Yesterday, the Obama administration announced it will support a ban on conversion therapy for LGBT minors. The controversial therapy purports to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity, although there’s no scientific basis to support the practice.
The move is a response to a White House petition inspired by Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teenage girl who took her own life after undergoing the therapy. In a note on her personal Tumblr account, Alcorn directly blamed it for her impending death.
“Even if you are Christian or are against transgender people don’t ever say that to someone, especially your kid. That won’t do anything but make them hate them self. That’s exactly what it did to me,” she wrote. “My mom started taking me to a therapist, but would only take me to christian therapists, (who were all very biased) so I never actually got the therapy I needed to cure me of my depression. I only got more christians telling me that I was selfish and wrong and that I should look to God for help.”
She concluded her note with a final plea: “Fix society. Please.”
The petition requests that the administration help enact “Leelah’s Law” and ban the practice for minors nationally to fulfill her final request. Although the White House hasn’t yet announced if it would support a nationwide ban, spokesperson Valerie Jarrett slammed the therapy for its “potentially devastating effects on the lives of transgender as well as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and queer youth” in a sharp and unexpected public statement.
“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 said. “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.”
Vice President Joe Biden briefly echoed those sentiments on his official Twitter account, declaring “Leelah is remembered.” He signed the tweet with #LeelahsLaw.
Alcorn’s family has issued no comment about the White House announcement. In public statements released after Leelah’s death, her mother Carla referred to her with male pronouns and defended the family’s decision to force her to undergo therapy to change her transgender identity.
“We don’t support that, religiously,” she said, referring to Leelah’s identity.
Conversion therapy, sometimes called reparative therapy, is legal in the Alcorns’ home state of Ohio. But state-level bans on the practice for minors do exist in California, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. (This morning, the Washington State House voted to pass a similar ban.)
In California, the Liberty Counsel filed suit against the ban but failed to prevail in the courts; they lost at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court refused to intervene, which leaves the ban in place.
The Liberty Counsel also sued New Jersey for its ban. Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief in that case to defend the state’s law, arguing that that the therapy has been roundly denounced by professional bodies like the American Psychological Association and is based on religious dogma rather than established therapeutic practice. Practitioners are often pastors or unlicensed religious counselors, and they have little to no professional oversight.
That case, King v. Christie, is ongoing. Although its outcome may be in some doubt, the same can’t be said for conversion therapy itself: It simply doesn’t work. There is no mainstream consensus to support it, and there’s plenty of evidence that it wrecks serious psychological damage on minors.
Leelah Alcorn isn’t an anomaly, and she knew it, even if her parents didn’t. LGBT youth are eight times more likely to attempt suicide. Among transgender youth specifically, the numbers are particularly high: 50 percent attempt suicide before their 20th birthdays. The most significant contributing factor to these statistics is social prejudice and stigma.
Conversion therapy for minors is dangerous. The White House administration is correct to support Leelah’s Law, and we look forward to hearing more details about the administration’s efforts.