Saturday, May 19, 2012

Dr. Robert Spitzer's Significant Apology to the Gay Community

This is a very important story for a number of reasons: as Benedict Carey notes in today's New York Times, in 2003, Dr. Robert Spitzer published a study that claimed to validate "ex-gay" therapy.  Because Spitzer had played a leading role in the movement that resulted in the removal of homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association's list of diagnostic disorders, his endorsement of ex-gay "conversion" or "reparative" therapy naturally created quite a stir in 2003.  It gave heart to people attacking the gay community, including faith-based groups offering therapies that many gay folks--and the vast majority of mental health professionals--have for some time now recognized as not merely spurious, but actually harmful to those on whom they're practiced.  

And now Spitzer has written an apology letter to the gay community.  That seems to me very significant for two reasons.  First, it recognizes the damage his ill-considered (and non-empirically grounded: his study was not even peer-reviewed before it was published) endorsement of "ex-gay" therapy did to people.  To human beings.  To a sector of the human population.  

Behind all these political battles and the shifts in thinking of professional communities including the APA stand human beings.  Human beings whose lives, whose very humanity, are being used as ciphers in discussions over which they have little control, but whose outcomes radically determine the quality of life of those human beings.

Spitzer's apology is important, as well, because, as he himself tells Carey, he and other scientists are not wont to apologize.  It is an act of rare decency for Spitzer to admit he was wrong in 2003--and that his wrong-mindedness actually caused harm to a group of human beings.

As I read the article about Spitzer this morning, I couldn't help flashing back to 1986, when the current pope, as Cardinal Ratzinger and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued his infamous Halloween instruction on the "pastoral care" of homosexual persons, which set into motion the ugly juggernaut of anti-gay actions within the Catholic church that continue with the support of Catholic bishops for constitutional amendments that deny rights to gay and lesbian persons.

It was Ratzinger's 1986 Halloween document that made the fateful decision to begin defining gay human beings as "intrinsically disordered."  As I've stated in quite a few postings here, it's clear to me that this move on the part of the Vatican was in direct response to the decision of the APA and of similar psychiatric professional bodies throughout the developed sector of the world in the 1970s to stop using the term "disorder" to refer to a homosexual orientation.  To stop calling homosexuality a mental illness.

As the 1986 statement notes, it was issued in response to understandings of homosexuality--and of the pastoral care of gay persons--that began to arise within the Catholic church after the removal of homosexuality from lists of mental disorders.  The magisterium found some of these movements too accepting of gay and lesbian persons, too inclined to view homosexuality as a natural variant of human sexuality and therefore morally neutral.

And, since it wanted to keep alive the notion that to be homosexual is in some sense to be disordered, it coined the phrase "intrinsically disordered" to refer to those who are gay, with fateful consequences, with consequences that have placed the Catholic church at its magisterial level squarely in opposition to the growing movement recognizing the humanity and human rights of gay and lesbian persons at this point in history.  It is not accidental that the very term the 1986 document chooses to define gay and lesbian humanity--"disordered"--echoes and replicates the term that had just recently been discarded by psychiatric professional organizations when the pastoral document was issued.

And as David Sirota reminds us at Truthdig this morning, what is happening now--now that increasing numbers of people in the developed nations reject the notion of disorder as a lens for viewing the humanity and lives of gay and lesbian human beings they know personally--is that groups like the Catholic magisterium which want to keep the tag "disordered" alive are increasingly on the defensive.  Or, as Sirota indicates, groups like the Republican party, whose latest ploy in the war against the gays is to claim--astonishingly--that it's either human rights for your gay friends or economic recovery.

Can't have both.  Can't focus on both at the same time.  And according rights to that tiny, miserable minority of gay folks?  That would in some way deconstruct the effort to mend the economy.  

We're so sorry.  Sorry if you're gay or know and care about someone who's gay.  Going to have to wait for those human rights a little while longer, while we mend the economy.

As Sirota notes, a lot of people aren't stupid enough to buy this diversionary ploy which is all about trying to keep indefensible prejudice and denial of rights alive as long as possible.  Sadly, though, it appears the Vatican and the Catholic bishops haven't yet caught up to that recognition: that quite a few people, including many Catholics, aren't stupid enough to buy their language of intrinsic disorder any longer.

And more's the pity, if the gentlemen in miters really do want to have credible moral influence in the public squares of the developed nations of the world.

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