Dr. Robert Spitzer, according to The New York Times, considered by some to be the father of modern psychiatry, just made front page news when he apologized to the gay community, recanting a well-publicized 2003 study he had done supporting the use of reparative therapy to "cure" homosexuality.
Spitzer's study came three decades after the American Psychiatric Association, at his own urging, decided to drop homosexuality as a medical disorder so he was far from a bigot. The Times reports he was later influenced by protestors at the psychiatric association's annual convention in 1999 when self-described ex-gays were upset that they were being ignored by the professional group.
He was intrigued enough to study the issue and recruited a couple hundred men and women turned out by Exodus International and other similar groups that promote conversion therapy. (One of the founders of Exodus, Michael Bussee, also apologized years ago, though still long after he had left the group to join in a committed same-sex relationship with another member.) Dr. Spitzer had interviewed these people over the phone and reported that many told of changing from predominantly homosexual to heterosexual behaviors.
As would be expected, that 2003 study received huge attention, primarily from the right who erroneously used it as an example that homosexuality could be "cured" despite Spitzer's protestations that his research was only reporting how people thought of themselves -- a vague measure subject to continual change and self-deception. Facts rarely get in the way of a good television sound-bite.
I came out as a gay man in 1977 and was totally comfortable in my sexuality by the time Dr. Spitzer's now-recanted conclusions hit the news in 2003. But that wasn't that case in 1970 when I was a scared teenager in high school trying to find my place in the world. I had heard about homosexuals since I read the newspaper and watched television. They molested children and got arrested, or were found dead in highway rest areas. I can't recall ever hearing or reading a word about any happy or successful gay person -- only the ones who were dead or in jail.
This was before the Internet, so any information -- let alone accurate information -- usually took considerable effort to track down. But in 1970 there was a major best-selling book that was in every bookstore and library: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (*But Were Afraid to Ask) by Dr. David Reuben (The Woody Allen movie came later in 1972.)
So after looking up "homosexual" in the high school library encyclopedia failed to yield any useful information, I turned to Dr. Reuben's book. I remember being terrified, trembling as I thumbed through it at the bookstore; it confirmed all my worst fears. Still I bought a copy, hoping that the Q&A on heterosexual relations might help me grow up to be the "normal" person I so wanted to be.
A few years later, I had moved to New York City for grad school and went to a psychologist to help achieve that goal. Since all sorts of treatments were in vogue then to eliminate homosexuality -- including electroshock therapy -- I consider myself very fortunate that this particular therapist insisted I tell him why I was so sure I wanted to be straight. He set me down a path in life that turned out be one I'm very grateful to have lived. I shudder when I think how close I came to going another direction.
Once I came out of the closet, I promptly threw away my copy of Dr. Reuben's book. But five years ago, then in my fifties, I was working on background research for my novel Running in Bed and decided to try to track down a version of the original Everything You Always Wanted to Know. They're available on eBay and other sites, and you can find the famous chapter on "Male Homosexuality"on the Internet.
The book was written in breezy question and answer format and Dr. Reuben had an anonymous homosexual explain how it's usually done, in his example, at a bowling alley restroom:
"I always use a piece of toilet paper to write some kind of note -- usually I just say 'Do you suck?' Sometimes if I have plenty of time I add something else like, 'How big are you?' I throw the paper on the floor, he picks it up, comes over into my cubicle, and sucks my penis. That's how it ends -- sometimes I suck his penis but usually I just go home." No feeling, no sentiment, no nothing.
That led Dr. Reuben to a follow-up question which he answers himself:
Are all homosexual contacts as impersonal as that?
No. Most are much more impersonal. The majority of gay guys, when they cruise, dispense with the courtship. They don't even have time for footsie or love notes on toilet paper. Homosexuality seems to have a compelling urgency about it. A homosexual walks into the men's washroom and spots another homosexual. One drops to his knees, the other unzips his pants, and a few moments later, it's all over. No names, no faces, no emotions.
The 22-page chapter went on and on since apparently straight readers just couldn't get enough information about gay sex. "Aren't homosexuals afraid of being arrested?" Dr. Reuben asked himself before explaining:
They have a compulsion to flaunt their sex in public. A public washroom is frequently their stage. Bus stations, parks, bowling alleys, are haunted by gay guys. Random and reckless selection of partners is the trademark. The fact that the stranger is likely to be a policeman, an "S-and-M," or a syphilitic never seems to occur to them. This is the core of homosexuality.
But all homosexuals aren't like that, are they?
Unfortunately, they are just like that. One of the main features of homosexuality is promiscuity. It stands to reason Homosexuals are trying the impossible: solving the problem with only half the pieces. They say they want sexual gratification and love but they eliminate, right from the start, the most obvious source of love and gratification-woman.
And he goes on to explain further for those who didn't have the benefit of his professional education:
The homosexual must constantly look for the one man, the one penis, the one experience, that will satisfy him. Tragically there is no possibility of satisfaction because the formula is wrong. One penis plus one penis equals nothing. There is no substitute for heterosex-penis and vagina. Disappointed, stubborn, discouraged, defiant, the homosexual keeps trying. He is the sexual Diogenes, always looking for the penis that pleases.
Not much to look forward to in life for any young person trying to come to terms with their sexuality. This was not a fringe book, but a bestseller -- on The New York Times Best Seller List for well over a year until April 1971. The Times Book Review praised its "exuberant, wise-cracking tone" and Dr. Reuben went on an extensive book tour including The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and later had a column in McCall's magazine.
And the saddest part of all is that Dr. Rueben basically fit right with just about everything else you saw or heard in the media back in 1970. It wasn't until a decade and half-later that GLAAD, the now well-known Gay Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, came into existence to challenge these stereotypes.
Fortunately Dr. Reuben offered a solution to anyone who was concerned after reading his view of what life would be like for anyone who pursued a life of homosexuality:
If a homosexual who wants to renounce homosexuality finds a psychiatrist who knows how to cure homosexuality, he has every chance of becoming a happy, well-adjusted, heterosexual.
One can't help wondering how much money was paid to psychiatrists as a result. Remember, this was one of the most popular books of its day, no. 1 on the Times Best Seller List for 55 weeks.
There's still much work to be done but we've come a long way in a short time. A young person today in this country doesn't have to look far to find positive role models. And the likes of Dr. Reuben would have a hard time finding a platform for views like his today. Unless, that is, he wanted to apologize for having ever expressed them in the first place.