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Vowing to Set the World Straight

Reparative therapist Richard A. Cohen, pictured with his wife Jae Sook Cohen and 10-year-old son Alfred at their home in Bowie, says he overcame his homosexuality in 1987 and wants to help other gays
Reparative therapist Richard A. Cohen, pictured with his wife Jae Sook Cohen and 10-year-old son Alfred at their home in Bowie, says he overcame his homosexuality in 1987 and wants to help other gays "go straight." "I want to say, 'I did it, you can . . . too.' " (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)

Hector Roybal, a 52-year-old financial consultant in Los Angeles, spent four years in intensive treatment with Nicolosi, who considers him to be cured. Roybal concurs, but said he still sometimes struggles with sexual feelings for men, although he has remained faithful to his wife, the only woman to whom he says he feels physically attracted.

"I saw myself as someone who had a problem with homosexuality but was meant to be straight," said Roybal, who, like Nicolosi, is a conservative Catholic. "This is about making a choice."

Although reparative therapists sometimes differ about the causes of homosexuality, they are united in saying it is not inborn and it is never normal.

Nicolosi maintains it is the result of a defective bond with the same-sex parent. Boys who feel rejected by their fathers develop a "defensive detachment" -- they reject them and identify with their mothers and other females. Because opposites attract, he theorizes, they are sexually drawn to men, even though what they are searching for is their lost masculinity. Once they find it, he said, their attraction to women will follow, although lifetime vigilance is required to avoid slipping.

Even though reparative therapists say they support "free choice," they see nothing contradictory in their view that homosexuality is pathological. Nor do they regard as incongruent their refusal to work with a straight or bisexual client who thinks he or she might be gay. In their view, homosexuals are doomed to miserable, unhealthy lives.

"We say to patients, 'Your true self is heterosexual,' " Nicolosi said. He said he tells male patients, "Look at your body: It was designed to fit a woman, not a man."

The Study

Robert Spitzer sounds weary when discussing the study published two years ago in the Archives of Sexual Behavior that earned him the enmity of many of his colleagues and the admiration of reparative therapists.

Spitzer's study has special resonance: In 1973 he was the driving force behind the removal of homosexuality from psychiatry's diagnostic manual.

Thirty years later, he said, he decided to test the widespread hypothesis that reparative therapy never worked. "I like to challenge conventional notions," he explained.

Despite the active cooperation of NARTH and ex-gay religious groups, Spitzer said it took him more than 16 months to recruit 200 people who had undergone treatment. He conducted 45-minute telephone interviews and found that 66 percent of 143 men and 44 percent of 57 women, all of whom Spitzer described as "highly motivated" and almost all of whom were "extraordinarily religious," had achieved "good heterosexual function" lasting at least five years. They were in a committed relationship, had satisfying heterosexual sex at least monthly and said they were rarely or never bothered by homosexual feelings.

In an accompanying commentary, former APA president Lawrence Hartmann, a professor at Harvard Medical School, called Spitzer's study "too flawed to publish." Hartmann noted the study was retrospective, that it lacked controls or independent measurements, and was based entirely on self-reports by people who were motivated to say they had changed because of their affiliation with ex-gay or anti-gay groups.

While Nicolosi and others frequently cite the study as proof reparative therapy works, Spitzer said his results have been misrepresented. "It bothers me to be their knight in shining armor because on every social issue I totally disagree with the Christian right," he said.

"What they don't mention is that change is pretty rare," he added, noting that the subjects of his study were not representative of the general population because they were considerably more religious.

And Spitzer calls "totally absurd" the twin hypotheses that everyone is born straight and that homosexuality is a choice.

Drescher agrees. "There are probably a small number of people with some flexibility in their sexual identity who can change," he said. "Out of the hundreds of gay men I've treated, I've had one." ยท

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