Metro Weekly

White House backs conversion therapy bans

Obama backing a state-by-state approach to limit practice on minors, rather than national legislation

Barack Obama - Credit: Pete Souza/White House
Barack Obama – Credit: Pete Souza/White House

The Obama administration on Wednesday came out in support of ending the practice of so-called “conversion” or “reparative” therapy on minors in an effort to change their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

The White House took the position in issuing a response to a petition posted on the White House website on Jan. 3 asking for a legislative ban on conversion therapy. The posters of the petition invoked the memory of Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old Ohio transgender woman whose death made national headlines after she committed suicide by walking in front of a semi-truck. Prior to her death, the teen had been isolated from her friends and schoolmates and sent to Christian therapists who had advocated conversion therapy due to her parents’ rejection of her gender identity. With limited access to social media, Alcorn left behind a suicide note on her Tumblr account in which she begged people to “fix society” by educating people about gender and to be more accepting of transgender people. LGBT activists in cities across the country, including Washington, held marches or vigils in remembrance of Alcorn that also served as a call to change how society often treats transgender people and urging lawmakers to consider a ban on conversion therapy. 

In the response, which was also posted on the official White House blog, Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Obama, noted that the overwhelming majority of medical and mental health professionals have rejected the idea that one’s sexual orientation can be “changed,” with the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the American Counseling Association rejecting the practice.

“When assessing the validity of conversion therapy, or other practices that seek to change an individual’s gender identity or sexual orientation, it is as imperative to seek guidance from certified medical experts,” Jarrett wrote. “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. As part of our dedication to protecting America’s youth, this Administration supports efforts to ban the use of conversion therapy for minors.”

The administration is not pushing for a congressional ban on the practice, but is rather throwing its support behind efforts at the state level to either ban conversion therapy or to revoke the licenses of those counselors and therapists who practice it on minors. However, Jarrett did not that the administration was “hopeful that the clarity of the evidence combined with the actions taken by these states will lead to broader action that this Administration would support.”

Only three jurisdictions — California, New Jersey and the District of Columbia — have banned conversion therapy for minors. In fact, the White House even cited Gov. Chris Christie’s (R-N.J.) justification for signing the ban into law, when the potential GOP presidential contender then said that “exposing children to these health risks without clear evidence of the benefits that outweigh these serious risks is not appropriate.” Legislation similar in scope to the California, New Jersey, and D.C. measures has been introduced in 18 other states this year, including Virginia, but has either been withdrawn or scuttled in committee in at least one legislative chamber in all those states. Maryland introduced a similar bill during the 2014 legislative session, but the chief sponsor of the bill withdrew it after advocates made a calculated decision to focus on the regulation and oversight of conversion therapy rather than attempt to force a heated battle with fellow legislators over a potentially controversial bill during an election year. 

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights organization, posted news of the Obama administration’s backing of conversion therapy bans on its website. Chad Griffin, the president of HRC, took to Twitter to praise the president’s stance, tweeting, “Huge statement from the @WhiteHouse against so-called ‘conversion therapy’ tonight.”

The National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) issued its own statement responding to the White House’s latest move. 

“Having President Obama and the weight of the White House behind efforts to ban conversion therapy is so critical in the fight for transgender and LGB young people,” Mara Keisling, NCTE’s executive director, said in the statement. “My hope is that when a transgender person’s struggle is acknowledged by one of the most recognizable figures in the world, it positively changes the way they view themselves. The pseudo-science that propels conversion therapy cannot match the self-acceptance that comes with this kind of change.”

Featured image credit: Christopher Dilts/Obama for America.

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