Am I Anti-Gay?

You be the judge. A letter form the editor in chief.

By Robert Epstein Ph.D., published January 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Ever since I was a teenager, people have occasionally called me gay, perhaps because I fit some gay stereotypes: I'm an ectomorph (fairly thin), I fuss over my appearance and I often wear a motorcycle jacket (because I ride a motorcycle!). I've always considered the label a compliment because some of the most intelligent, sensitive and creative people I've known over the years have been gay or lesbian, including a former fiancée (long story), the producer of my radio show and a dear cousin. On the other hand, it's no fun being associated with a despised minority. Surveys indicate that as much as 70 percent of the American public is "homophobic." That misnomer suggests that people fear homosexuals; a more appropriate term would be homomisic, from the Greek term misos ("hatred"), since many Americans actually hate gays.

Many consider homosexuality to be immoral because of strong language in the Bible prohibiting males from "lying with" males (especially Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 and Romans 1:26-27). But many Biblical prohibitions (e.g., against intercourse during menstruation or against masturbation) are ignored by modern culture, so it's clear that we can set aside the moral objections against homosexuality when we choose to do so. In the Netherlands, a Christian country, less than 20 percent of the public is anti-gay. Religious objections to homosexuality can, it seems, be overcome.

Others consider homosexuality to be unnatural, and they're simply wrong. Homosexual behavior has existed throughout human history; it exists throughout the animal kingdom; and it exists in every culture on earth-even in those that punish such behavior by death. The evidence is overwhelming that homosexual behavior is at least partially genetic in origin. More than 6 percent of male sheep, for example, are exclusively homosexual, and a 1996 study showed that homosexual behavior in fruit flies can be deliberately engineered by genetic manipulation. More to the point, concordance studies with humans suggest that male homosexuality is roughly 50 percent genetic in origin (compared with 5 percent for weight and 84 percent for height).

I bring these matters to your attention because of a threatening phone call I received a few weeks ago from a fellow psychologist. On page 78 of our last issue, PT ran a small ad for a book called A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexualityby Joseph Nicolosi, Ph.D., and his wife Linda. Nicolosi is a psychologist who specializes in trying to help unhappy gays become straight. Apparently feeling that this rather modest contribution to the literature on homosexuality wasn't getting enough attention, the psychologist, who identified herself as a lesbian activist, called me at home on a Saturday to tell me that PT should not have run such a heinous ad, that she was speaking for "thousands" of gays who were going to boycott PT, "and worse," that Dr. Nicolosi was a "bigot," that no gay person had ever successfully become straight, that homosexuality was entirely determined by genes, and that sexual conversion therapy had been condemned by the American Psychological Association. I told her that the editorial department at PT has no connection whatsoever with the advertising department, but she was unimpressed. She subsequently posted messages on the Internet urging people to harrass me at home (no one else ever did) and to send me complaint letters.

In all, I received about 120 letters, many of which exemplified a bad game of Telephone: Some people complained about an anti-gay "article" PT had published; others referred to an anti-gay book I had published and people who weren't subscribers said they were dropping their subscriptions. Several writers suggested I was a "Nazi" and a "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. Most echoed the same points that my caller had made.

But my caller was way off base on key points. The APA has never condemned sexual conversion therapy but has merely issued cautionary statements, one of which 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. Although homosexuality was removed from the DSM-the diagnostic manual used by therapists-as a mental disorder in 1973, all editions of the DSM have always listed a disorder characterized by "distress" over one's sexual orientation (DSM section 302.9). 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 should have that right.

Can gays change? Some people who wrote to me insisted that "orientation" is immutable, but behavior is certainly not, and 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 and so on. A 2002 research review by Warren Throckmorton, Ph.D., published in an APA journal, suggests that sexual conversion therapy is at least sometimes successful. From this and other sources I've checked, I'd guess that such therapy is probably successful about a third of the time and that in perhaps another third of the cases, clients are unhappy or even angry about their failure to change. These figures might sound discouraging, but there are certainly many examples of clinical problems that resist change (e.g., agoraphobia and autism) or that produce angry outcomes after therapy (e.g., couples counseling or treatment for sexual abuse). Of greater importance is a new study by Robert Spitzer, M.D., of Columbia University, the man who headed the committee responsible for removing "homosexuality" from the DSM in 1973. After surveying 200 people who had remained "ex-gay" for at least five years-and 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.

Regarding Dr. Nicolosi and A Parent's Guide...: The book itself is surprisingly tame. It notes, for example, that children who might be headed toward homosexuality "should not be forced into a predetermined mold," that sexual orientation can only be modified "to some extent," that there is no "guarantee" that a child will grow up to be heterosexual and that homosexuality has "biological influences." On the down side, the authors attribute virtually all male homosexuality to poor father-son relationships, failing to present any hard data to support their assertion and ignoring the possibility that fathers avoid effeminate sons-in other words, that homosexual tendencies cause bad father-son relations and not vice versa. The authors also make the naive assertion that because we all come equipped with sex organs, we were "designed" for heterosexuality. Tell that to the male sheep. Dr. Nicolosi has also made, in my view, intemperate and irresponsible public comments about homosexuality, and he does not deny having made them.

Ironically, in addition to receiving threats and insults from gay activists, I have also received brutal letters from readers who objected to my sympathetic answer to a question about homosexuality in my column, "Ask Dr. E," on page 86 of the same issue that carried the ad for the Nicolosi book. A lot of people, it seems, hate me no matter what I say, or don't say, on this issue. (To be fair and factual, I also received a few crossover letters: Some gays expressed strong support for PT's right to carry the ad, condemning censorship in any form.)

Psychology Today reviewed the sexual conversion issue in 1999, but it's clearly time to do so again. Two new books are out on the subject, two others will be out any day now, and the Spitzer data will soon be in print. So stay tuned; we'll soon offer an objective, comprehensive look at the ex-gay issue and will also give the factions space to vent.

By the way, in spite of the fact that I've now been introduced to a dark, intolerant, abusive side of the gay community, I will continue to be a strong advocate for gay and lesbian causes, to champion the individual's right to self-determination, and to condemn any attempts by anyone to suppress the truth. So, am I anti-gay?

Robert Epstein is editor in chief of Psychology Today, university research professor at the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University, and director emeritus of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies. He earned his Ph.D. in psychology at Harvard University.