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Mindful: Psychiatric Revolution

 by Grayson Steinberg  published on Thursday, October 27, 2005


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Dr. Robert Spitzer never spoke to an openly gay person until activists crashed a meeting of behavioral psychologists discussing the treatment of homosexuality in 1972.

Spitzer, who is now a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, later talked to the gay-rights activists, who discovered he was a member of the committee responsible for revising the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. They argued it was unethical to consider homosexuality a mental disorder, and they could never acquire equal rights until the associated stigma was eliminated, he says.

"I became sympathetic as they described how they had been discriminated and what society was doing to them," Spitzer says.

Prior to 1973, mental health professionals treated homosexuals in two ways: behavioral treatment and psychoanalytic therapy.

Spitzer says behavioral treatment involved showing gay pornography and inducing electrical shocks if patients reacted positively to it, in order to discourage homosexual thoughts. Psychoanalytic therapy examined the patient's childhood to find the root cause of the disorder, for example, a son's inability to identify with his father.

Spitzer organized a symposium featuring psychological professionals from both sides of the issue to debate homosexuality's possible removal from the DSM, he says.

"A lot of my colleagues were very angry with me," he adds. "They felt I had betrayed science by agreeing with the gay activists."

Eventually, Spitzer proposed a compromise in which the door would remain open for gay men and women to seek treatment if they wanted to change their lifestyles to appease those who still believed homosexuality was a disorder.

In the years following the removal decision, mental health professionals gradually lost interest in treating what they considered to be a minor personality variation. This left open a gap later filled by Exodus International and other ex-gay organizations, Spitzer says.

"As the mental health professionals backed away from treatment, it created a vacuum into which the religious approach could flourish," he says. - G.S.



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