexuals who want to change can make this kind of change. I suspect it's quite unusual." Spitzer's study may arguably have shown that change is possible (and let's remember we're relying entirely on telephone surveys here - how many times have you lied in one of those?) but it has shown undoubtedly that it is not probable. This was reinforced by the results of another study, presented to the American Psychiatric Association at the same time as Spitzer's by New York psychotherapists Ariel Shidlo and Michael Schroeder, which studied 202 randomly recruited subjects and discovered that 88% failed to change their sexual orientation, and a further 9% were celibate or still struggling.
So why is this news again now? Despite ex-gay organisations and their religious right parents constantly claiming their only motive is the "pursuit of truth", the real motivation is always gay-bashing.
Lauren Quaintance's article made no reference to this study, or to recent studies by British psychologists and geneticists at the University of California, which have provided evidence that sexuality is "hard-wired" into the genes from birth. Her article firmly left readers the impression that change was probable, and that protests from gay groups should be written off as "inevitable". Spitzer expressed "horror" in the Wall Street Journal at the distortions of his work, and noted in another interview with The Advocate that he was concerned at the way the results of his study were being twisted by the Christian right. One could say that, at best, he was incredibly naive to think this wouldn't happen. Before beginning the study, Spitzer faced opposition from many of his peers in the American Psychiatric Association who foresaw exactly what might occur if reputable psychiatrists attached their names to such a discourse, but he said, "I think we ought to be able to talk about anything in a dispassionate way." We should be able to. But most of the world does not live in a scientific bubble, and with an issue as highly-charged as homosexuality in a country where the religious right is in control, that Spitzer could not forsee how his study may be misused was a grave lapse in judgement. Reporter Lauren Quaintance did not only mislead readers in New Zealand with her definition of a "reputable" study, she also claimed it was new. This is entirely false. Spitzer's results were released back in 2001, which Quaintance acknowledges, but she says it has been discussed again in the media over the last few months after being published in a psychology journal.
As part of her justification in describing Spitzer's study as "new", Lauren referred GayNZ.com to an article which appeared in the British Sunday Telegraph in October, also entitled "Going Straight". It certainly makes interesting reading, seeing as the construction of the story and telling of the "ex-gay" anecdotes is eerily similar.
Strike two for Lauren. That still doesn't make it new, does it? Back in 2001, Spitzer's findings were reported in USA Today, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and distributed to hundreds of other newspapers via the Associated Press. The story was discussed on CNN, and Spitzer himself appeared on "Good Morning America". There has been plenty of time over the last two years for this study to be revealed for what it is, merely another sociological survey into the claims of "ex-gays" - and this has been done and done over. So why is this news again now? Despite ex-gay organisations and their religious right parents constantly claiming their only motive is the "pursuit of truth", the real motivation is always gay-bashing. Janet Folger of the Florida-based Center for Reclaiming America masterminded a PR campaign in 1998 entitled "Truth in Love", featuring one Anne Paulk, "wife, mother, former lesbian" (which was in itself revealed a falsehood by Paulk herself). The text of the ads proclaimed that "the truth can set you free", but Folger later admitted to the New York Times that her goal was to undermine support for anti-discrimination legislation protecting gay and lesbian citizens. What's Lauren's beef then? She says she has no church affiliations, is not a Christian, and has no connections with any organisations such as Maxim. She says she was asked to follow this story up from a New Zealand angle. By whom? "I don't want to get into the process of how the newspaper works," was the reply. As part of her justification in describing Spitzer's study as "new", Lauren referred GayNZ.com to an article which appeared in the British Sunday Telegraph in October, also entitled "Going Straight". It certainly makes interesting reading, seeing as the construction of the story and telling of the "ex-gay" anecdotes is eerily similar. Interestingly, the British version is much more honest about the origins of Spitzer's study. Where did the New Zealand subjects in Lauren's story come from? She says that they were all referred from the two "ex-gay" organisations mentioned in her article, Exodus and Courage (supposedly a Catholic organisation although they are not listed in the Catholic directory or sanctioned by any NZ bishop). How handy - just like Spitzer's study. So, we asked, could we ring these organisations up and talk to these people as well? "You're most welcome to, but whether they want to talk to you is another matter." Right. How many people were there? Well, Lauren says there were several, but the subjects featured in the finished article were chosen on the basis of their willingness to be named and photographed. Many weren't. "I thought it was only fair that if they were making these claims that they should put their names to them, and be willing to be photographed." Good job there. How about we come up with some names too, just to put things in perspective a bit? Let's start with Jack McIntyre, a gay Christian in San Francisco who laboured for four years with ex-gay group "Love In Action" to change. After ending up in a hospital psychiatric ward, he committed suicide at age 46 by taking a lethal dose of Valium and Dalmane, after giving himself Communion. "I love life," he said in a suicide note, "but my love for the Lord is so much greater, the choice is simple." Or how about Stuart Matis, a 32-year-old Mormon in California who three years ago drove to the local Mormon chapel, pinned a "do not resuscitate" note to his shirt and shot himself in the head. "Mother, Dad and family. I have committed suicide," said his swansong bit of prose. "I engaged my mind in a false dilemma: either one was gay or one was Christian. As I believed I was Christian, I believed I could never be gay." Lauren Quaintance believes that "ex-gays" have a right to tell their stories. Unfortunately, some people aren't able to tell theirs any longer. And it isn't exactly a matter of choice, is it? Chris Banks - 12th November 2003