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Psychiatrist Discusses Study Into Homosexuals Adopting Heterosexual Lives

Aired May 9, 2001 - 08:40   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: The question is "gay or straight?": Is it possible to change your sexuality.

The author of a new study thinks it is possible, and he is going to present his findings to the American Psychiatric Association today. Psychiatrist Robert Spitzer joins us from New Orleans, where the meeting is taking place.

Good morning, Dr. Spitzer.

DR. ROBERT SPITZER, PSYCHIATRIST: Good morning.

LIN: I hope you're bracing yourself for the response to this study, because already it is the buzz of our newsroom: How do you change from gay to straight?

SPITZER: Well, first of all, I'm not sure the term "gay" is correct. Many of these people that I studied -- I studied over 200 -- were never gay in the sense of being comfortable with their homosexual feelings. Some had been, but most were never comfortable with their homosexual feelings.

Through a variety of change efforts -- some with standard psychotherapy, some in "ex-gay ministries" -- over many years, and usually in a very gradual process, they did change their sexual feelings.

This is not something that they were able to choose. It's not a question of choosing one's feelings. It's a question of making an effort through a particular program.

We interviewed them in a variety of ways, asking not only about sexual attraction, but about fantasies, lustful thoughts, fantasies during masturbation. For those who were married before the change effort, we asked them about fantasies while having heterosexual sex. Many of the subjects were currently married. They had married subsequent to the change effort, and we again asked them about fantasies while they were having heterosexual sex.

LIN: Dr. Spitzer, let's make a very important distinction here, then, because I think that's what you're trying to do: Are you saying that these are people who were actually born heterosexual but are leading or choosing, for whatever reasons, a gay lifestyle, and then become confused along the way?

SPITZER: No. First of all, I'm not talking about how they were born. Almost all of them in their teenage years were predominately homosexual in terms of sexual arousal, rarely being aroused heterosexually. The issue is not about being born that way, and the issue is not choosing a lifestyle. Most of them did not actually choose to be openly gay. Some had, for a period of time.

The important thing is that they made an effort through a specific change effort, which, as I mentioned, sometimes was psychotherapy, sometimes was being in an "ex-gay" support group. As a result of that effort, their feelings changed, to varying degrees -- they didn't all change completely. In fact, a relatively small number changed completely. But they did change substantially.

LIN: Was this voluntary behavior, or did religion somehow play a role in this conversion?

SPITZER: First of all, I wouldn't use the word "conversion." I would use the words "increasing one's heterosexual potential and diminishing homosexual potential."

Many of these people were motivated, certainly, by religious conflict, but that was not the only reason that they sought to change. Many of them sought to change because they were not satisfied with what they regarded as the gay lifestyle, which they found emotionally unsatisfying. Many of them were married and felt that their marriage could only be saved if they changed their feelings. And many of them wanted to get married but were unable to have opposite-sex feelings until they experienced this change.

LIN: 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 would be very concerned if that's the way this study -- it's not a question of choosing. One doesn't choose to become heterosexual or homosexual. One can choose to resist an impulse. One can choose to make an effort by joining some kind of a program. These are not people who chose to change. They chose to make an effort to change. Some were successful, to varying degrees.

LIN: So how do you know that they're no longer gay? You're saying that they're changing their behavior, but...

SPITZER: No, I'm saying they're changing their sexual arousal, their fantasies, and their sexual fantasies while they're sexually aroused. Changing behavior is relatively easy. That's not news that somebody can decide to become celibate or decide to -- but this is not a question of choosing one's feelings. It's through a process of, usually, very gradual change, one's feeling's changing.

Again, I'm not saying that this can be easily done, or that most homosexuals who want to change can make this kind of change. I suspect it's quite unusual, and probably more unusual than those who claim it is a third of the time say. LIN: You understand also that this issue is sure to be socially and politically charged, and you're not just any psychiatrist making these findings. You are the doctor who was instrumental in a 1973 decision to remove homosexuality from being listed as a mental disorder with the American Psychiatric Association. The social implications of that were clear, and pretty clear for the gay community.

SPITZER: The gay community greatly benefited by that decision. I certainly would be very upset if my study now, 18 (sic) years later, were used to justify coercive treatment. That would be a terrible thing. If it was used to justify the denial of civil rights to homosexuals, or...

LIN: Then how do you think it should be used, Dr. Spitzer?

SPITZER: It should be used exactly the way it is being reported. Some homosexuals, through a variety of change efforts, can make substantial increases in their heterosexual potential. It's probably a relatively rare phenomenon.

We don't know how common it is because that's not the way we got our sample. Our sample was self selected from people who already claimed they had made some change. We don't know how common that kind of change is if you started with 100 or 1,000 homosexuals who wanted to make an effort. We don't know how common that is.

LIN: Dr. Spitzer, I only have a few seconds left with you, but it sounds to my ear like there is a potential here for someone to make the argument that homosexuality can be treated in the same manner that alcoholism is treated?

SPITZER: I don't know if it's in the same manner, and I don't know what the success rate is, but I do think the evidence is, as I said before, that some homosexuals who want to change can change. But it's not an easy process, and it's not choosing to change: It's choosing to make the effort.

LIN: It'll be interesting to see how people, after they hear your report, make that distinction.

(CROSSTALK)

SPITZER: Thank you.

LIN: Thank you very much, Dr. Spitzer.

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