President Obama did something rather extraordinary Thursday. He came out in favor of banning so-called conversion therapy. That’s the psycho-quackery inflicted on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) young people that attempts to change their sexual orientation or gender identity. And he did so because of the suicide of a transgender Ohio girl named Leelah Alcorn.
Leelah was born Joshua. According to the Advocate, she wrote that she felt like a girl trapped in a boy’s body since she was 4. On Dec. 27, 2014, the 17-year-old stepped to her death in front of a tractor trailer. The LGBT magazine reported that her suicide note revealed that she came out to her parents as transgender at age 14 and that they responded by taking her to “Christian therapists.” Leelah’s heartbreaking note added: “People say ‘it gets better’ but that isn’t true in my case. It gets worse. Each day I get worse.” And there was this: “The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights.”
A “We the people” petition on the White House’s Web site was started on Jan. 3 that urged the president “to ban the practice known as ‘conversion therapy’ and name the bill in honor of Leelah Alcorn.” Only those petitions garnering 100,000 signatures get a response from the White House. The petition closed just shy of 121,000 signatures.
“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,” wrote Obama’s senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. “As part of our dedication to protecting America’s youth, this Administration supports efforts to ban the use of conversion therapy for minors.” With that, the president threw his support behind efforts to enact a nationwide “Leelah’s Law.” Jarrett called the organizers of the petition in advance of the public announcement. “I wanted to tell them directly,” she told me.
The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality as a “mental disorder” in 1973. The organization officially opposed “any psychiatric treatment, such as ‘reparative’ or ‘conversion’ therapy” in 1998. Only California, New Jersey and the District of Columbia ban such therapies. In a statement upon signing his state’s prohibition, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said, “[E]xposing children to these health risks without clear evidence of benefits that outweigh these serious risks is not appropriate.” Risks such as depression, decreased self-esteem and suicidal thoughts. Christie and Obama don’t agree on much. But when they do and their agreement is on a controversial issue such as this, you know it’s serious.
Fifteen other states have prohibition legislation pending. Having the president back their efforts is a welcome boost. Sadly, it’s pretty safe to say that Obama’s support — or Christie’s for that matter — won’t move the Republican-controlled Congress to institute a national ban. But one is needed. Actually, there is a certain kind of conversion therapy I’d support. It’s the kind that gets the parents of these young people and society to see that forcing people to change who they are when nothing is wrong with who they are is as horrifying as it is loathsome.
What LGBT people need is to be accepted for who they are or helped to fully accept who they are. Nothing less will do.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj