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Much ado about changing.

Robert Spitzer says he is "appalled" at the way the media "simplified" his study suggesting gays can change to straight

It was the kind of sensational story the news media can't resist. The leader of the 1973 campaign to have homosexuality removed from diagnostic manuals as a mental disorder, Robert L. Spitzer, was releasing a study indicating that gays could change their sexual orientation through counseling.

The Associated Press declared May 8 that "an explosive new study says some highly motivated gay people can turn straight." The next day, Good Morning America provided Spitzer a platform to expound on Ids research. Time magazine breathlessly asked. "Can Gays Switch Sides?" Conservative columnist Maggie Gallagher called Spitzer a "brave man."

But lost in the media frenzy was the study's fine print. Unveiled at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association on May 9. the research was based on a scientifically insignificant sample of 200, most of whom were drawn from the right-wing "ex-gay" movement and the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, which contends that homosexuality is not an inborn trait but rather "a failure to function according to design." Spitzer interviewed his subjects by telephone for 45 minutes, hardly a basis for reliable data. Even so, only 66% of the men and 44% of the women experienced what Spitzer termed "good heterosexual functioning."

Even Spitzer says he was "appalled" by much of the coverage, which he charges misrepresented his research and distorted his findings. "The problem with many of the stories was that they raised the question of choice. Of course sexual orientation is not a matter of choice," Spitzer, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University in New York City, told The Advocate. "I was shocked by the way in which a lot of the stories simplified the study. Once I saw the way it was pitched, I told every [journalist] who requested an interview that I was very upset about the coverage."

Criticism of the media quickly mounted. "The reporting on the study really oversimplified the whole concept of sexual identity," says Edward Alwood, the author of Straight News: Gays, Lesbians, and the News Media. "The gay community celebrates its own diversity. But the mainstream media really has a hard time conveying that complicated understanding because it's looking for short, pithy sound bites and categories."

Indeed as far back as 1948, pioneering sex researcher Alfred Kinsey found that human males do not always fit neatly into sexual categories. To account for the diversity of human sexual attraction he found in his research, Kinsey created a straight-to-gay scale of 1 through 6 that became known as the legendary "Kinsey scale."

Spitzer says he got the idea for his research after debating ex-gay activists five years ago on Geraldo, the racy television talk show that has since been canceled. "Geraldo's producers wanted someone to say gays can't go straight," he recalls. "So there I was saying it couldn't happen when it dawned on me I didn't know for sure. I became curious how many, if any, homosexuals could behave as heterosexuals. I was simply curious."

Yet it wasn't until The New York Times and The Washington Post ran follow-up stories to the initial blitz on Spitzer's study that readers learned that several studies contradicted it. For instance, New York City psychologists Ariel Shidlo and Michael Schroeder determined that only six of 202 gay men and lesbians they studied reported what the researchers called "a heterosexual shift."

Gay rights groups struggled mightily to contribute their spin to the story. "The Associated Press story, which set the tone for much of the coverage, was clearly sensationalized," says Joan Garry, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, a media watchdog group. "The first couple of sentences tainted readers' perception of the study before they had an opportunity to evaluate it. After that, we had a hard time gaining any control over it." Malcolm Ritter, the AP science writer who reported the story, declined to comment, citing company policy.

Wayne Besen, who has earned a reputation as an aggressive critic of the ex-gay movement in his job as associate communications director at the Human Rights Campaign, a gay lobbying group, obtained an advance copy of Spitzer's study from a major media outlet two days before the story broke. Seeing the obvious holes in the study, Besen and David Smith, HRC communications director, concluded there was little chance it would become a national story and waited to see if reporters expressed any interest. "We never thought the media would take it seriously," Smith says.

But when the AP trumpeted the story, it began to spiral out of control. Smith, Besen, and HRC executive director Elizabeth Birch appeared on television talk shows to shoot holes in the study. Despite underestimating the interest the study would generate, Smith insists HRC managed to contain the fallout. "It really was a one-day wonder," he says. "With the exception of Fox, which has a right-wing bias, none of the major television networks would touch it. I don't think it did the cause any permanent damage."

But Jason Riggs, publications information director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in New York City, faults HRC for falling to share the advance copy with other gay groups. "It would have been helpful to see the study before reporters started calling," he says. "It needed to be an all-hands-on-deck kind of thing. We needed to prepare each other for the tidal wave of coverage and get everyone to talk about the same obvious problems in the study."

Press releases from both NGLTF and HRC sought to undermine Spitzer's credibility by connecting him politically to right-wing groups that, had backed the ex-gay movement. Both groups, in releases referring to a May 2000 press conference in Chicago at which Spitzer appeared with leading antigay organizations, charged that Spitzer stated that he opposes gay adoption, gay marriage, and gays serving openly in the military.

Spitzer says the allegations are false. "I want to make it clear I support gay marriage and adoption and that I'm opposed to the military policy banning gays from serving openly," says Spitzer, who offered to provide The Advocate videotape of his remarks at the press conference. "Look, I'm a Jew atheist. I'm not really comfortable appearing with right-wing groups. I'm certainly not for telling people they should change :for political or religious reasons." Smith calls the information in the HRC press release a "small detail in the larger scheme of the story. If proof is provided Spitzer didn't say those things, we would certainly clean it up in any future interviews we do on the topic."

Yet in working closely with ex-gay groups and aggressively promoting his study, Spitzer may have invited such faultfinding. "I'm willing to admit that I like controversy and to be in the center of burning debates," he says. "Wayne can say I'm in bed with the ex-gay groups all he wants. I'd get in bed with the devil if he referred subjects to me."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Find more information on Spitzer's and activists' efforts to counter it at www.advocate.com
COPYRIGHT 2001 Liberation Publications, Inc.
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Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:BULL, CHRIS
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 19, 2001
Words:1191
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