Thousands of scientific studies are conducted every year, but only a fraction of these ever see newsprint. Even fewer dominate the news cycle for weeks, transform researchers into culture war commentators and move the public debate.
At the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting on May 9, two unpublished, non-peer-reviewed studies offered opposing reports about the effectiveness and potential safety risks of “reparative therapy” to “convert” lesbians and gay men to heterosexuality, a practice long-denounced as unethical and futile by the APA and most mental health professionals.
For one presentation, titled “200 Subjects Who Claim to Have Changed Their Sexual Orientation from Homosexual to Heterosexual,” Columbia professor Robert Spitzer interviewed people who said they had successfully undergone conversion therapy, and reported that 66 percent of these men and 44 percent of the women had indeed achieved “good heterosexual functioning.” Spitzer was involved in the APA’s 1973 decision to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.
Spitzer said the majority of his subjects were “highly motivated” to change, understandable since they were referred to him primarily by religious right “ex-gay ministries” like Exodus International, who only offered him people they saw as success stories.
Of Spitzer’s subjects, only 42 percent of men and 46 percent of women rated themselves as “exclusively homosexual” before they sought therapy to diminish gay feelings. While some might therefore refer to the majority of the subjects as bisexual rather than gay, Spitzer told Extra! he did not include a category for bisexuality in his study “because there’s no accepted definition of what bisexuality is.”
After therapy, conducted prior to the study, 54 percent of Spitzer’s female subjects and just 17 percent of men rated themselves as “exclusively heterosexual”–a remarkably low rate for a sample of possibly bisexual people self-selected for believing they had changed from gay to straight.
Another presentation, by New York psychotherapists Ariel Shidlo and Michael Schroeder, stood in stark contrast: Of 202 randomly recruited subjects who had tried to change their sexual orientation through therapy, 88 percent failed completely, while 9 percent considered themselves successful but were celibate or still struggling with same-sex behavioral “slips”; only six people (3 percent) were actually successful.
Additionally, Shidlo and Schroeder found that a great number of their subjects suffered “significant harm” due to instances in which reparative therapists appeared “not to be practicing in a manner consistent with the APA Ethics Code”–encouraging patients to remember childhood abuse as the “cause” of their homosexuality when no such abuse occurred; insisting that lesbians and gays can never live happy, healthy or monogamous lives; or practicing coercion (for example, students at religious universities were sometimes required to attend conversion therapy in order to graduate or receive financial aid).
Guess which study got journalistic top-billing and which was given short-shrift?
The day before the APA conference, an Associated Press (5/8/01) story included a provocative lead–“An explosive new study says some highly motivated gay people can turn straight”–but failed to mention that research to be presented at the same symposium suggested the opposite.
One outlet after another raced to report Spitzer’s contention that “some people can change from gay to straight, and we ought to acknowledge that.” (CBS Radio, 5/9/01)–usually alongside sharp responses from activists like the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s David Elliot, who called the study “snake oil, not science” (New York Times, 5/9/01).
Outlets stoked a ratings-grabbing “smoldering controversy” (New Orleans Times-Picayune, 5/10/01) with sensationalized language about the likelihood of gays “switching sides” (Time, 5/21/01) “if they really want to” (AP, 5/8/01). “I hope you’re bracing yourself,” a CNN interviewer told Spitzer the day he presented his study (5/9/01), “because already it is the buzz of our newsroom.” A typical front-page Boston Herald story (5/9/01) framed the study as “reigniting the fiery debate about whether a ‘cure’ exists for homosexuality.”
Though some reporters discussed the gay change theory in terms of pathology (“Gays Have Mental Illness and Can Be Cured, Doctor Says,” London Daily Telegraph, 5/10/01), many outlets were suitably skeptical, noting that Spitzer’s peers dismissed the study as “lacking in scientific rigor” because “there was no control group, no physiological testing or evidence of long-term success” (San Francisco Chronicle, 5/13/01). Time‘s Jeffrey Kluger (5/21/01) called Spitzer’s sample biased and his standards “decidedly subjective.”
Yet aside from one excellent, in-depth interview buried on Newsweek‘s website (5/10/01), the most relevant criticism, the Shidlo/Schroeder study directly contesting the efficacy and safety of reparative therapy, was generally ignored or mentioned only in passing, without quoting– or sometimes even naming– the researchers.
“Very few reporters asked” for a copy of the study, Shidlo told Extra!; when he offered to send one, “they seemed uninterested.” Even stories that seemed to promise a balanced investigation of both APA presentations failed to make good: A Washington Post (5/9/01) article headlined “Studies on Gays Yield Conflicting Findings” gave only one of 18 paragraphs to the Shidlo/Schroeder study.
“We have good reason to suspect, based on our data, that many, many people suffer terribly through the [conversion therapy] process,” Shidlo told Extra!. “Would we approve a medicine that helped, say 5 out of a hundred people, but severely hurt 35 of the 100, and didn’t help at all the rest? This is a point that the media ignored.”
“Should all gays try it?”
While news reports wondered “Can gays go straight?” (Seattle Times, 5/9/01), conservative writers presented this as a given, in columns headlined “Gays Can Go Straight” (Denver Post, 5/13/01; National Review Online, 5/14/01). Others used Spitzer’s research to justify anti-gay political activism; in a Baltimore Sun op-ed (6/26/01), Allan Medinger, past president of the ex-gay ministry Exodus International, hoped that public acceptance of “homosexuality as a behavioral choice and not an identity” would “enable Christians… to oppose legislation like Maryland’s newly adopted gay-rights measure without being viewed as religious zealots.”
Some journalists’ curiosity went beyond whether conversion is possible: “Can gays go straight? Should they?” CNN‘s Wolf Blitzer asked (5/9/01). Fox‘s Alan Colmes (Hannity & Colmes, 5/9/01) went further: “If reparative therapy works, should all gays try it?”
The guest both shows invited to respond to these questions was Rev. Jerry Falwell, who predictably derided gays’ “immoral, perverted lifestyle” (Fox, 5/9/01), but insisted, in a debate with the Human Rights Campaign’s Elizabeth Birch (CNN, 5/9/01), that “any gay person” can achieve “absolute reformation and change” if only “they really believe they’re wrong… then through the shed blood of Jesus Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit of God, there’s absolute deliverance.”
Falwell, an anti-gay activist who opposes teaching evolution in schools (Toronto Star, 10/14/99), would seem a questionable source for expert science commentary, but he served a purpose. Pitting lesbians and gays against religious-right homophobes narrows the focus on sexual politics and handily avoids complicating the issue with confusing scientific details.
It also allowed many journalists to dismiss lesbian, gay and bisexual advocates’ criticisms of Spitzer’s dubious science as knee-jerk political backlash. On CNN (5/12/01), Christopher Caldwell speculated that gays were simply angry at the “subtext” that “says there are reasons to want to become heterosexual… I don’t see what non-political gays would object to about this study,” he said. A Wall Street Journal editorial (5/11/01) chided lesbian and gay advocates who pointed to flaws in Spitzer’s methodology: “It’s hard to see how circling the wagons around a cherished orthodoxy really advances the cause of gay rights, especially if it requires maligning a respected researcher rather than dealing with his findings.” No journalist presented the “science vs. gays” frame more succinctly than CBS‘s Charles Osgood, who asserted (5/9/01), “Even the idea that some gays might want to change is anathema to some. It is not scientific correctness that is the issue but political correctness.”
A matter of choice
During a filler segment after a “can gays change?” brief on CBS‘s Early Show (5/9/01), CBS‘s Bryant Gumbel, Jane Clayson, Mark McEwen and Julie Chen called Spitzer’s study “stupid,” “ridiculous” and “bizarre.” “I thought we were past all of this,” Clayson said. “Why are we still studying this?”
Media should welcome scientific inquiry, if conducted credibly. But since there are many reasons to suspect Spitzer’s study may not have been, Clayton might have asked, “Why were media so obsessed with Spitzer’s finding that gays can change, and so disinterested in Shidlo and Schroeder’s evidence that they can’t?”
Despite reporters’ descriptions of the “smoldering controversy” over Spitzer’s findings, word about unpublished, non-peer-reviewed, contested studies doesn’t just spread like an act of nature. Editors make choices about what becomes news. Here, those choices reinforced reductive notions of sexuality and gave conservatives ammunition for an anti-gay legislative agenda. As a Fox News reporter explained, “If homosexuality is a choice or a condition that could be reversed, it could be harder convincing people that gays need special protection and legal rights” (Special Report, 5/9/01).
“I Was Appalled at How Media Simplified It”
By editing out key qualifiers like the word “some,” media often exaggerated the conclusions of the “gays can change” study, which specifically noted that shifts in orientation are “rare” and “uncommon.’ Fox‘s Rick Leventhal flatly reported (Special Report, 5/9/01), “Dr. Robert Spitzer says reparative therapy works if subjects are highly motivated.”
Spitzer expressed “horror” at these distortions in a Wall Street Journal op-ed (5/23/01), writing, “I suspect the vast majority of gay people would be unable to alter by much a firmly established homosexual orientation.”
Any journalist who read Spitzer’s study would have understood that it had nothing to do with how people become gay, only whether a shift in orientation is possible. Nevertheless, some reporters and pundits spun it as offering insight into the long-running debate, “Is Homosexuality Biological or Behavioral?” (O’Reilly Factor, 5/9/01). “Now a study suggests that [the gay] lifestyle may be a matter of choice rather than genetics,” Brit Hume announced (Special Report, 5/9/01).
Even when Spitzer clarified that his study had nothing to do with the question of choice or biology, some reporters continued to pose it. After Spitzer began a CNN interview (5/9/01) saying “It’s not a question of choosing one’s feelings,” reporter Carol Lin went on to ask whether people are “actually born heterosexual but are leading or choosing… a gay lifestyle.” “No…. I’m not talking about how they were born,” Spitzer responded, “and the issue is not choosing a lifestyle.” Still, Lin demanded, “So, on the bottom line here, are you saying that a homosexual can choose to be straight?” Spitzer: “No, I’m certainly not saying that.”
“I was appalled at how…media simplified it,” Spitzer told Extra!. “It’s easier to say ‘homosexuals can change’ than to say ‘a number of homosexual indicators on a continuum’ can change…. I would have preferred that they avoid the misuses I anticipated [in the last few slides of my presentation], such as that it applied to all homosexuals, and that they wouldn’t have raised irrelevant issues like the issue of choice or genetics.”–J.L.P.