We can’t ‘cure’ homosexuality; can we forgive the scientist who said we could?

In 2003, the highly regarded Dr. Robert L. Spitzer published what purported to be a study of the success of “conversion therapy” which said that it was possible to change one’s sexual orientation from gay to straight. This study is the foundation of a very great deal of anti-homosexual propaganda and programs. Nonetheless, it and its publication were deeply flawed. For one thing, such is Spitzer prestige, it was not peer reviewed by the journal. In addition, it relied on self-reports, some of which asked for data from the distant past, as one criticism said. Many experts in the field think it is worthless. And now so does Dr. Spitzer.

With descriptions that may seem designed to win sympathy for Spitzer, the NY Times reports:

Dr. Robert L. Spitzer, considered by some to be the father of modern psychiatry, lay awake at 4 o’clock on a recent morning knowing he had to do the one thing that comes least naturally to him.

He pushed himself up and staggered into the dark. His desk seemed impossibly far away; Dr. Spitzer, who turns 80 next week, suffers from Parkinson’s disease and has trouble walking, sitting, even holding his head upright.

The word he sometimes uses to describe these limitations — pathetic — is the same one that for decades he wielded like an ax to strike down dumb ideas, empty theorizing and junk studies.

Now here he was at his computer, ready to recant a study he had done himself, a poorly conceived 2003 investigation that supported the use of so-called reparative therapy to “cure” homosexuality for people strongly motivated to change.

And certainly there are praise worthy facts here. Spitzer in fact is largely credited to getting homosexuality off the DSM’s list of mental disorders.** And not that many people are happy to confess to errors in public.

On the other hand, the supposed study has done a great deal of harm. Some of it is recounted in comments on the Times’ article. Here is one:

My mother died of Parkinson’s disease but I never got to see her in her waning years because she and my father cut me entirely out of their lives — because I’m gay. They refused me entry to their (formerly our) home. They wouldn’t respond to emails or take calls. All of this was after I “failed” reparative therapy — instead (in their minds) “choosing” a suicide watch in a mental hospital and “continuing” to be gay. They relied heavily upon this man’s “research” in their analysis, assessment, opinion and rejection of me.

I’m sorry to hear of this man’s illness. But his illness, and his apology, make his use of gay people as pawns in his game of professional status-seeking no less reprehensible. I, too, only have one regret — it’s this man’s “work” and contribution to my life. He made a very difficult road all but bitterly impossible.

No letter he ever writes will negates what he did.

A large number of the responders praise Spitzer’s recanting, and recommend he be forgiven for his study. That may be very facile. Should the people harmed, even demonized by those using the study forgive him. “It’s time to move on,” some people are saying. Unfortunately, there are things that one cannot simply move on from. The damage may be permanent, written on one’s mind and body in ways impossible to ignore. Ask victims of torture, among whom some commenters regard themselves. A successful life may be the best revenge, but the harm done may make success unfairly very much harder.

So how should we think about forgiveness in such cases? What do you think?

**A number of commenters on the article claim that the forthcoming DSM and psychiatry more generally is still very hostile to sexual differences.