Homophobia is a powerfully destructive force in our culture. And it is most deadly when it is met with silence. For some reason, this week I’ve noticed several disturbing examples of silence, committed by individuals who have significant power to reduce and eliminate homophobia in our culture.
Barack Obama is one of them. Although his administration has made powerful strides in advancing LGBTQ civil rights (repealing DADT, for example), his “evolution” regarding same-sex marriage rights has been painfully slow. And this week, Obama refused to add sexual orientation and gender identity to an executive order that would prevent discrimination by federal contractors. With a simple stroke of the pen, Obama could have granted protections for a lot of LGBTQ people. But he chose not to take that action – probably because he doesn’t want to ruffle feathers during an election season.
So, in order not to ruffle feathers, Obama stays silent. And the LGBTQ community gets to bear the costs.
But it was another act of silence that I found myself reacting to more strongly. Nearly forty years ago, then-president of the American Psychiatric Association Robert Spitzer took a powerful – and potentially risky – stance when he led the effort to depathologize homosexuality by removing it from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Spitzer is not gay, and was never previously involved with any form of gay activism. But he used his position of power and made a decision in the service of social justice that impacted millions of people. He could have remained cloaked in his heterosexual privilege, as many people do, and chosen not to implement this change. Instead, he took the path of a straight ally, speaking out and acting with courage and integrity.
But the story doesn’t end here.
Almost thirty years later, at the annual APA convention, Spitzer presented a paper based on 200 interviews of lesbians and gay men who had undergone some form of reparative therapy, mainly through ex-gay ministries like Exodus International, or with therapists affiliated with the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). This paper, titled, “Can Some Gay Men and Lesbians Change Their Sexual Orientation?” revealed that 66% of male participants and 44% of female participants had achieved “good heterosexual functioning,” and that “89 percent of men and 95 percent of women said they were bothered only slightly, or not at all, by unwanted homosexual feelings.” Spitzer’s attempts to soften these damning statistics, noting that “only 11 percent of the men and 37 percent of the women reported a complete absence of homosexual indicators, including same-sex attraction,” were ineffective and weak. Despite the fact that the APA issued an official disavowal of the paper, and despite the fact that numerous criticisms had been made of the study, the damage had been done. For the first time, a researcher who was not affiliated with NARTH, or the Family Research Council, or Focus on the Family had determined that sexual orientation change was possible. And it wasn’t just any old researcher – it was the researcher who had removed the homosexuality diagnosis from the DSM in the first place. To add insult to injury, Spitzer even took an active step forward with his research – he submitted his paper to the Archives of Sexual Behavior, a highly respected scientific journal, and it was published two years later in 2003. If anything could have felt a complete and total betrayal to the LGBTQ community, this was it.
Spitzer’s been interviewed numerous times since then, and he’s consistently stood by the findings of his study. And even though he’s recognized and acknowledged that his paper provoked feelings of tremendous anger and betrayal from the LGBTQ community, he’s never made a public statement of apology.
Until this week.
In an interview with Gabriel Arana, who wrote an article titled, “My So-Called Ex-Gay Life,” Spitzer talked about how troubled he was by how his study was received. He noted that his goal in conducting the study in the first place was never to provide ammunition for reparative therapy groups – it was merely to assess whether sexual orientation change was even a possibility. He acknowledged that the criticisms that were lodged against the study were “largely correct.” He said that he had spoken with the editor of the Archives of Sexual Behavior and asked them to print a retraction, but that the editor declined the request. And, at the end of his interview with Arana, Spitzer asked if he would print a retraction, so, in his words, “I don’t have to worry about it anymore.”
Why didn’t Spitzer push harder for the retraction of his paper? Why didn’t he speak out when NARTH used his study for political purposes? Instead of issuing a second-hand retraction via an online article, why didn’t Spitzer attempt to get a retraction into a more academically rigorous publication?
It’s easy and convenient to blame the victim, and to try to burn Spitzer at the stake. However, I don’t think we can ever underestimate the powerful silencing effects of homophobia. Homophobia wants LGBTQ people to keep quiet and disappear. And homophobia knows that when powerful people speak up and speak out, change happens. So homophobia goes to any lengths to suppress the voices of powerful people.
But if we know what homophobia is capable of, and we know the tactics that homophobia will use to achieve its goals, then we have powerful ammunition against it. Silence is the ally of homophobia. Our voices and actions are the allies of social justice.
You can find Gabriel Arana’s article, “My So-Called Ex-Gay Life,” at http://prospect.org/article/my-so-called-ex-gay-life.