Metro Weekly

Proponents embolded by White House support for ban on conversion therapy

LGBT advocates react to President Obama's call for states to prohibit sexual orientation change efforts on minors

Photo: Barack Obama. Credit: Christopher Dilts/Obama for America.
Photo: Barack Obama. Credit: Christopher Dilts/Obama for America.

For Apryl Prentiss, the news out of the White House last Wednesday was a validation.

That was the day the White House responded to an online petition posted on its website calling for a legislative ban on conversion therapy. Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Obama, told those who had signed the petition that the president was not currently supporting any federal law but was throwing his support behind state-level efforts to prohibit licensed therapists from subjecting minors to any therapy that bills itself as able to “change” or “convert” one’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

“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 on behalf of the president. “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.”

Prentiss, who serves as deputy director of LGBT issues at the Richmond-based Alliance for Progressive Values, called the Obama administration’s expressed support for an end to the practice of conversion therapy on minors “revolutionary” for a sitting president.

As a former Christian youth group leader-turned LGBT activist, receiving Obama’s backing is not just a political validation, but a personal one. Prentiss has experience with conversion therapy, which she underwent to try and suppress her attraction to other women. Raised in a conservative household in Virginia Beach, she underwent an eight-year struggle with her identity and has previously testified in favor of local bans on conversion therapy before both the D.C. Council and the Virginia General Assembly, calling the period from the time she was 19 to 27 “an emotional, physical hell.”

Prentiss said Obama’s bringing publicity to the issue is a step towards healing some of the emotional and psychological damage done to children questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity who undergo conversion therapy.

“By coming forward and speaking out on an issue that has struggled to gain national recognition because of the nature of the trauma and the condition of the survivors, [President Obama] has brought the issue into the light and made it nationally known. This is huge,” Prentiss says. “The trauma that is often an effect of conversion therapy is consistently downplayed by those who continue to practice it. They wrap the trauma up in rhetoric aimed at convincing those who would advocate against a ban that the same-sex attractions are unwanted and that every parent has the right to choose treatment for their kids. Yet, if parents were truly informed about the long history of significant trauma caused by conversion therapists, I fully believe many of them would not choose to subject their kids to it. They buy a lie in an hour of desperation that change is possible. These therapists continue to peddle that lie.”

Prentiss believes that hearing from the president, the Surgeon General of the United States, and organizations opposed to the practice of conversion therapy will help change the national conversation as it relates to issues of LGBT identity, and may even lead more people who have undergone the practice — without successfully altering their sexuality — to speak out.

“One of the things I’ve been more surprised by in organizing for this cause for the past year is how many people, both in the LGBT community and outside it, have no idea that this form of therapy exists anymore,” she said. “When they find that it does, most people are astounded and outraged.”

Also validated by Obama’s support for state-level bans of conversion therapy? The D.C. Council, which received a barrage of criticism from conservative groups and organizations, such as Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays (PFOX), the Family Research Council (FRC) and the Maryland-based International Healing Foundation (IHF) after it passed a bill prohibiting licensed therapists from practicing on minors last year. The bill, which went into effect after surviving a period of congressional review, mirrors similar measures passed and signed into law in both California and New Jersey.

“I’m very pleased to see the President’s statement calling for an end to conversion therapy for minors,” said Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), the lead sponsor of the bill. “The District has already recognized the harm of this so-called therapy and voted unanimously to ban it in 2014.”

Obama’s stance on conversion therapy was also praised by the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), which in June 2014 launched the #BornPerfect campaign, aimed at ending the practice of conversion therapy by 2019, as well as advancing the rights and equal treatment of LGBT youth.

“There are few things more powerful to our children’s self-worth than having the President of the United States say you matter,” said NCLR Executive Director Kate Kendall in a statement. “These powerful statements from President Obama and Valerie Jarrett not only affirm the lives of our transgender brothers and sisters, but the lives of all LGBT people. Today, our president made clear that we can and must do better. Every LGBT child deserves to live with full dignity, free from shame, embraced for who they are.”

Samantha Ames, a staff attorney and the #BornPerfect campaign coordinator for NCLR, notes that the president’s approach to banning conversion therapy aligns closely with her organization’s goals. While U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) introduced a joint resolution in 2012 known as the Stop Harming Our Kids Act, the resolution merely encouraged individual states to take their own steps to protect minors from efforts that promote or endorse conversion therapy. The state-by-state approach is preferred over a national piece of legislation, partly because a ban would be difficult to get through Congress, but more importantly because it is the individual states who deal with issues related to the licensing of counselors and therapists.

According to Ames, 18 states have introduced legislation to prohibit conversion therapy on minors this year. Although some of the bills have been defeated, others are still working their way through the committee process.

“These measures usually attract broad bipartisan support,” Ames says. “There are several still in the process of being drafted, and I anticipate more this year.”

Ashley Lourdes Hunter, the national director of the Trans Women of Color Collective (TWOCC), commended the White House for opposing the practice of conversion therapy, but also noted that leaders need to take a stronger stance on violence directed against transgender people, particularly transgender women of color.

“We are thrilled that President Obama is in support of banning conversion therapy, as there is nothing wrong with us,” Hunter says. “However, it is time that the White House and President Obama stand up against the brutal violence and institutionalized structural oppression trans and gender non-conforming people of color are facing every day.”

Despite the District’s passage of a ban on conversion therapy for minors last year, similar bills in neighboring states have stalled, regardless of which party controls the state legislature. In 2014, former Del. Jon Cardin (D-Baltimore Co.) introduced a bill calling for a conversion therapy ban, but eventually withdrew it after the bill failed to gain significant traction in the Democratic-dominated General Assembly during an election year. As a result, LGBT rights advocates decided to focus their efforts on regulatory oversight of the practice.

“We applaud the White House for bringing attention to the harmful practice of so-called conversion therapy,” said Carrie Evans, the executive director of Equality Maryland, the Free State’s top LGBT rights organization. “Equality Maryland and our allies in Maryland’s medical and behavioral occupations continue to believe that the current regulatory scheme is the sharpest tool we have in Maryland to combat this practice. To date, there have been no complaints lodged in Maryland. We urge anyone who has underwent this ‘therapy’ from a licensed professional in Maryland and wishes to file a complaint to contact us.”

Across the Potomac, Equality Virginia’s executive director, James Parrish, also had words of support for the White House’s stance.

“As we work here in Virginia to end so-called ‘conversion therapy,’ it is meaningful to know that we have support from the White House,’ Parrish says. “It’s unbelievable, really, that such a damaging practice — and one that is condemned by all the major health organizations — is still legal in almost all states. Being gay or transgender is not a choice — we must do everything we can to protect all of our youth as they come to terms with who they are.”

Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington), the lead patron of a bill proposing a conversion therapy ban in Virginia, said the president’s support of state-level efforts to halt the practice illustrates not only the evolution of his personal stance on gay rights, but that of society at large.

“I hope this announcement will be the shot in the arm that the bill needs,” Hope says. “I’m just delighted the president has decided to get involved in this issue. No one in the science community believes that homosexuality is a mental disorder or curable.”

Hope’s bill died in committee, due largely in part to across-the-board opposition from the Republicans who control both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly. But Hope is currently in talks with the office of Attorney General Mark Herring (D) over the prospect of tackling the issue from a different angle. The talks deal with whether the attorney general or the courts could begin going after those who practice conversion therapy using consumer protection laws. A New Jersey Superior Court judge ruled in February that therapists who engage in conversion therapy and misrepresent homosexuality as a disease or disorder that can be cured or changed are violating that state’s consumer protection laws.

Regardless of what Herring does, Hope intends to keep introducing the bill during each subsequent legislative session until it finally passes. “I’ve always believed that we are changing hearts and minds,” he says. “Every year we bring this bill up, we make people more comfortable with it, bringing us closer to our goal of achieving equality for everyone.”

Hope’s determination to keep bringing the bill back up wins support from allies such as the Alliance for Progressive Values and especially Prentiss, who is looking forward to partnering with him to advocate on the bill’s behalf.

“I am determined to see this ban take place in Virginia,” Prentiss says. “I don’t care how long it takes.”

[ninja-popup id=73197]

Leave a Comment:

1 Comment

Support Metro Weekly’s Journalism

These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!