The Bob Spitzer I Knew

by Linda Ames Nicolosi

The man may be a hero to the gay community, yet he retained an intuitive sense that something is missing in homosexuality

When I opened the newspaper a couple of days after Christmas, I was surprised by a familiar face in the obituaries section:  psychiatrist Robert Spitzer. The name brought back a flood of bittersweet personal memories. I had learned something about human nature from Bob Spitzer, and also about politics as they play out behind the scenes in the mental-health establishment.

About 15 years before, Spitzer had asked me to help him with a new research project he was working on — a study of people who had come out of a gay lifestyle. He needed help on his wording and the expression of concepts, and I was, at the time, Publications Director for NARTH  (National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality).

I was flattered to be trusted with the job. Dr. Spitzer was one of the most celebrated psychiatrists of recent memory; he had been instrumental in the pivotal 1973 decision to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

And so began an almost daily email correspondence with Spitzer that lasted for several months. As the cultural hero who had supposedly “normalized” homosexuality, he would be, I thought, one of the foremost experts on the subject.

But I was in for a surprise.  Not only did Spitzer know very little about homosexuality (a subject which seemed to have little interest in penetrating) but he had also minimal knowledge of, or apparent interest in, psychodynamic psychology.  That shouldn’t have been a shock: his specialty at Columbia University was biometrics, and his work on the psychiatric manual was to master the tricky job of defining and categorizing hundreds of disorders and pseudo-disorders–  an ever-changing jigsaw puzzle of semantics.

But Spitzer was, no doubt, a truly compassionate man, and he was proud that through the 1973 decision, he had helped free LGB people from cultural oppression. But when he called me in 2001 (he was then in the fading years of his career), I sensed that a feeling of guilt was nagging at him. For one thing, he did not like the pressure within the psychiatric establishment to stop clinicians from helping patients who were unhappy with their same-sex attractions. (“Patients should have the right,” he told me in an interview, “to explore their heterosexual potential.”)  And, like most psychiatrists, Spitzer explained in an interview published in the NARTH Bulletin in 2001, “I thought that homosexual behavior could be resisted… that no one could really change their orientation. I now believe that’s untrue– some people can and do change.”

Spitzer’s history made him a highly improbable figure as the champion of ex-gays. In fact, some of the older psychoanalysts who had treated patients for homosexuality warned NARTH not to cooperate with him; Charles Socarides, in particular, harbored a deep resentment toward Spitzer and insisted that he could not be trusted to interview any NARTH clinician’s former patients– he called his old rival a “snake in the grass.” Nonetheless, the study found 200 subjects, and went forward.  Change was found not to be complete and absolute; a person didn’t simply “switch orientations”; — their success was best described as “a reduction in homosexual attractions and an increase in heterosexual attractions” — but “good heterosexual functioning” was reportedly achieved in 67% of the men who had rarely or never felt any heterosexual attraction.  Nearly all the subjects said they now felt more comfortable with their biologically appropriate gender.

Spitzer’s conclusion was wisely, a cautious and qualified one, because change (as with alcoholism, obesity, and drug problems) is notoriously hard. All he said was this: “Contrary to conventional wisdom, some highly motivated individuals, using a variety of change efforts, can make substantial change in multiple indicators of sexual orientation, and achieve good heterosexual functioning.”

But even that qualified  conclusion was too much for the LGB establishment.  Fresh from recent cultural victories, this was a shocking betrayal; coming from a onetime ally, it had to be punished.

Spitzer was clearly taken aback by the ugliness of the pre-publication reaction.  His social group, as he explained– not entirely tongue-in-cheek– was the “readers of the New York Times.”  He seemed to be unable to comprehend that he could be an enemy of anyone for discovering this neglected population of ex-gays. I think he believed that support for any community that was culturally marginalized would be–as it once had been– a popular move, even among New York’s cultural liberals.  This time, however, he had misjudged the temper of the times; he had failed to recognize the “new orthodoxy” and its changing concept of victimology.

Just before the study was due to be published, I received this S.O.S. call from him:  “I have been reviewing the emails that I have received and I must admit I had the fantasy of giving up this whole thing….!”

This turn of events was alarming.  I considered his new study to be a needed corrective in the scientific literature, and I didn’t want him to back out.  I told him so. He wrote back, “Sorry to frighten you. My main concern–other than what this whole thing does to my reputation in the scientific community– is that the effect of this study is to help 5,000 ex-gays or potential ex-gays…[while] I have seriously hurt five million gays.”

But if the study told the truth, why should Spitzer think about “who would be hurt”?  Was consideration of “who would be hurt” (or in this case, “who would dislike the results”) something that had propelled him to de-list homosexuality as a disorder in the first place? Was he really so afraid of public opinion?

Those years were the beginning of a long, punishing barrage of attacks on Spitzer from the gay community. Further, there began new, notably embarrassing embrace of him by evangelicals– who, of course, are not the sort of folks thought very attractive by the readers of the New York Times. He made a number of attempts to distance himself from the evangelical spokesmen.

Now that the study was over and had attracted so much vitriol, the evangelicals (and I myself) no longer had his ear.  Instead, Spitzer was now having monthly lunches in New York with Jack Drescher, a gay-activist psychiatrist and a bitter opponent of sexual-orientation change efforts. Although Spitzer had once said, “I miss our daily email exchanges,” now that the heat was really on, I did not often hear from him any more.  Was Jack Drescher now the man who had the power to influence his beliefs?

Seems likely. “The fact that gay marriage is allowed today is in part owed to Bob Spitzer,” Drescher later told BBC News in a warm tribute in Spitzer’s obituary.

Those years after the study was published must have been difficult ones.  Eventually, Spitzer would no longer answer an email from me. He now wanted the editor of the journal to retract the study, but no such request was granted. After all, in the years subsequent to the study, he had uncovered no new data; he had simply come to fear that many of his original subjects might have either been lying or self-deluded. The public collapse (and theological reversal) of the leadership of Exodus Ministries surely had added to Spitzer’s embarrassment.  And, there was the growing cultural and religious shift toward a full and enthusiastic embrace of homosexuality.  Spitzer’s study had marked the man as no longer avant garde, but in fact, behind-the-times. He seemed mortified, later describing that study as “the one thing” he regretted in his long career.

Indeed, Spitzer had a “center” that was hard to put a finger on.  He was a self-described “atheist and evolutionist,” telling me in one of our email debates, “The concept of sin or divine purpose means nothing to me. However, the concept of design in evolution means a lot.”  If his son were homosexual, he said, he would hope he would seek therapy for it, and “I would hope that his motivation for change would be an intuitive sense that his life would be  better and more fulfilling if he fully utilized his heterosexual potential.” He added, “Heterosexuality is– generally– a more satisfying condition than homosexuality.” Furthermore, when I described him in an article as “the man who had normalized homosexuality,” he insisted on a correction.  “I never ‘normalized’ homosexuality,” he said, adding, rather obtusely, “I merely de-listed it as a disorder.”

In a letter written to an ex-lesbian, Spitzer had expressed an almost wistful respect for Christian faith. “What has been wonderful to me about participating in this study is understanding, in a way that I never did before this study, how deeply religious people…experience the world and their life. I suppose I would be happier if I could have that perspective, particularly now that I have a potentially disabling brain disorder.”  (Spitzer had just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s.)  ”But to me, religion and the notion of an afterlife and divine intervention or guidance is just…wishful thinking to avoid the true state of affairs. There is no divine guidance or afterlife.  I don’t need Scripture to know that certain behavior is harmful to self or others.”

So, back in 1973,  did Spitzer “discover” through study of the clinical data– as the public believes–that homosexuality was normal?  Not only did he specifically deny normalizing the condition, but I still have his words which suggest a dim awareness of “the law that is written on the heart” —  of those things that one “can’t not know” unless that awareness has been somehow erased.

In homosexuality,”  he said, “ something’s not working.”

Strange words coming from a hero to the gay world.