Belen Perez Gabilondo / AFP / Getty Images

Obama calls for end to discredited ‘conversion therapy’ for LGBT youths

White House announcement spurred by suicide of 17-year-old transgender teen Leelah Alcorn

Marking another step in President Barack Obama’s evolving policies on gay rights, the administration has called for an end to “conversion therapy,” the widely discredited practice of trying to reverse the sexual orientation or gender identity of primarily young LGBT people.

Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama, announced the move Wednesday evening in a response to petition posted on the White House’s website, signed by 120,000 people, that called for an end to such treatments after the suicide of 17-year-old transgender teen Leelah Alcorn in Ohio.

In December a distraught Alcorn posted a note on her blog explaining that her parents had rejected her request for medical treatment to help her transition to female and instead forced her to attend Christian “conversion therapy” sessions so she would accept her birth gender assignment. Alcorn later walked into oncoming highway traffic. Her death garnered international headlines and brought attention to the plight of transgender teens.  

“The overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrates that conversion therapy, especially when it is practiced on young people, is neither medically nor ethically appropriate and can cause substantial harm,” Jarrett said in a statement. “As part of our dedication to protecting America’s youth, this administration supports efforts to ban the use of conversion therapy for minors.”

In a largely symbolic move, the administration also announced Wednesday that it opened its first gender-neutral bathroom, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

In condemning the use of “conversion therapy,” the White House did not call for federal legislation — which would be a tough sell to the GOP-led Congress — but threw its support behind state-level initiatives to ban the practice.

California was the first state to pass such a statute. In 2012 it prohibited therapists licensed by the state to engage in therapy that attempts to change the gender identity or sexual orientation of anyone under the age of 18. New Jersey and Washington, D.C., have followed suit, and similar legislation has been introduced in 18 other states, according to Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT advocacy organization.

But other states have moved in the opposite direction. In Oklahoma a bill called the Freedom to Obtain Conversion Therapy Act was introduced in January.

Hayley Gorenberg, the deputy legal director of Lambda Legal, which works on LGBT litigation and public policy, said “conversion therapy,” which has been condemned by most major medical and mental health organizations, is already on the wane. The president's announcement may help speed up the demise of a discredited practice.

“The more people hear and understand how worthless and dangerous this is, the better,” she said. “I sincerely hope that it’s dying out, but not soon enough, and it’s not gone yet.”

Other LGBT advocacy organizations heralded the message that Obama was sending to young people struggling with their sexuality and gender identity. It was another milestone in Obama’s movement toward fully embracing gay rights. As a presidential candidate, he opposed same-sex marriage — a position he reversed while in the White House, after acknowledging that his attitudes on the issue have been “evolving.” His tenure saw the repeal of the “don't ask, don't tell” policy, which barred openly gay men and women from serving in the military.

“There are few things more powerful to our children’s self-worth than having the president of the United States say you matter,” Kate Kendell, the executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which has lobbied for banning “conversion therapy,” said in a statement. “Every LGBT child deserves to live with full dignity, free from shame, embraced for who they are. [The White House announcement] brings us one step closer to that moment.”

Medical research has found no evidence that the controversial technique is effective and has posited that the therapy can be harmful to LGBT individuals. The American Psychiatric Association, for instance, said it “opposes any psychiatric treatment such as reparative or conversion therapy which is based upon the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder or based upon the a priori assumption that a patient should change his/her sexual homosexual orientation.”

Still, groups such as the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality and the American Association of Christian Counselors defend the practice and have filed suit against the bans, saying the laws violate the right to free speech.

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