Psychologists Disagree Over Therapy for Homosexuals

By Monisha Bansal | July 7, 2008 | 8:06pm EDT

( - Protesters from pro-family groups and therapists who specialize in helping homosexuals change their sexual preference picketed the American Psychological Association convention in New Orleans Friday. They complain that the APA will not reconsider its opposition to what is known as "conversion therapy."

The association's stance is that such therapy is unproven, while those who practice it -- including many APA member psychologists -- argue that its success stories are proof of its validity.

Prior to the annual APA convention, the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) sent APA President Gerald Koocher a petition signed by 75 licensee psychologists asking the association to reconsider its stance.

The signers, 67 of whom are current members of the APA, asked the organization to "affirm and promote client autonomy, self-determination and diversity in matters relating to human sexual adaptation."

"Further, we petition APA to support the individual's inalienable right to either claim a homosexual identity or to pursue change in sexual adaptation in accordance with the ethical principles of APA and consistent with an individual's expressed value system," the petition states.

"Finally, we petition APA to recognize, accept and provide opportunities for both gay affirming therapists and re-orientation therapists to express views and announce programs in [APA publications] and otherwise under APA's purview," it adds.

In a letter to Koocher, NARTH President Joseph Nicolosi and scientific advisory board chairman A. Dean Byrd, both psychologists, said the APA is disregarding what's best for homosexuals who do not want to be attracted to members of the same sex.

"The APA's neglect of this latter population, those individuals who wish to explore a course of change in their sexual adaptation, is," the pair wrote, "nothing short of shameful."

In a statement emailed to Cybercast News Service, APA Public Affairs Manager Pamela Willenz dismissed NARTH's complaints.

"For over three decades, the consensus of the mental health community has been that homosexuality is not an illness and therefore not in need of a cure," the APA response states.

"The APA's concern about the positions espoused by NARTH and so-called conversion therapy is that they are not supported by the science," the group claimed. "There is simply no sufficiently scientifically sound evidence that sexual orientation can be changed."

But Dr. Robert Spitzer -- the psychiatrist who led the effort in 1973 to remove homosexuality from the APA's list of psychological disorders -- has since changed his position, based on his research into successful conversion therapies.

"Like most psychiatrists, I thought that homosexual behavior could be resisted -- but that no one could really change their sexual orientation," Spitzer stated. I now believe that's untrue -- some people can and do change."

Clinton Anderson, director of the APA Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Concerns Office, told Cybercast News Service APA does not dispute that some people leave homosexuality. Their concern is how that change comes about.

"I don't think that anyone disagrees with the idea that people can change because we know that straight people become gays and lesbians," Anderson said, "so it seems totally reasonable that some gay and lesbian people would become straight.

"The issue is not whether sexual orientation changes," he continued. "We know that the issue is whether therapy changes sexual orientation, which is what many of these people claim."

In 2001, Spitzer released research based on interviews with 200 former homosexuals who, after completing conversion therapy, had experienced "a significant shift from homosexual to heterosexual attraction which had lasted for at least five years."

Of the male participants who had "rarely or never" felt any attraction to members of the opposite-sex before conversion therapy, "[g]ood heterosexual functioning was reportedly achieved by 67 percent. Nearly all the subjects said they now feel more masculine (in the case of men) or more feminine (women)."

"Contrary to conventioned [sic] wisdom," Spitzer said in a statement, "some highly motivated individuals, using a variety of change efforts, can make substantial change in multiple indicators of sexual orientation."

Spitzer stressed that the evidence supports "a diminishing of homosexuality and an expansion of heterosexual potential that is exhibited in widely varying degrees," rather than a simplistic "either/or" choice between the two orientations. Complete cessation of all homosexual fantasies and attractions, he added, "is probably quite uncommon."

Anderson remains skeptical.

"People claim there is research that shows that therapy can change sexual orientation, but in fact, there has never been an adequate study for that purpose," Anderson added.

"Certainly, there have been studies that have interviewed people who say they have changed as a result of therapy, but that is not adequate evidence to say that it was the therapy that changed them, and that is really the issue," he said

Nicolosi called such comments "doubletalk."

"If people change, they change through relationships and life experience, so why can't therapy -- which is about life experience and relationships -- change people?" asked Nicolosi.

"[The APA is] discouraging research and then saying there is no research," he added. "They are politically discouraging research, but in fact, in spite of their efforts, there is research. The APA is not being honest when they say there is no research."

The APA also expressed concern that "the positions espoused by NARTH and Focus on the Family create an environment in which prejudice and discrimination can flourish."

Spitzer specifically repudiated such reactions to his research when it was released but added, "[P]atients should have the right to explore their heterosexual potential."

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