Focus on the Family defends gay "cure" after past supporter rejects it

Update:In an interview on view below, One Colorado executive director Brad Clark predicted that Dr. Robert Spitzer's repudiation of his own 2001 study, which suggested that gays could be "cured," wouldn't dissuade Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family from continuing to support so-called reparative therapy. And he was right, as an FOTF spokesman makes plain.

Spitzer shared his current views in a letter to the Archives of Sexual Behavior, the journal that published his original study; look below to see the missive, originally published by the website Truth Wins Out. But Glenn Stanton, Focus' director of family formation studies, encourages readers to place Spitzer's new stance, and his formal apology to the gay community, in context.

"What it shows is that Robert Spitzer changed his position," Stanton says. "And Robert Spitzer is not the only academic who has addressed the issue or that the total fount of understanding on this issue is rooted in Robert Spitzer. It just means he's changed his position -- and why did he change it?

Glenn Stanton.
Glenn Stanton.

"Usually an academic changes his position because new evidence comes forth, and they point that out in an article or some academic presentation explaining the thoughts and rationale behind the change of position," he continues. "And from what I see, we don't have any of that from Dr. Spitzer."

Stanton doesn't denigrate Spitzer for shifting his conclusions based on "personal reasons -- because personal reasons are incredibly legitimate. But let's just know that they are personal reasons. This isn't necessarily new academic findings knocking down old academic findings."

As One Colorado's Clark points out below, reparative therapy has been rejected by a wide range of medical organizations. Stanton stresses that these opinions aren't universal, citing the work of Stanton Jones and Mark Yarhouse, authors of Homosexuality: The Use of Scientific Research in the Church's Moral Debate. Even so, he says Focus' belief in reparative therapy isn't built upon academic studies, but "on the lives of real people who we know and interact with, who have clearly been healed, and healed successfully."

At that point, Stanton pauses. "I don't know if 'healed' is the right word," he allows. "We could use a lot of different words. Maybe it would be better to say 'overcome.' And I have personal friendships with many who have clearly overcome. They were uncomfortable with their homosexual identity -- an identity that was with them from as early as they can remember -- and they sought help. It was a very difficult, very long process, but they have successfully left their homosexual orientation and are living heterosexual lives today."

Indeed, Stanton notes that he recently spent time with just such a person -- someone who is "married today and has children. That's not the definitive test, but it does indicate something."

Reparative therapy isn't monolithic, Stanton feels. "There are reparative therapists who use very different types of therapy -- some we agree with and some we wouldn't agree with. That's a very important thing to understand. We don't necessarily support everybody who does it. And we have some very specific criteria for the right way to do it.

"Many misrepresent this, but it's all about self-determination -- all about people who say, 'I'm not comfortable with these feelings and I want help dealing with them.' And for individuals who are highly motivated and highly committed, there is success that can be found. The process is long and difficult and not absolute all the time, but it can happen, and it does happen."

Here's Spitzer's letter, followed by our previous coverage.

Several months ago I told you that because of my revised view of my 2001 study of reparative therapy changing sexual orientation, I was considering writing something that would acknowledge that I now judged the major critiques of the study as largely correct. After discussing my revised view of the study with Gabriel Arana, a reporter for American Prospect, and with Malcolm Ritter, an Associated Press science writer, I decided that I had to make public my current thinking about the study. Here it is.

Basic Research Question. From the beginning it was: "can some version of reparative therapy enable individuals to change their sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual?" Realizing that the study design made it impossible to answer this question, I suggested that the study could be viewed as answering the question, "how do individuals undergoing reparative therapy describe changes in sexual orientation?" - a not very interesting question.

The Fatal Flaw in the Study -- There was no way to judge the credibility of subject reports of change in sexual orientation. I offered several (unconvincing) reasons why it was reasonable to assume that the subject's reports of change were credible and not self-deception or outright lying. But the simple fact is that there was no way to determine if the subject's accounts of change were valid.

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.

Robert Spitzer. M.D. Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry, Columbia University

Page down to read One Colorado executive director Brad Clark's take on reparative therapy in the wake of Spitzer's apology.   Original post, 12:58 p.m. May 21: In recent days, news broke that Dr. Robert Spitzer, author of a controversial 2001 study arguing that homosexuality could be, in essence, cured, had rejected his own findings and apologized to the gay community. Could his action pressure Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family to back away from this philosophy, dubbed reparative therapy? One Colorado executive director Brad Clark would like to think so -- but he wouldn't bet on it.

As noted by the Houston Press, a sister paper of Westword, Spitzer began distancing himself from the study as early as 2004. But his mea culpa in the New York Times, which notes that he's in declining health, still made a major impact, as Clark acknowledges.

Brad Clark speaking at a pro-civil unions rally a few weeks back.
Brad Clark speaking at a pro-civil unions rally a few weeks back.
Photo by Ladd Bosworth

"I think it's great that he's finally realizing that the study was wrong and flawed," he says. "And the really good thing is, groups like Focus on the Family can no longer use this junk science to justify their anti-gay views."

In 2010, Focus spokesman Gary Schneeberger stressed that "we're not changing our position on what we know to be true -- that people can overcome their unwanted same-sex attractions" after Melissa Fryrear, described as a "former lesbian," left FOTF. And at this writing, the Focus website continues to feature loads of links to material lauding Spitzer's study, including "Score One for Politics," which states, "The main point Spitzer makes is that there are people who once identified themselves as gay, those people wanted to change, and according to his criteria, they did."

The article above was published in 2001 -- but Clark makes it clear such thinking doesn't qualify as ancient history.

"Just last week, someone testified at the civil unions hearing" on a bill that ultimately died in special session, "and they talked about the use of reparative therapy," Clark recalls. "These sorts of views are really out of touch and extreme, and this is one more piece of evidence that points to that."

As Clark notes, "reparative therapy has been repudiated by nearly every psychological and psychiatric association in the world." As such, he doesn't expect that Spitzer's actions will cause the scales to fall from the eyes of Focus folks.

"This type of therapy is really damaging, but I'm not in denial enough to think Focus on the Family won't continue to make up their own evidence."

Look below to see a video of Spitzer from 2007.

Follow and like the Michael Roberts/Westword Facebook page.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Focus on the Family still thinks gays can be cured despite Melissa Fryrear's departure."

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