The Obama administration late Wednesday called for a ban on so-called “conversion” therapies that promise to cure gay and transgender people.
The statement was issued in response to a White House petition signed by more than 120,000 people after the suicide of 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teen from Ohio whose suicide note condemning the society’s treatment of transgender people went viral after her death. In the note, she indicated she had been subjected to such therapies.
“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,” Alcorn wrote in her note.
The White House statement, issued by President Obama’s senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, condemned “conversion” therapy, also known as “reparative” therapy, which she defined as any treatment aimed at changing a person’s sexual identity.
“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,” she wrote. “As part of our dedication to protecting America’s youth, this Administration supports efforts to ban the use of conversion therapy for minors.”
Shortly before releasing the White House response to the petition on conversion therapy, according to a White House official, Jarrett spoke with organizers of the petition. “She listened to their personal stories about why this was important to them and thanked them for their efforts,” said the official, who asked for anonymity in order to describe a private conversation.
California, New Jersey and the District have banned licensed professionals from using the therapy on minors, and several other states are considering similar steps, including Iowa and Nevada. A similar bill that was being debated in Colorado apparently failed late Wednesday.
This type of therapy has been condemned by a number of health organizations, including the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy for Pediatrics. Exodus International, a group that had championed such therapies, shut down in 2013 and apologized to gays for the harm it had done. But some conservative Christian groups have defended the ability to change a person’s sexual orientation.
“There are many psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors and therapists who have reported success in treating clients for unwanted same-sex attractions,” Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council wrote in a position paper last year.
Advocates for gay, bisexual and transgender people praised the White House. “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, executive director for the National Center for Transgender Equality, said in a statement.
Obama has made expanding gay and transgender rights a hallmark of his presidency, three years after announcing he had “evolved” to support same-sex marriage. The military’s ban on open service by gays was lifted during his presidency, the Justice department has opposed same-sex marriage bans in court, and Obama last year signed an executive order requiring large federal contractors to have policies barring discrimination against gays.
Wednesday’s statement comes as the administration has made several significant moves particularly on the issue of transgender rights. The Justice department on Monday filed suit against the University of Oklahoma for terminating a transgender professor. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has labeled discrimination against transgender people a prohibited form of sex discrimination.
And on Wednesday, White House officials announced the designation of a one-person, “gender-neutral” bathroom in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, aimed at giving both staff and visitors the option of using a restroom that is not specifically associated with either men or women. Federal employees have had the option of using a restroom consistent with their gender identity since 2011.
“The White House allows staff and guests to use restrooms consistent with their gender identity, which is in keeping with the administration’s existing legal guidance on this issue and consistent with what is required by the executive order that took effect today for federal contractors,” said White House spokesman Jeff Tiller in a statement.