University of Minnesota professor's research hijacked
Dr. Gary Remafedi was at a pediatrics conference in Toronto last month when he first learned that someone was using his name to justify the very thing he'd spent his life fighting.
"My inbox started filling up with messages from colleagues saying, 'You might want to check this out,'" Remafedi recalls. "Some of them were saying, 'Do you really believe this?'"
When the University of Minnesota Medical School professor followed the links he was being sent, he was dismayed. A group called the American College of Pediatricians had sent a letter to more than 14,000 superintendents across the country, claiming that the best thing schools can do for students who come out of the closet is nothing at all: no support, no affirmation, no gay-straight alliance clubs on campus.
The letter, and the Facts About Youth website it pointed school officials to, was dense with footnotes citing scientific studies. Remafedi's research was at the top of the list.
The ACP argues that schools shouldn't support gay teens because they're probably just confused. "Most adolescents who experience same-sex attraction...no longer experience such attractions at age 25," the letter says, citing a 1992 study by Remafedi.
Except that's not what Remafedi's research suggested at all. His work showed that kids who are confused about their sexuality eventually sort it out—meaning many of them accept being gay.
"What was so troubling was that these were fellow doctors, fellow pediatricians," Remafedi says. "They knew better, and they have the same ethical responsibilities to their patients that I do, but they deliberately distorted my research for malicious purposes."
The ACP also claimed that the longer you can keep kids from identifying as gay, the less likely they are to kill themselves. Again, Remafedi's research was footnoted.
In this case, Remafedi says, the ACP missed the larger point: Kids who come out at a younger age are more likely to kill themselves because they are less able to deal with the stigma and isolation of being gay. If anything, the research shows the need for more support.
"It's obvious that they didn't even read my research," Remafedi says. "I mean, they spelled my name wrong every time they cited it."
Remafedi started studying sexual orientation among teens in the 1980s, at a time when almost nothing was known about the subject.
"People didn't really believe that gay teens existed," he says. "The assumption was that everyone was straight, and then some people became gay as adults."
But Remafedi wasn't convinced, and with the AIDS crisis ramping up, he thought there might be a risk to teenagers that doctors weren't considering. He finally managed to convince Minnesota officials to let him include a few questions about sexual orientation in a statewide student survey, and the results confirmed his hypothesis: Many of the kids reported some kind of same-sex attraction.
After more lobbying, Remafedi got the Department of Health to put up money for the Youth and AIDS Project, a center in Loring Park that offers HIV counseling and health services for teens.
But while scientists like Remafedi were expanding our understanding of teen sexuality, culture warriors on the right were pushing back. For decades, groups like the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) have argued that people are gay because of some trauma in their childhood, and that through "restorative therapy" they can be "cured" and be heterosexual.
In 2002, the American Association of Pediatrics, the 60,000-member professional organization for doctors, endorsed same-sex adoption. In protest, the most conservative members split off and formed the American College of Pediatricians. The college won't disclose how many members it has, but estimates put it around 200.
The two groups clashed again when the AAP published Just the Facts, a handbook for schools on teen sexual orientation. Written with the national associations of psychologists, social workers, and teachers, Just the Facts collected up-to-date research to debunk restorative therapy and offer schools advice on how to help gay students feel safe.
In March, the ACP fired back with its own publication for schools, Facts About Youth. Mimicking the rival publication, the ACP filled its handbook with more than 100 footnotes citing studies. The difference is that some of the researchers, like Remafedi, say the ACP cherry-picked, manipulated, and misstated that research.
Francis Collins, the director of the National Institute of Health, found the ACP using his work on genetics to argue that gay kids can be cured. Last month he accused the college of taking his work out of context, calling the pamphlet "misleading and incorrect."
Warren Throckmorton, a therapist who specializes in sexual orientation issues, also asked to have his research removed from the study.
"The letter and the website are just disingenuous," he says. "They say they're impartial and not motivated by political or religious concerns, but if you look at who they're affiliated with and how they're using the research, that's just obviously not true."
Indeed, the names attached to the publication read like a who's-who of the anti-gay medical message machine: Arthur Goldberg, a felon who bilked billions of dollars in a municipal-bond scheme and founded the Jewish gay-cure group JONAH; Joe Nicolosi, one of the leaders of the "ex-gay" organization NARTH; and George Rekers, the founder of the Family Research Council who fell from grace last month when he was photographed by the Miami New Times returning from a European vacation with a 20-year-old male prostitute.
Remafedi also wrote a letter to the American College of Pediatricians, asking them to stop citing his research. But the college isn't budging. Reached at his Florida headquarters, Dr. Tom Benton, the group's president, says he has every right to use any research he wants.
"I have the utmost respect for Dr. Remafedi," says Benton, who is a pediatrician. "He does good work. The fact is, his research supports our conclusions, even if he doesn't."
Which is why, Benton says, he won't be taking down references to Remafedi's work or making any corrections.
All of which leaves Remafedi frustrated. "I've considered litigation," he says. "It was libelous. On a personal level, when I'm dead and buried, I don't want my work to be associated with these types of organizations and ideas."
But more than that, Remafedi says, the episode makes him sad and fearful for the impact groups like the ACP will have on kids. He thinks of an elementary-school boy he treated recently for an eating disorder that was set off by a parent's fear that he was gay.
"This isn't just academic," he says. "I do my research to help expand our understanding and give us more information so that we can improve children's lives and their health. So when people try to confuse the issue, or to say things they know aren't true, my reaction to that is disgust."
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