Leelah Alcorn's legacy: The White House moves against conversion therapy

Obama makes another bold move toward LGBT inclusion, too -- gender-neutral bathrooms

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
Published April 9, 2015 2:26PM (EDT)
          (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
(Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Damn, I love our LGBT-friendly administration. In a definitive one-two punch this week, the White House took bold strides against bigotry and ignorance. Couldn't have come at a better time! 

Inspired by the suicide late last year of transgender teen Leelah Alcorn, the White House issued an official response to a petition to ban LGBTQ conversion therapy. The petition's eloquent plea for a "Leelah's Law" chronicled how "her parents had forced her to attend conversion therapy, pulled her out of school and isolated her in an attempt to change her gender identity," noting that "Therapists that engage in the attempt to brainwash or reverse any child's gender identity or sexual orientation are seriously unethical and legislation is needed to end such practices that are resulting in LGBTQ+ deaths."

Writing in response late Wednesday, White House adviser Valerie Jarrett said, "As part of our dedication to protecting America's youth, this administration supports efforts to ban the use of conversion therapy for minors," adding that "The American Psychological Association has repeatedly affirmed its stance against these practices, recently stating that efforts to change an individual’s sexual orientation can pose serious health risks to LGBTQ+ individuals."

The ridiculous and cruel practice of attempting to make LGBT kids "pray the gay away" is already banned in New Jersey, California and the District of Columbia. Eighteen other states are currently mulling similar measures. But conversion therapy is still employed and endorsed in other parts of the country. Just last year, the Texas Republican party bone headedly introduced language in its platform that asserted, "We recognize the legitimacy and value of counseling which offers reparative therapy and treatment to patients who are seeking escape from the homosexual lifestyle. No laws or executive orders shall be imposed to limit or restrict access to this type of therapy." The White House notes that "a national ban would require congressional action," but with the weight of strong evidence of the harmful effects of the practice, there's cause for hope.

And in another gesture of goodwill and inclusion, the White House also announced Wednesday that it now has a gender neutral bathroom on the premises. The White House already "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 CNN Wednesday. But now it additionally offers an "all-gender restroom [that] provides guests and staff an additional option" with a facility in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, near the West Wing.

These are mighty gestures of recognition and acceptance. And they are telling the world that this administration accepts the humanity of all Americans. That it is and should be unconscionable to attempt to alter the orientation of another person, and that we are entitled to respect and dignity in all facets of our lives, including where we wash our hands. Speaking with the New York Times Wednesday, Valerie Jarrett said that President Obama had been moved to action by the death of Leelah Alcorn. But she continued, "It was tragic, but I will tell you, unfortunately, she has a lot of company. It’s not the story of one young person. It is the story of countless young people who have been subjected to this." And now, it's moving one big step closer to becoming a story with a conclusion.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Conversion Therapy Leelah Alcorn Lgbtq Texas