President Barack Obama now joins a coalition of more than 120,000 people in the call to ban “conversion therapy,” a controversial practice which seeks to change the sexual orientation of gay, lesbian and transgender youth. A San Francisco State University study found that “compared with LGBT young people who were not rejected or were only a little rejected by their parents and caregivers because of their gay or transgender identity,” the highly rejected youth were more than three times as likely to use illegal drugs, nearly six times as likely to report high levels of depression and more than eight times as likely to have attempted suicide.
Conversion therapy or reparative or ex-gay therapy has been discredited by many leading medical organizations including the American Psychological Association, commenting that attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation are ineffective and is known to lead to depression, suicidal thoughts and anxiety.
“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,” Obama’s senior adviser Valerie Jarrett wrote.
California, New Jersey and the District of Columbia have enacted state bans in regards to minors being introduced to these practices, and lawmakers in 18 other states have introduced similar legislation. Last year Obama signed an executive order to eradicate discrimination based on sexual orientation within the federal government and at federal contractors, and opened a gender-neutral bathroom within the White House complex, among other similar initiatives. The Obama administration gave its support in response to an online petition posted on the White House website. The petition, garnering more than 120,000 signatures, emphasized the suicide of Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teenager from Ohio who reportedly stepped in front of a truck after writing a Tumblr post on being forced into conversion therapy.
“It was 1973 that the disease diagnosis actually shifted and that was as a result of activist pressure on the APA, but it was around that time that the first conservative religious conversion therapies were founded,” Research Scholar and Adjunct Assistant Professor Heather White commented. “And it was in some sense an attempt to go back, carry on and preserve some conversion therapies that started much earlier than that, but they were undertaken at the time by psychiatrists and psychologists, and so it was for many years a standard answer in the mental health field. Homosexuality was considered an illness and an illness that could be cured with the right kind of therapy… This will be another religious freedom issue, because many see it as an issue very much connected to their faith. If these groups end up emphasizing religion as a reason they ought to do this, it may preserve it but it will at least undercut the medical and scientific legs from their defense.”
David Pickup, a licensed therapist in California and Texas who is advocating against the possible state bans, commented to the New York Times that his work is misunderstood. “People go to therapy because they can change, because it really does work,” Pickup told said. “We help people grow into their authentic selves.” Voluntary treatment is an issue that is likely to be regarded separate from that of minors, which many support as they believe the treatment has the most potential to harm youth.
“Ending legal support for conversion therapy is actually not going to address the issues that place a demand for those kinds of services and what makes people interested in those kinds of services,” White said. “I think it will help undermine some of their credibility but it will take more than just banning conversion therapy to actually address the broader issues.”
Responding the petition on the White House website Obama wrote, “tonight, somewhere in America, a young person, let’s say a young man, will struggle to fall to sleep, wrestling alone with a secret he’s held as long as he can remember. Soon, perhaps, he will decide it’s time to let that secret out… What happens next depends on him, his family, as well as his friends and his teachers and his community. But it also depends on us on the kind of society we engender, the kind of future we build.”
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