Obama’s evolution on gay issues takes another turn: 'conversion therapy'

The White House this week declared its opposition to 'conversion therapy' for minors – the practice of trying to change a young person’s sexual orientation or sexual identity.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
President Barack Obama meets with advisors in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, including Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett (c.).

As a state lawmaker, United States senator, and initially as president, Barack Obama took what at the time was a conservative stance on same-sex marriage: he was against it, declaring his belief that marriage was only between one man and one woman.

Since then, Mr. Obama has “evolved” – his phrase – on gay issues.

He ended the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on openly gay military service members. Under Obama, federal agencies and departments have begun to grant benefits to the same-sex partners of government employees. With a nudge from Vice President Joe Biden (who had gotten ahead of his boss on the issue), he came out for gay marriage. Obama’s budget for fiscal year 2016 includes Social Security spousal benefits for legally married same-sex couples.

Obama’s evolution on gay issues took another turn this week when the White House declared its opposition to "conversion therapy" for minors – the belief that a young person's sexual orientation or gender identity can be made "normal" (in psychological and emotional terms) through therapy, also known as "reparative therapy."

"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," senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said in a statement posted on the White House website. "As part of our dedication to protecting America's youth, this Administration supports efforts to ban the use of conversion therapy for minors.”

Obama's move – welcomed especially by the "T" in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community – is not particularly bold or surprising.

In 1998, the American Psychiatric Association (APA), which represents some 36,000 psychiatrists, made clear that it "opposes any psychiatric treatment, such as 'reparative' or 'conversion' therapy, which is based upon the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder, or based upon a prior assumption that the patient should change his/ her homosexual orientation.”

The American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, and the American Academy of Pediatrics all oppose the practice as well.

In 2013, the APA softened its diagnostic phrase on gender identity from "gender identity disorder" to “gender dysphoria.” This, the organization announced, communicates the emotional distress that can result from “a marked incongruence between one’s experienced/expressed gender and assigned gender.”

"This will allow for affirmative treatment and transition care without the stigma of disorder," the APA stated. (Taken from the Greek, “dysphoria” includes a profound sense of unease or dissatisfaction.)

Also in 2013, a leading Christian “gay conversion” ministry in the US – Exodus International – decided to close its doors after 37 years when its president apologized for what he called the “pain and hurt” his organization had caused people.

As Obama’s position on such issues has evolved, so too has public opinion – if anything, even more rapidly, especially among younger Americans.

Thanks largely to a series of court rulings, “marriage equality,” as supporters call it, is now legal in 37 states and the District of Columbia – an area covering more than 70 percent of the US population. Court decisions don’t necessarily follow the polls, but in this case they do reflect them. Most Americans (55 percent) now support same-sex marriage, including 40 percent of Republicans, 62 percent of Roman Catholics, and 77 percent of adults under age 30.

On “conversion therapy,” legislative action is likely to proceed more slowly. So far, only California, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., have banned licensed professionals from using conversion therapy on minors. Similar measures have been introduced in 18 more states.

In its statement this week, the White House does not propose federal legislation outlawing conversion therapy for minors. But its statement comes in response to a White House online petition to “Enact Leelah's Law to Ban All LGBTQ+ Conversion Therapy,” which drew more than 120,000 signatures.

Leelah Alcorn is the 17-year-old transgender teen who committed suicide in December, leaving behind a note saying her parents had forced her to attend so-called conversion therapy.

“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,” Obama says in the White House statement. “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.”

In another move related to gender identity this week, the White House made known the fact that staff and visitors now may use a gender-neutral restroom there.

“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,” White House spokesman Jeff Tiller told “An all-gender restroom is also available in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which provides guests and staff an additional option.”
For the first time in any presidential State of the Union address, Obama this year referred to “transgender” Americans.

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