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GLAAD Media Reference Guide - In Focus:"Ex-Gays" & "Conversion Therapy"


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Anti-gay activists have argued for years that sexual orientation is a choice and changeable – but only for lesbians and gay men, not heterosexuals. They often claim homosexuality is a form of mental illness or an emotional disorder that can be "cured" through psychological or religious intervention. Relying heavily on the testimony of so-called "ex-gays," anti-gay activists claim that homosexuality is a curable condition, and therefore lesbians and gay men do not need or deserve equal rights or protection from discrimination.

The American Psychiatric Association has condemned the "treatment" of homosexuality, saying, "The potential risks of 'reparative therapy' are great, including depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior, since therapist alignment with societal prejudices against homosexuality may reinforce self-hatred already experienced by the patient." In addition, the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, the National Mental Health Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics have also spoken out against these attempts to "cure" gays and lesbians. And many who have undergone such "treatment" have stepped forward to debunk it and to unmask the political motivations of its proponents.


In reporting, the term "reparative therapy" should be avoided whenever possible (except in quoted material), as it is most often used to insinuate that lesbian, gay and bisexual people are "disordered" or "broken" and need to be "repaired." It is usually best simply to describe the actions and motivations of those who seek to change the orientation of lesbian and gay people.


In May 2001, Dr. Robert Spitzer of Columbia University released the results of a short-term study of so-called "conversion" therapy. Based on telephone interviews with a convenience sample of 200 subjects, Spitzer said that some "highly motivated" gay people could change their sexual orientation through therapy or other means.

Media coverage of the Spitzer study was largely inaccurate and sensationalistic. Outlets viewed the study solely through social and political filters, rather than on scientific merits. Many outlets misstated Spitzer's conclusions with breathless claims like, "An explosive new study says some gay people can turn straight if they really want to" – a notion Spitzer himself has vehemently disputed.

Many in the scientific community have dismissed Spitzer's study because of its serious methodological flaws, among them:

• Spitzer recruited most of his subjects through two anti-gay activist groups: Exodus and the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH).

• Spitzer intentionally excluded from his study anyone whose experiences with "conversion therapy" were not successful.

• Spitzer's research did not mention or account for the existence of bisexuality or for the possibility that some of his subjects may have been bisexual.

More than eight years later, anti-gay groups still routinely misrepresent Spitzer's study and misstate the findings in his report. Please scrutinize sweeping claims that Spitzer's study "proves" gay people can be turned straight, consider them in light of Spitzer's public criticism of anti-gay groups and their misstatements about his report, and evaluate them in light of the study's methodological flaws. (Spitzer also told the Los Angeles Times in 2006 that he now believes some of his subjects may have been either deceiving themselves or lying to him.)


In 2009, a task force of the American Psychological Association drafted a landmark report on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation. Following a comprehensive analysis of peer-reviewed research on what the APA labeled "sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE)" the APA "concluded that efforts to change sexual orientation are unlikely to be successful and involve some risk of harm, contrary to the claims of SOCE practitioners and advocates." The APA's governing body adopted the report's recommendations by an overwhelming 125-4 vote.


When reporting on scientific opinions or research on sexual orientation/gender identity issues, please consult with acknowledged, qualified experts in the appropriate scientific discipline(s) to assess the quality of scientific studies and methods before legitimizing them through media reports. In addition, be careful not to overstate or misstate the findings or implications of new research.

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