Obama Backs Ban on Conversion Therapy

Pauline Anderson

April 09, 2015

In another move in support of gay rights, President Barack Obama has called for an end to "conversion" therapy being practiced on gay, lesbian, and transgendered young people.

"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," President Obama is quoted as saying on a White House blog. "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."

Conversion therapy generally refers to practices by mental health care providers that attempt to change a person's sexual orientation or gender identity. "Often, this practice is used on minors, who lack the legal authority to make their own medical and mental health decisions," Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor and assistant to the president for intergovernmental affairs and public engagement, said in a blog appearing on the White House website as an "official response" to a petition to ban conversion therapy.

"We share your concern about its potentially devastating effects on the lives of transgender as well as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and queer youth," Jarrett writes.

In honor of Leelah Alcorn, a transgendered teen who committed suicide, a petition was started on the White House's We The People petition site to support the ban of conversion therapy, also called "reparative" therapy. The therapy is said to be supported by certain religious doctors and by some socially conservative organizations.

The overwhelming scientific evidence, said the blog, demonstrates that conversion therapy, especially when it is practiced on young people, is "neither medically nor ethically appropriate and can cause substantial harm. As part of our dedication to protecting America's youth, this Administration supports efforts to ban the use of conversion therapy for minors."

According to media reports, the 17-year-old Leelah threw herself in front of a tractor-trailer after leaving an online suicide note indicating that religious therapists had tried to convert her back to being a boy.

Principled Stand

"We applaud President Obama for his principled and scientific stand," said the American Psychiatric Association (APA) CEO and medical director Saul Levin, MD, in a statement today.

"LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered] individuals deserve treatment, when they seek it, that meets the highest standard of evidence, and APA has long recognized that so-called reparative therapy doesn't meet that standard and can, in fact, be hazardous. We are pleased that the White House shares our concern about this issue, and we support the president's call for a ban on reparative therapy."

The new White House statement is the latest indication of the president's support of LGBT rights. On July 21 of last year, he signed an executive order to expand the protections of antidiscrimination to apply to the LGBT community with respect to companies doing business with the government. On April 8 of this year, that executive order became federal law.

Individual states have also taken steps to protect minors from what many see as the dangerous effects of conversion therapy. California, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia are reported to have banned licensed professionals from using conversion therapy on minors. Since last year, lawmakers in 18 other states have introduced similar legislation.

Several medical specialty groups are also opposed to or are critical of "reparative" therapies. These groups include the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the APA.

In its 2000 position statement, the APA reaffirmed its opposition to any psychiatric treatment that is based on the assumption that homosexuality is a mental disorder or on the a priori assumption that a patient should change his/her homosexual orientation. The APA removed homosexuality from the DSM in 1973.

The validity, efficacy, and ethics of clinical attempts to change an individual's sexual orientation have been challenged, according to that APA statement. "To date, there are no scientifically rigorous outcome studies to determine either the actual efficacy or harm of 'reparative' treatments. There is sparse scientific data about selection criteria, risks versus benefits of the treatment, and long-term outcomes of 'reparative' therapies."

Theories at Odds

Although there are few data about patients, it is still possible to evaluate the theories that rationalize the conduct of "reparative" and conversion therapies, said the statement. "Firstly, they are at odds with the scientific position of the American Psychiatric Association."

The statement points to an increasing body of religious thought that argues against traditional, Biblical interpretations that condemn homosexuality and that underlie religious types of reparative therapy.

Many patients who have undergone reparative therapy say they were inaccurately told that homosexuals are "lonely, unhappy individuals who never achieve acceptance or satisfaction," according to the APA.

The online petition has reportedly received more than 120,000 signatures in 3 months.

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