When 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn came out as transgender to her conservative Christian parents, they took away her cell phone and told her "God doesn't make mistakes." Then they sent her to conversion therapy—a widely discredited practice that seeks to "cure" people but unfailingly leaves its victims lonely and unhappy.
In December, Alcorn left a suicide note on her Tumblr before throwing herself in front of a truck. "The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren't treated the way I was, they're treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights," she wrote. "My death needs to mean something."
Turns out, the President of United States listened. Yesterday, in response to a White House petition that had gathered more than 120,000 signatures since Alcorn's death, Obama's senior advisor Valerie Jarrett came out against the practice, calling it "potentially devasting" and praising the efforts of state legislators who are trying to get in banned.
"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 is quoted as saying at the top of the statement. "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."
So far, California, New Jersey and Washington D.C. have banned doctors from conducting reparative therapy on LGBT minors, and 18 other states have similar laws in the works. The White House's statement praises these state-by-state bans, saying they are the most effective—and plausible—way to ban the practice, because a federal ban would require congressional action.
There are, though, other ways that conversion therapy can be combatted. In February, a New Jersey judge called bullshit on JONAH, an organization that claims to "fix" young Jewish men who are same-sex attracted, or SSA. Given the overwhelming evidence that this doesn't work, the judge likened it to consumer fraud.
The White House didn't exactly do what the petition asked, which was to call for a federal ban. Still, it's pretty remarkable that in the course of a decade, Obama went from saying he didn't think marriage was a civil right to building an "all-gender restroom" for White House staffers. And while a statement isn't exactly an executive order, it's symbolically important that the President of the United States is, in essence, saying it's okay to be gay or transgender.
Just last month, an 18-year-old transgender activist named Blake Brockington committed suicide by throwing himself in front of several vehicles in South Carolina. Although his high school had elected him homecoming king, Brockington's family was reportedly unaccepting of his gender identity. Nationally, more than 50 percent of transgender youths will have attempted suicide before their 20th birthdays, according to the Youth Suicide Prevention Program. Gay teens are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers.
"It was tragic, but I will tell you, unfortunately, [Leelah Alcorn] has a lot of company," Jarrett told the New York Times Thursday. "It's not the story of one young person. It is the story of countless young people who have been subjected to this."
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