Intended for healthcare professionals


Robert Spitzer

BMJ 2016; 352 doi: (Published 11 January 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;352:i142
  1. Bob Roehr, Washington DC

Psychiatrist who “cured” gay people and reshaped the DSM into a powerhouse

Psychiatrist Robert L Spitzer played a key part in lifting the stigma of mental illness from homosexuality. Over his many years at the helm of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) he reshaped and standardised the research and practice of that field of medicine.

Legal and social discrimination against homosexual men and women was rampant in the US in the early 1970s. Sodomy laws were still on the books in almost all states, and prosecution could cost one’s job. The DSM labelled homosexuality a mental illness.

The level of fear was so great that when the APA gathered in 1972 to consider a change in the classification, one of its gay but professionally closeted members would speak on a panel on the topic only if he could wear a rubber mask and a fright wig, and have his voice altered electronically.

The effort to have the APA drop its classification of homosexuality as a mental illness succeeded in 1973 largely because of a compromise written by Spitzer. He realised that many psychoanalysts—who dominated the association at the time—were uneasy with completely normalising the condition, …

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