Date: Mon, 13 Oct 2003 12:10:00 EDT
New evidence shows gays can change their sexuality
New research published last week claims that homosexuals and lesbians who undergo psychiatric therapy can change their sexuality. Charles Laurence in New York meets three of the study's 'converts'
From his earliest memories, Jeff Johnston was one of the girls. Before he was five, he would shun the rough and tumble of boys' play, and stay in the house with his mother and sisters. He looked liked his mum and, relatives would say, acted just like her, too. At seven, he ran away, terrified, from several encounters" with older boys. At high school, he joined the girl gang as a "peer" rather than a suitor, and realized that he was homosexual while reading pornographic magazines, and finding the men in the pictures far more attractive than the women.
But these days Johnston, 40, is married with three sons: Nathaniel, six, and Aden and Brendon, twins of three. "Gay, I was ashamed and afraid," he says. "There was a constant conflict between my Christian faith and my feelings, I always wanted a family and children in the normal way, and I was terrified of AIDS. Now, I have a wonderful marriage and my children, like those of every dad, are brilliant and beautiful."
Johnston is one of the 200 former homosexuals and lesbians who took part in a study by Dr Robert Spitzer, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, New York. The publication of his findings, in the US journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, has created an uproar. Dr Spitzer concluded that homosexuals can change their sexuality. His study, first revealed at a conference in 2001 but published only last week, created even more of an impact among psychiatrists and homosexual organizations because, in 1973, he had been instrumental in deleting homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association's list of official mental disorders. That decision - the foundation of the belief that homosexuality is nature, not nurture, and therefore beyond free will and moral choice - is at the heart of the "gay liberation" movement.
But his new study found that 78 per cent of males and 95 per cent of females who voluntarily underwent the "reparative" or psychiatric therapy reported a change in their sexuality. And of the 143 men and 57 women who participated, 66 per cent of males and 44 per cent of females had achieved what he called "good heterosexual functioning". This he defined as being in a sustained, loving heterosexual relationship, getting "emotional satisfaction" to a point of seven on a 10-point scale, having heterosexual sex at least once a month, and never, or rarely, fantasizing about someone of the same gender during heterosexual sex.
"My conclusion is that the door is open," Dr Spitzer said. "I came to this study as a skeptic - I believed that a homosexual, whether born or made, was a homosexual and that to consider their orientation a matter of choice was wrong. But the fact is that if I found even one person who could change, the door is open, and a change in sexual orientation is possible."
Dr Spitzer has said repeatedly that as an "atheist Jew" his only interest in the issue is scientific truth, adding that an orthodoxy which forbids acknowledgement of the possibility of change is as flawed as that which labels homosexuality an act of will and morally wrong. But gay rights groups insist that Spitzer is a "cultural conservative" who is supporting "therapies" for changing behavior which are doing psychological damage to troubled homosexuals.
According to Joan Garry, the executive director of GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation: "No research nor findings should have any bearing on whether people - gay, lesbian, bisexual or straight - are treated fairly. Spitzer's conclusions are based on a self-selected sample of people who are so troubled by their sexual orientation that they will go to any lengths to try to 'change' it." In London, Peter Tatchell, a gay rights campaigner, said: "Everyone I have spoken to who has been through this so-called treatment says it has not only failed to convert them to heterosexuality, but it has caused them immense psychological and emotional harm."
Both the scientists and the campaigners complain that Dr Spitzer's sample of 200 people is bogus because most came from Christian fundamentalist communities and were simply tormented by the social pressure brought to bear against their natural sexual orientation. Dr Spitzer agrees that the participants were "highly motivated" but that none the less they managed to change to his definition of "good heterosexual functioning".
And in their own words, homosexual "converts" describe social pressure as only part of the cause of their misery and faith as only part of the cure. "Changing was a long process that took many years, and at the heart of it was relationship issues," said Richard Cohen, 50, who became a psychotherapist and now works with troubled homosexuals. "To make behavioral change, you have to go into the past and discover the wounds that created the problem. "This is what I found for myself: I had a fear of my father, an angry man who frightened me; my mother was overbearing and I was too close to her; I had an older brother who was physically abused - beaten - by my father and who in turn abused me; my uncle saw my needs, and then polluted our relationship with sexual abuse; and I was a sensitive kid who was bullied at school." Mr. Cohen, a married father of three children aged 20, 18 and eight, says the key to change is to fit into gender roles that have nothing to do with sex: "A man must first be able to be a man with men, to find his gender identity. When he does, opposites attract and he will want a woman."
Ashley, 47, was a lesbian committed not only to sex with women but to the "activist" lifestyle in Los Angeles, until she started therapy in her late 20s. Now she is married, with a son of 10, and was among the women studied by Dr Spitzer. But although she started going to church during her therapy and says that her faith and the church community helped her change her orientation, it was a search for emotional stability that turned her from her lesbian lovers. "I knew as a teenager that I was a lesbian, and at 18 the magic moment came and I acted on my feelings with a woman 13 years older," she said. "For years I was totally committed to the lifestyle. But I was not happy. Some of my relationships lasted three or four years, and my family was tolerant and I would go home with my lovers. But something was wrong." Ashley realized in her 20s that her lesbian community seemed unable to offer calm, stability and a sense of security. "Every relationship was so intense," she said. "There was anger and jealousy and I could not bear to be away from my lover for even a few minutes.
There was also violence and a great deal of alcohol abuse. These things - unhappiness, alcoholism - are symptoms of people functioning in a way they are not designed to, and, yes, I think that is morally wrong." Ashley found herself turning away from women for sex after realizing in psychotherapy that, all along, she had been looking for a mother figure. Her mother had been an emotionally unstable woman who would one minute be an attentive, safeguarding parent, and the next "absent". Her father, meanwhile, was a hard-working provider whom she hardly knew. "I was looking for my mother in all the wrong women. When I realized that, I slowly started to find men more attractive, or at least I found the guy who is now my husband attractive," she said. "And I simply no longer want to have sex with women."
For Jeff Johnston, the transition to physical attraction to the opposite sex was not as immediate. Even with the woman he fell in love with, Judy, with whom he recently celebrated his 10th wedding anniversary, the chemistry was elusive in the beginning. "It was terrifying, horrible," he said. "Our dating relationship was really rough. I was in my early 30s, and I was trying to do stuff that guys do when they are 16 or 18. "But now it's wonderful," he says, describing how the couple found true happiness after their wedding. "We had a two-year honeymoon."