April 8, 2015 at 8:01 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
White House supports bans on ‘ex-gay’ conversion therapy
Valerie Jarrett, gay news, Washington Blade

Valerie Jarrett said the White House backs bans on “ex-gay” conversion therapy. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The White House has formally thrown its support behind bans on “ex-gay” conversion therapy for minors as the result of a “We the People” petition signed earlier this year by more than 120,000 people.

Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Obama, said in a phone interview with the Washington Blade on Wednesday that the Obama administration has came out in favor of prohibitions on conversion therapy because “young people should be valued for who they are, no matter what they look like, where they come from, or the gender to which they identify or who they love.”

“As a part of our dedication to protecting America’s youth, the administration supports the effort to ban the use of conversation therapy on minors because there’s overwhelming scientific evidence that demonstrates conversion therapy, especially when practiced on young people, is neither medically, nor ethically appropriate and can cause substantial harm,” Jarrett said.

The formal response from the White House, which can be found here, begins with a quotation from President Obama during his 2009 speech at the Human Rights Campaign National Dinner where he called for building a society more accepting of LGBT youth.

“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,” Obama said. “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.”

The White House response in support of prohibitions on so-called conversion therapy to change sexual orientation and gender identity reflects the views of President Obama himself, a White House official told the Blade.

The “We the People” petition to which the White House responds — published in January and signed by more than 100,000 people over the course of a month — calls on the administration for help in enacting a bill to ban conversion therapy across the country. The hypothetical bill is named “Leelah’s Law” in honor of a transgender teen, Leelah Alcorn, who committed suicide in Ohio last year after her parents forced her to attend conversion therapy.

The practice of “ex-gay” conversation therapy is widely discredited and rejected by major medical and psychological institutions, including American Psychological Association, the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Jarrett said she envisions the next steps on the issue would be bans on conversion therapy for minors passed in the states, which would facilitate “broader action” at a later time. Thus far, prohibitions on “ex-gay” therapy have been enacted in California, New Jersey and D.C.

“We’re putting a spotlight on it right now, and we’re very supportive of the actions that are taking place in the states, and as we say in here, hopefully that will build some momentum for national dialogue,” Jarrett said. “We believe that although a national ban would require congressional action, we’re hopeful that the clarity of the evidence combined with the action taken by the states will lead to broader action that the administration would support.”

On the day of the White House response, Jarrett said she just spoke with six of the organizers who are able to get the petition over the 100,000 signature mark, saying she shared with them the formal response and it was a “great conversation and they shared their story about why this was important to them.”

Asked by the Blade whether this “broader action” the administration would support might be a federal bill, or if it was purposefully undefined, Jarrett replied it “could certainly be legislation.”

The affirmation from the White House in favor of prohibitions on “ex-gay” conversation therapy is likely a first for the Obama administration. In July 2011, then-White House Press Secretary Jay Carney declined to state Obama’s views on “ex-gay” therapy, saying, “I haven’t spoken to him about it, so I don’t want to characterize his thoughts on this.”

Any kind of federal legislation that would ban “ex-gay” therapy throughout the country would likely face an uphill battle in Congress, to say least, because of Republican majorities in both chambers.

Jarrett talked about the importance of state action on the issue when asked by the Blade about when “broader action” might come to fruition.

“I think that building momentum from the states is really important and I would just remind you when the president took office, same-sex marriage was legal in only two states, and now it’s legal in 37 plus the District of Columbia,” Jarrett said. “And so, I wouldn’t discount the importance of action state-by-state.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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