Don’t repeat biases of the past

    Let’s suppose I wrote a column claiming that human intelligence was fixed and immutable, so we should accept individual cognitive differences instead of trying to change them. I’d be flayed alive, especially by my fellow liberals.

    Now let’s imagine another column, where I made the same statement about sexual orientation: It’s set at birth, and nothing can alter it. Most of my liberal friends would nod approvingly.

    Why do we regard one trait as changeable, while the other one is supposedly cast in stone?

    The question came back to the news this month, when prominent psychiatrist Robert Spitzer renounced his famous 2001 study claiming that some gays could become straight via so-called “reparative therapy.”

    Meanwhile, California’s state legislature is debating a bill that would ban such therapy. And here in Philadelphia recently, protesters rallied outside a Catholic sports camp that teaches athletics as a way to “move beyond the confines of the homosexual identity,” according to its website.

    Methinks we doth protest too much. As the gay community has taught us, every human being has the right to determine her or his own sexual identity. By dismissing self-described “ex-gays,” then, we risk repeating some of the same bigoted tactics that have been used to condemn homosexuals themselves.

    Start with the much-repeated claim that ex-gays are fooled into thinking they can change, when the best science says they can’t. True, a recent review of 83 studies by the American Psychiatric Association found no evidence that reparative therapy could alter sexual orientation; instead, the APA found, the therapy sometimes caused depression and suicidal tendencies.

    Yet ex-gays say otherwise, insisting that they — not the psychiatrists — are the best judges of their own mental health. And that’s an exact echo of gays, who were stigmatized as “sick” by the same profession until the early 1970s.

    That’s when gay-rights groups began to picket APA events. “Psychiatry has waged a relentless war of extermination against us,” a protester told the APA’s 1971 convention. “You may take this as a declaration of war against you.”

    At the next APA convention, in 1972, gay Philadelphia psychiatrist John E. Fryer spoke on a panel about homosexuality. But Fryer was introduced only as “Dr. H. Anonymous,” wearing a hideous mask to hide his identity.

    “I am a homosexual. I am a psychiatrist,” declared Fryer, who had been forced to resign his residency at Penn after his chairman discovered he was homosexual. The following year, Fryer would be fired from another post — this time, at Friends Hospital — for the same reason. Ironically, 1973 also marked the year that the APA officially abandoned the notion of homosexuality as an illness. Leading the charge was Robert Spitzer, who argued that “illness” was defined by personal distress or poor social functioning. If gays displayed neither, how could you call them sick?

    Meanwhile, research started to suggest that homosexuality was determined at birth or at least in early childhood. But this new orthodoxy came under challenge from ex-gays, who caught Spitzer’s eye when they organized their own protests at the APA’s 1999 convention.

    He proceeded to interview 200 ex-gays, concluding that reparative therapy had helped some “highly motivated” individuals change their sexual orientation. But as Spitzer recently acknowledged, he had no way of knowing whether their self-reports were valid. Nor could he fairly attribute their experience to therapy, which only half of his subjects had undergone.

    Spitzer’s repudiation of his study received a hearty welcome in the gay community, which has long insisted that the ex-gay movement is just a front for Christian conservatives who want to stigmatize homosexuality. And it’s true that reparative therapy has been employed by some Christian counselors — including by some reports the husband of former GOP presidential aspirant Michele Bachmann.

    But that doesn’t mean we should dismiss ex-gays as deluded self-haters, or denounce the people who reach out to them. Forty years ago, brave gays risked careers and reputations to challenge their own era’s received wisdom about sexual orientation. We should applaud ex-gays for showing the same courage, whether we agree with them or not.


    Jonathan Zimmerman is an historian with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and teaches history and education at New York University. He lives in Narberth. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).

    That’s History is a partnership between WHYY NewsWorks and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. This essay was originally published at

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