In recent months public momentum has been building against reparative therapy for individuals who are gay, lesbian, and bisexual. For more two decades organizations and associations that work with mental health professionals have been advising that sexual orientation change efforts are not likely to work and that these efforts may be harmful to patients.
Recently several incidents have brought this issue into the headlines. First, two leaders of organizations that have promoted reparative therapy have publically stated that sexual orientation change does not work, and they have apologized for the harm that their work may have caused to individuals: John Smid, former director of Love in Action,* October 2011 on Hardball with Chris Matthews and Alan Chambers, director of Exodus International, January 2012 at the Gay Christian Network conference. Since then Exodus International has shifted its stance on reparative therapy. In a blog post dated June 19, 2012, Chambers states that Exodus International is "no longer an organization that associates with or promotes therapeutic practices that focus on changing one's attraction." The organization states that they will now focus on helping individuals to reconcile their faith and same-sex attractions by not acting on those attractions.
In May 2012, the Archives of Sexual Behavior published a letter to the editor from Robert Spitzer, MD, retracting his study about the effectiveness of reparative therapy published by the journal in 2003.** In his letter Spitzer concluded, "I believe I owe the gay community an apology for my study making unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy. I also apologize to any gay person who wasted time and energy undergoing some form of reparative therapy because they believed that I had proven that reparative therapy works with some 'highly motivated' individuals." Since 2003 Spitzer's study has been held up by organizations and even international governments as scientific proof that sexual orientation change is possible. Ironically, in 1973 Spitzer lead the efforts to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Gabriel Arana, a writer for The American Prospect broke this story in April 2012 in his article "My So-Called Ex-Gay Life."
Currently the California Legislature is considering a bill that would make reparative therapy for individuals under the age of 18 illegal and require adults seeking conversion therapy to sign informed consent forms indicating that they understand the potential dangers, including depression and suicide, and that reparative therapy has no medical basis. The bill SB 1172 passed the House on May 30, 2012, and is now under active consideration in the Assembly. The bill states that
• Under no circumstances shall a mental health provider engage in sexual orientation change efforts with a patient under 18 years of age.
• Any sexual orientation change efforts attempted on a patient under 18 years of age by a mental health provider shall be considered unprofessional conduct and shall subject a mental health provider to discipline by the licensing entity for that mental health provider.
The bill's author Senator Ted Lieu said, "Under the guise of a California license, some therapists are taking advantage of vulnerable people by pushing dangerous sexual orientation-change efforts. These bogus efforts have led in some cases to patients later committing suicide, as well as severe mental and physical anguish. This is junk science and it must stop." Lieu went on to say, "Being lesbian or gay is not a disease or mental disorder for the same reason that being a heterosexual is not a disease or a mental disorder. The medical community is unanimous in stating that homosexuality is not a medical condition."
On May 17, 2012, the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, the Pan American Health Organization released a statement outlining the dangers or reparative therapy, psychopathologization, and homophobia. The statement concludes, "A therapist who classifies non-heterosexual patients as 'deviant' not only offends them but also contributes to the aggravation of their problems. 'Reparative' or 'conversion therapies' have no medical indication and represent a severe threat to the health and human rights of the affected persons. They constitute unjustifiable practices that should be denounced and subject to adequate sanctions and penalties." The document makes recommendations of how homophobia and ill-treatment can be overcome through the efforts of governments, academic institutions, professional associations, media, and civil society organizations.
In 2009 the American Psychological Association issued a report based on two years of work that stated that sexual orientation change efforts can pose critical health risks to gay, lesbian, and bi-sexual patients and advised patients to avoid such treatments (see PHS Newsletter articles "APA warns against telling clients their sexual orientation can be changed," and Eli Coleman's "Letter from the Chair in Sexual Health September 2009").
*As of March 15, 2012, the organization Love in Action changed its name to Restoration Path.
**Spitzer, R. (2012). Spitzer Reassesses His 2003 Study of Reparative Therapy of Homosexuality. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 41 (4), 757. doi: 10.1007/s10508-012-9966-y
PHOTO: Robert Spitzer, MD, Courtesy of Truth Wins Out, from Spitzer's video apology