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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 1, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 01
Dr. Robert Spitzer dies at 83
Urged dropping homosexuality from list of mental disorders
Section One
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Dr. Robert Spitzer dies at 83
Urged dropping homosexuality from list of mental disorders

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

The psychiatrist whose campaign to drop homosexuality from the list of psychiatric disorders led to greater medical acceptance of Gay people died December 25. Dr. Robert Spitzer was 83.

'The fact that gay marriage is allowed today is in part owed to Bob Spitzer,' Gay psychoanalyst Dr. Jack Drescher told The New York Times.

According to Spitzer himself, he originally believed that gayness was, in fact, a mental illness. However, that view began to change in 1966 when he was asked to serve on a committee overseeing the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the manual used by psychiatrists to diagnose and treat mental illness.

After the 1969 Stonewall rebellion, Gay activists began to agitate for more rights, and in the early 1970s, they noisily invaded conferences of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to protest the classification of homosexuality as a mental illness.

After a clash at a 1972 meeting of behavioral therapists in New York, Spitzer decided to hear the protesters out in spite of his own views on the subject, he told This American Life. He then organized a debate at the 1973 APA conference, at which both sides were allowed to present their views.

At that conference, a Gay activist brought Spitzer to a local Gay bar, where he encountered closeted Gay psychiatrists, many with very prestigious credentials. That encounter convinced Spitzer that gayness was not a mental aberration.

'A medical disorder,' he explained to The Washington Post at the time, 'either had to be associated with subjective distress - pain - or general impairment in social function. If gays were happy being gay, then where was the disorder?'

Spitzer then led the campaign for the APA to stop classifying homosexuality as a 'sociopathic personality disturbance' in the DSM. The group voted to make the change in 1973.

Always thorough, Spitzer then took over editorship of the group's DSM and completely revised it. Under him, the DSM tripled in size as he branded and defined scores of common mental illnesses, including PTSD and bipolar disorder, forever changing how they were treated.

As he himself admitted, Spitzer was not always right, however. In 2003, he published a study supporting conversion therapy.

Based on interviews with 200 conversion therapy patients, Spitzer concluded that 'the majority of participants gave reports of change from a predominantly or exclusively homosexual orientation before therapy to a predominantly or exclusively heterosexual orientation in the past year.'

Spitzer's study came under intense criticism from his psychiatric peers and from LGBT activists, who pointed out that it relied on distant memories and involved 'ex-gay' activists who'd undergone a wide variety of therapies.

In 2012, Spitzer recanted his views on conversion therapy and published an apology to the LGBT community.

'I believe I owe the gay community an apology for my study making unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy,' Spitzer wrote.

'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.'

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