On December 27th, 2014, transgender teen Leelah Alcorn committed suicide. According to her suicide note, when Alcorn revealed that she was transgender, her parents took her to Christian therapists who berated her for being "selfish and wrong", insisting that she "should look to God for help." Her death drew national attention to the plight of transgender youth and the harms of so-called conversion therapy, which seeks to alter the sexual orientation or gender identity of LGBTQ persons.
In honor of Alcorn, LGBTQ rights activists launched an online petition calling for a national ban on conversion therapy. The petition to enact Leelah's Law has gathered nearly 121,000 signatures at the White House website and almost 150,000 at Change.org.
On April 8th, White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett issued a response to the petition, announcing that the Obama Administration supports efforts to ban conversion therapy for minors. "While a national ban would require congressional action, we are 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," Jarrett wrote.
The White House statement emphasized that mental health and medical professionals reject conversion therapy as harmful and unsound. "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 argued.
Shortly thereafter, the White House released a video calling for an end to conversion therapy for minors. The video features leaders from the U.S. government calling for acceptance of LGBTQ youth and rejection of conversion therapy.
The White House statement comes at a time when conversion therapy faces unprecedented challenges. For instance, Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-California) has introduced a resolution calling on states to ban conversion therapy for minors. Lawmakers have proposed bans in multiple states, and New Jersey's ban on conversion therapy for minors was recently upheld by a federal appeals court.
LGBTQ rights and civil liberties organizations, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, Truth Wins Out, Lambda Legal, GLSEN, were delighted with the White House statement. Alan Chambers, former president of ex-gay ministry Exodus International (which shut down in 2013 following Chambers' apology to those harmed by the organization), applauded the statement in an April 9th commentary piece.
"...I stand with President Obama in calling for a ban on this practice for minors and for greater measures to protect adults seeking this niche therapeutic intervention.Ex-gay organizations, on the other hand, were livid. In an April 10th press release, the Restored Hope Network, a coalition of ministries that endorse conversion therapy, blasted the White House statement. Anne Paulk, director of the Restored Hope Network, condemned what she called "a growing intolerance of Christian sexual ethics" and worried that a moratorium on therapy based in "a biblical worldview" was imminent. She suggested that conversion therapy was actually intended to help sexually traumatized youth, despite the fact that sexual abuse does not make people LGBTQ.
This ban is in no way an attempt to strip parents of their ability to be good parents or to keep them from helping their child to navigate the complexities of sex and sexuality. Nor is it an infringement on religious liberties.
Regardless of a person’s opinions on sexual morality, efforts to change someone’s primary sexual orientation are dangerous and always unsuccessful. Every adult should have the right to choose his or her own path. And if someone has a religious or moral objection to a particular sexual expression, then who are we to tell that person he or she must embrace a specific act or identity?"
"It is tragic that children who have been exposed to unwanted sexual advances or abuse by same-sex adults can no longer seek therapeutic help for resolving their sexual confusion ... By withholding therapy to those in confusion we provoke suicidal ideation."Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays & Gays (PFOX) also issued a press release in the wake of the White House statement. Regina Griggs, executive director of PFOX, claimed that "homosexual activists" were trying to outlaw "talk therapy" for youth who want to overcome unwanted sexual feelings and "gender confusion".
"The term ‘conversion therapy’ is misleading ... and is used by homosexual activists to paint sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE) in a negative light and sway public opinion against this therapy. The truth is that this is simply ‘talk therapy’, and those who oppose it have the intent to outlaw this therapy for minors who voluntarily seek counseling from a licensed professional therapist or counselor to overcome unwanted same-sex attractions and gender confusion.These statements from ex-gay organizations ignore the failures and bad reputation of conversion therapy. For example, a 2009 report by the American Psychological Association concluded that efforts to change people's sexual orientation are not only unlikely to be successful, but involve risks of harm as well. The Pan American Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and other health groups have criticized conversion therapy, while research has shown sexual orientation change efforts to be highly dubious. Defenders of conversion therapy such as NARTH have been accused of promoting dangerous junk science, misrepresenting other professionals' research, and fueling homophobia. Survivors of conversion therapy and ex-gay ministries have spoken out through websites such as Beyond Ex-Gay, Truth Wins Out, Box Turtle Bulletin, and personal blogs.
The White House’s position on banning talk therapy would take away the legal rights of minors and make it illegal for parents to support their child if he or she seeks mental and spiritual care to overcome unwanted same-sex attraction or gender confusion. Parents have a legal right to be involved in the raising of their sons and daughters."
The White House was right to condemn conversion therapy. In doing so, it joins a chorus of enlightened voices calling for an end to this quackery masquerading as therapy.
Conversion therapy is rooted in the belief that anything other than a heterosexual, cisgender identity is wrong and must be changed. Nothing spiritually redemptive or emotionally nourishing can come from efforts to change people's sexual orientation or gender identity. LGBTQ youth are not "confused" and do not need adults inundating them with homophobia and transphobia. Despite all the rhetoric from ex-gay groups about "helping" minors, conversion therapy was never about helping youth -- it was always about pressuring LGBTQ people to conform. Conversion therapy proponents and ex-gay ministries that ignore these truth are quickly finding themselves on the wrong side of history.
To read additional commentary, visit the following links.
The Guardian: 'Praying the gay away': Trauma survivors crusade to ban conversion therapy
Salon: Leelah Alcorn’s legacy: The White House moves against conversion therapy
RH Reality Check: White House Takes Stance Against ‘Reparative Therapy’