Advocates who want to end “conversion therapy” for LGBT children were thrilled when the Obama Administration called this week to ban the practice—and they hope President Obama’s support will boost their efforts to enact bans in state legislatures across the country.
“It is an incredible moment,” said Samantha Ames, a lawyer for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “We have a champion in our corner who is the most powerful person in world.”
The President, though, is not powerful enough to end conversion therapy on a national scale, a move that would need the support of Congress. The White House, mindful of Obama’s limited sway over a Republican-controlled Congress, didn’t even call for national legislation in its statement of support from top adviser Valerie Jarrett, focusing instead on “steps by states.” It was the latest of several moves in support of LGBT rights Obama has made in his second term.
“While a national ban would require congressional action, we are hopeful that the clarity of the evidence combined with the actions taken [already by states] will lead to broader action that this Administration would support,” Jarrett said.
That’s a hope advocates like Ames share. The movement to pass such laws is in its infancy—with the first one passing in California in 2012, and subsequent laws in the District of Columbia and New Jersey—but it’s gaining momentum. This legislative session, 18 states have introduced bans for under-18 children to receive the “therapy,” which purports to “cure” people of homosexuality and gender-identity issues.
“But even if it is seems inevitable, we are not done,” said Ames, who is also the coordinator for #BornPerfect: The Campaign to End Conversion Therapy. “Every day this practice continues is a day we are risking a kid’s life.”
Conversion therapy is based on the idea that a child’s sexuality can be changed to fit desired norms, a theory that has been widely dismissed by medical experts, including the American Psychological Association and the American Medical Association. The suicide of Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teenager who killed herself last December after leaving a note saying her parents had made her see therapists who tried to convince her that she should act like a boy, drew new attention to the issue.
Many of the bills currently being considered are unlikely to pass, not necessarily because they lack support, but because they’re lower on the list of legislative priorities. Still, advocates say that regardless of whether they succeed, the movement to get bans on the books and the support from the President will make a difference in the lives of LGBT youth.
“The fact that these bills exist at all, it’s a huge opportunity for public education,” Ames said. “It used to be that if I was scared for the well being of my LGBT child’s soul, and I Googled it, I’d get a list of conversion therapists. Because of these bells, I get articles with an enormous amount of information about the risks.”
LGBT advocates said that bills in Oregon and Illinois are the most promising. Oregon’s bill is headed to the state Senate soon after it easily passed the state House in March.
Lawmakers across the states are sometimes wary of supporting LGBT protections, legislative experts say, often because they are afraid of alienating conservative constituents. But advocates who have looked at the campaign to end gay conversion therapy for children say it enjoys more bipartisan support than other LGBT-friendly measures. New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie signed a gay conversion therapy ban in 2013—the same year that he vetoed a pro-gay marriage bill in the state.
“I really think in this area, you see increased bipartisan support,” said Alison Gill, senior legislative counsel at the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, D.C. “When the bill passed in New Jersey in 2013, 50% of Republicans voted for it or abstained, which was higher than the margin for marriage equality. When he signed it into law, [Christie], a prominent Republican, had good things to say. Reasonable people can see it’s really about child abuse and protecting children, and outdated and medically inappropriate conduct that harms people for their entire lives.”
Though anti-LGBT groups and conversion therapists have mounted free speech challenges against the laws in New Jersey and California, court rulings in those cases have sided with the position that the laws are constitutionally sound and don’t infringe inappropriately on freedom of speech or religion. In 2013, Judge Freda Wolfson of the United States District Court of New Jersey said that the challenges to the New Jersey law were “counter to the longstanding principle that a state generally may enact laws rationally regulating professionals, including those providing medicine and mental health services.”
Advocates for the bans said they’re not taking anything for granted. As Ames put it: “We are in the long game for this.”