from Clinical/Therapeutic Issues
Epstein's editorial, "Am I Anti-Gay? You Be the Judge" was written after gay activists objected to his magazine's publication of an ad for a controversial new book.
The book is A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexuality, by Joseph and Linda Nicolosi, which describes the ways in which parents can maximize the likelihood of their children growing up with a secure gender identity and heterosexual orientation.
Angered when she saw the ad, psychologist Betty Berzon somehow located the private phone number of magazine editor Bob Epstein. Calling him at home on a Saturday, she demanded an explanation from him.
(Epstein graciously refrained from identifying Berzon by name in his editorial, but a gay magazine, The Advocate, later identified her as the caller.)
Berzon demanded to know why his magazine accepted "such a heinous ad." She told Epstein that she was speaking for thousands' of gays who were going to boycott the magazine -- "and worse," she warned.
In that conversation, and in letters from other gay activists that followed, Epstein -- who is a social liberal and champion of gay rights--was suddenly immersed in something quite new to him--what he describes as "the dark, intolerant, abusive side of the gay community."
The author of the book, Berzon charged, "was 'a bigot.'" Furthermore, "no gay person had ever successfully become straight," and "homosexuality was entirely determined by genes." She added that sexual conversion therapy had been condemned by the American Psychological Association.
When Epstein disagreed with the above assertions, Berzon hung up the phone and sent out a flurry of postings to gay and lesbian internet sites, urging activists to harass him at home by telephone, Epstein says, and then to barrage him with complaint letters.
The Psychology Today editor subsequently received "threats, insults," and "brutal letters" from gay activists.
"In all," Epstein says, "I received about 120 letters...Several writers suggested I was a 'Nazi' and 'bigot,' and one compared me with the Taliban. A surprising number of letters asserted that gays have a right to be rude or abusive because they themselves have been abused."
"But my caller was way off-base, on key points," Epstein notes. "The APA has never condemned sexual conversion therapy but has merely issued cautionary statements." One of those statements in fact reminds psychologists "of their obligation to 'respect the rights of others to hold values, attitudes and opinions that differ from [their] own'--an obligation from which my caller clearly feels exempt."
So what about therapy to change homosexuality? Since the condition was removed from the diagnostic manual in 1973, did the authors of Preventing Homosexuality have the right to promote reorientation therapy?
"Although homosexuality was removed from the DSM as a mental disorder in 1973," Epstein says, "all editions of the DSM have listed a disorder characterized by 'distress' over one's sexual orientation, and some choose to try to change that orientation. Both gays and straights have a right to seek treatment when they're unhappy with their sexual orientation, and some choose to try to change that orientation. It would be absurd to assert that only heterosexuals have that right."
But can gays actually change? Epstein said that he had seen some "interesting data" supporting the ethics and effectiveness of reorientation therapy. He cited recent research, featured on the NARTH web site and just published in an APA journal, by NARTH Fellow Award recipient Warren Throckmorton, Ph.D., "which suggests that sexual orientation conversion therapy is at least sometimes successful...From this and other sources I'd guess that such therapy is probably successful about a third of the time."
Epstein then notes that perhaps another third of the clients--those who do not succeed and eventually drop out--"are unhappy or even angry" about their failure to change. These figures might sound discouraging, he says, but there are many similar examples of clinical problems that resist change.
He notes that agoraphobia (fear of leaving home) and autism are also very difficult to treat successfully, and that "angry outcomes" after therapy often occur as a result of many difficult treatments, such as marital counseling.
Then there's also the charge by critics of reorientation that therapy may change behavior, but not fantasies. In fact, Epstein notes, mere behavioral change is sufficient for many clients and is not an unethical form of treatment, because "it's common for people to ask therapists to help them suppress a wide variety of tendencies with possible genetic bases: compulsive shopping and gambling, drinking, drug use, aggressiveness, urges to have too much sex, or sex with children, etc."
But of still greater importance in this discussion, Epstein continued, "is a new study by Robert Spitzer, M.D. of Columbia University." Epstein notes that "even though he has been under tremendous pressure by gay activists to repudiate his findings, Spitzer has concluded that sexual conversion therapy can produce significant, positive and lasting changes."
Throughout the unfolding controversy--including an "O'Reilly Factor" TV interview in December with book author Joseph Nicolosi, in which host Bill O'Reilly vehemently defended Nicolosi's right to publish and advertise--editor Epstein refused to back down.
"Stay tuned," he advises his readers in an editorial in the January issue of Psychology Today. Because it's time, he says, to review the sexual conversion issue again in his magazine.
"We'll soon offer and objective, comprehensive look at the ex-gay issue, " he says, "and also give the factions space to vent."
Source of Epstein quotes: Editorial by Dr. Robert Epstein, Ph.D., "Am I Anti-Gay? You Be the Judge," Psychology Today, Jan./Feb. 2003, page 7-8.