Obama Condemns 'Ex-Gay' Therapy for LGBTQ Minors

From the August 17, 1998, issue of Newsweek. Photo at left by Chris Buck. Newsweek

In a statement posted Wednesday evening, President Barack Obama called for an end to "conversion" therapy for LGBTQ minors. The statement, written by Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett, condemned the practice of minors undergoing "reparative" therapy meant to change their sexual orientation or gender presentation.

The move is in response to a WhiteHouse.gov petition launched in honor of Leelah Alcorn, a young transgender woman who walked in front of a tractor-trailer last year, ending her life, after posting a suicide note on Tumblr.

In her note, Alcorn wrote that her Christian parents refused to accept her true gender identity, telling her that "it was a phase" and that she "would never truly be a girl." She wrote that her parents sent her to therapists who tried to convert her back to being a boy and told her that she was "selfish" and "wrong" and should "look to God for help." As a final wish, she urged parents to not do the same to their children.

The petition received more than 120,000 signatures in three months.

"We share your concern about its potentially devastating effects on the lives of transgender as well as gay, lesbian, bisexual and queer youth," Jarrett wrote in the statement. "As part of our dedication to protecting America's youth, this administration supports efforts to ban the use of conversion therapy for minors."

Obama will not call for national legislation to end the practice but will support efforts to pass legislation banning it at the state level. In an interview with The New York Times, Jarrett elaborated on the president's decision to issue the statement in light of Alcorn's suicide.

"It was tragic, but I will tell you, unfortunately, she has a lot of company," Jarrett said. "It's not the story of one young person. It is the story of countless young people who have been subjected to this."

Conversion therapy, sometimes called ex-gay therapy, operates under the premise that same-sex attraction means a person is "broken" and can be "fixed." The practices employed in this type of therapy have been determined to be unscientific and dangerous. Since its heyday, from the 1980s to the mid-2000s, the ex-gay movement has been in decline, in large part because the therapy has been repeatedly shown not to work, instead causing psychological harm.

"In just trying to help, I did immeasurable harm," Darlene Bogle told Newsweek last year. Bogle was a leader in Exodus International, one of the largest and most influential ex-gay organizations in the world, until 1990, when she fell in love with a woman who attended one of her ex-gay meetings.

"It's like when children are molested and they live with that for their entire lives," Bogle said. "They're still being harmed, even though it happened years ago. I think it's a lot like what happens when people are involved in ex-gay ministry."

Notably, John Paulk, once the public face of Exodus International, appeared in a 1998 issue of Newsweek posing with his smiling wife for an article about gay conversion therapy. Paulk left Exodus in 2003 and is again living as a gay man.

"For 25 years I felt guilty and filled with self-loathing, trying to reject this part about myself. I'm culpable—I spread the message that my sexuality had changed, and I used my marriage as proof of that," Paulk told Newsweek last year.