Kelley Winters, Ph.D.
GID Reform Advocates
April 21, 2012
On the April 18th broadcast of The Rachel Maddow Show, Dr. Maddow reported an “explosive revelation” that Psychiatrist Robert Spitzer had rescinded his controversial 2001 claim that sexual conversion, or sexual reparative, psychotherapies can change sexual orientation in gay and lesbian people. Quoting an interview of Dr. Spitzer in The American Prospect, Maddow celebrated the historical significance of Spitzer’s reversal for the gay rights movement, calling it,
step one in what we’re now going to see as a real change, a real reckoning, in antigay politics.
Sadly, Dr. Maddow only told half of the story. For four decades, Robert Spitzer has played pivotal roles in mental health policies, not only on sexual orientation, but on gender diversity as well. This week, Rachel Maddow and other journalists turned a blind eye to Dr. Spitzer’s failure to retract a lifetime of trans psychopathologization, stereotyping gender identities and expression that differ from assigned birth roles as mental disease. This omission speaks to the marginal status of trans people within the GLbt rights movement and progressive media, as much as Spitzer’s omission speaks to trans marginalization by mental health policymakers. Shifting stigma from one oppressed class to a more oppressed class is not real change.
At the 1973 annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, Robert Spitzer played a central role in arguing for declassification of same-sex orientation as mental illness:
In the past, homosexuals have been denied civil rights in many areas of life on the ground that because they suffer from a ‘mental illness’ the burden of proof is on them to demonstrate their competence, reliability, or mental stability.
This led to the gradual deletion of sexual orientation categories from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) between 1973 and 1987. The DSM is published by the American Psychiatric Association and remains the medical and cultural definition of mental disorder in North America. As Chairman of the DSM-III and DSM-III-R Task Forces and chief editor of the diagnostic manual, Spitzer oversaw removal of the last major vestige of gay diagnosis, “Ego-dystonic Homosexuality,” from version III-R.
However, while depathologizing same-sex orientation, Dr. Spitzer simultaneously directed a massive expansion of trans-pathology diagnoses in the DSM. In 1980, a new category of Gender Identity Disorders (GID), including a Transsexualism (TS) diagnosis, was added to the class of Psychosexual Disorders in the DSM-III. The TS coding was paradoxical and controversial for many trans people. Many community advocates and medical providers agreed (and do today) that some kind of diagnostic coding was necessary to facilitate access to medical and/or surgical transition care for those trans and transsexual people who needed it. On the other hand, defining a medical transition coding as a mental illness, rather than a treatable medical condition, contradicted access to hormonal and/or surgical transition care and encouraged gender conversion, or gender-reparative, psychotherapies– unsubstantiated treatments attempting to change gender identity and shame trans and TS people into the closets of their assigned birth roles. Vulnerable trans and gender nonconforming youth were targeted and institutionalized as a consequence of diagnostic criteria based on nonconformity to birth-assigned stereotypes.