A fresh controversy exploded May 9 when Columbia University psychiatry professor Dr. Robert L. Spitzer released a study which he says indicates that “highly motivated” gay people can become heterosexual through support groups, mentoring and even by reading certain books. As Dr. Spitzer’s paper, delivered to the American Psychiatric Association, concludes: “some individuals who participate in a sexual reorientation therapy apparently make sustained changes in sexual orientation.”
These findings were based on the experiences of 200 “ex-gays,” most of whom had worked with ministries in an effort to change their sexual orientations. Many such religious institutions regard homosexuality as a sinful condition worthy of correction.
The fire and brimstone quickly erupted.
“I’m appalled, absolutely appalled — it’s not scientific, it’s not valid, it’s what’s known as anecdotal data,” Dr. Barbara Warren of the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in Manhattan told the New York Post’s Kate Sheehy. “I cannot believe Columbia would allow any of its professors to do anything like this.”
“This study makes it clear that until society is free from anti-gay prejudice, people will feel compelled or can be coerced into attempting to change and claim success even if it has not occurred,” said Wayne Besen, Associate Director of Communications for the Human Rights Campaign. An HRC news release adds: “The validity of the study is questionable because of the author’s anti-gay views, close ties to right-wing political groups and lack of objective data.”
Gay-rights activists usually argue that sexuality is as fixed at birth as fingerprints. The HRC’s web page features a report by Kim Mills, its education director, that says “The psychological, medical and psychiatric establishments agree that sexual orientation cannot be changed, and that so-called ‘reparative therapy’ aimed at altering gay peoples’ orientations does not work and may, in fact, be harmful.”
This view is common and, I think, incorrect. It parallels another widely held and, I believe, inaccurate view, which is that sexual orientation is like an on-off switch. Either you’re straight or you’re gay. Period.
Sexuality seems much more like a dimmer switch that can shift from the soothing mood lighting of a bar at full swing all the way up to the blinding wattage that scares patrons away after last call.
I am not a psychiatrist, nor do I play one on the Internet. However, I can offer strictly anecdotal evidence of people I have met who have skated across the sexuality spectrum throughout their lives.
I know several men and one woman who had repeated homosexual experiences in college and graduate school who now are in heterosexual marriages, at least one of which has produced a child. These stories echo Dr. Spitzer’s research and would comfort those who wish to “rescue” homosexuals.
But even more interesting are heterosexuals who wind up gay. One university administrator I know was married to a woman for several years. They divorced while in their twenties. He now has a soft spot for young, Hispanic men. A federal official I know married a woman shortly after college. They also split, and he now is comfortably gay.
Rep. Jim Kolbe (R., Ariz.), a well-regarded free trader who addressed last year’s GOP Convention, had a wife before coming out as a gay man. James Hormel, former U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg, fathered five children by his previous wife, Alice Turner, before becoming a gay man. They also share 13 grandchildren.
I know gay men who have not so much as kissed women other than their mothers on their cheeks. One gay man I know was involved sexually with a woman, but only once. Just as they were about to consummate their encounter, he leapt from the bed they shared, sprinted into the bathroom and lost his lunch. Now essentially allergic to women, he only has been involved with men since then. Conversely, I recall one gay acquaintance telling another, “Of course I’ve slept with women,” as if to belittle the other guy’s masculinity.
I have straight male friends who would rather talk about the latest breakthroughs in needlepoint than think for a moment about male-male intimacy. Conversely, I know a couple of straight guys, both with serious girlfriends, who have visited gay bars on occasion because, they say, the sexually charged atmospheres there are more interesting than what they tend to find at straight establishments.
Sexual orientation, I believe, is not as genetically determined as gay activists argue, nor does it flow as inexorably towards heterosexuality as religious conservatives might hope. While most gays stay gay and most straights remain straight, there are people all around them who travel all over the sexual map.
It also is interesting to consider this controversy within the context of the changing terminology that homosexual activists have embraced over the years. What began as the gay-rights movement eventually became the lesbian-and-gay-rights movement after homosexual women clamored aboard the bandwagon gay men launched at New York’s Stonewall Riot in 1969. Before long, bisexuals officially were along for the ride. Today, the most impeccably PC terminology is the acronym “LGBTQ.” This stands for “lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender and questioning.” (The latter is roughly equivalent to the undecided category in a political opinion survey).
Gay liberals who ridicule the idea that gays can become straight shot their toes off when they inserted the “T” in LGBTQ. If “transgender” individuals can be embraced (and, in San Francisco, publicly subsidized) for having their genitalia surgically rearranged to liberate their inner males or inner females, why is it heretical to suggest that some gays can go straight? Why can’t a gay man’s inner heterosexual or a straight woman’s inner homosexual be unshackled? And just think, no scalpel required!
Meanwhile, detractors of homosexuality who may welcome Dr. Spitzer’s study should ask themselves some serious questions about the implications of “therapy” for gays. Would they truly welcome a world in which gay people suddenly, magically went straight?
Assume, for a moment, that every gay man in America woke up straight. What would heterosexual males say when millions of chiseled, buff men with bulging biceps and rock-hard abs march into TGI Fridays from coast to coast “looking for chicks?” Would any minister actually want to see Richard Simmons propose to his daughter? Would any conservative activist really welcome the news that her youngest son is dating Rosie O’Donnell? If Britney Spears moved in with Rupert Everett, would straight men cheer, or slit their wrists in unbridled envy?
Perhaps it’s best for gays and straights to agree that it’s OK for every American to follow whichever sexual frequency suits his fancy, whether he tuned in at conception or switched channels as an adult.