By Michael D. Shear with The New York Times
WASHINGTON — A 17-year-old transgender youth, Leelah Alcorn, stunned her friends and a vast Internet audience in December when she threw herself in front of a tractor-trailer after writing in an online suicide note that religious therapists had tried to convert her back to being a boy.
In response, President Obama is calling for an end to such therapies aimed at “repairing” gay, lesbian and transgender youth. His decision on the issue is the latest example of his continuing embrace of gay rights.
In a statement that was posted on Wednesday evening alongside a WhiteHouse.gov petition begun in honor of Ms. Alcorn, Mr. Obama condemned the practice, sometimes called “conversion” or “reparative” therapy, which is supported by some socially conservative organizations and religious doctors.
The petition has 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,” the statement, written by Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama, says. “As part of our dedication to protecting America’s youth, this administration supports efforts to ban the use of conversion therapy for minors.”
In an interview on Wednesday, Ms. Jarrett said Mr. Obama had been moved by the story of Ms. Alcorn’s suicide. But she said the problem went far beyond Ms. Alcorn.
“It was tragic, but I will tell you, unfortunately, she has a lot of company,” Ms. 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.”
Mr. Obama will not explicitly call for a federal law banning therapists from using such therapies on their patients, but he is open to conversations with lawmakers in both parties, White House officials said on Wednesday. Instead, he will throw his support behind the efforts to ban the practice at the state level.
Mr. Obama began his national political career opposed to gay marriage and accepting of limits on gays’ serving in the military. But he now supports same-sex marriage and has sought greater equality of treatment for gay men and lesbians in the government and the private work force. In his first term, he pushed the Pentagon to end the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that had kept gay service members from serving openly.
On Wednesday, Mr. Obama’s top aides also heralded new protections for gay federal workers that went into effect this week. Last summer, Mr. Obama issued executive orders to ban discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation by federal contractors.
Officials also announced the creation of an “all-gender restroom” in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where many of the White House staff members work, to provide an additional option for transgender individuals who are not comfortable using either the men’s or women’s restrooms.
Therapists who advocate the use of the gender identity therapies promote them as a way of helping gay people change their sexual orientation. Those therapists reject claims that sexual orientation or identity is unchangeable and argue that gay or transgender identities should be reversed so that people can embrace their “authentic” heterosexual selves.
The Narth Institute, an organization that advocates the therapies, says on its website that “numerous examples exist of people who have successfully modified their sexual behavior, identity, and arousal or fantasies.”
The fight against such therapies has become more urgent in recent years as gay rights organizations have sought to discredit the practice. California, New Jersey and the District of Columbia have banned therapists from offering the treatment to minors. Similar legislation was introduced in 18 states this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group that tracks legislation on the issue.
hallenges to the laws in New Jersey and California were rejected by federal appeals court judges in 2013 and 2014, officials at the Human Rights Campaign said.
“So-called ‘conversion therapy’ is a range of dangerous and discredited practices that falsely claim to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity or expression,” the group said in a statement.
In Ms. Jarrett’s letter, which was posted on WhiteHouse.gov, the White House says that stopping the gender identity therapies will help make the United States a more welcoming place for gay people.
“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,” the statement says. “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.”
David Pickup, a licensed family therapist in California and Texas, said in an interview on Wednesday that the president and gay rights advocates were purposely misconstruing the work that he and others do. He said that minors should never be forced into therapy, but he insisted that being gay was often brought about by serious emotional problems or sexual abuse.
“We believe that change is still possible. People go to therapy because they can change, because it really does work,” Mr. Pickup said. “We help people grow into their authentic selves.”
Mr. Pickup said he and others were actively lobbying against the proposed state bans, and he urged Mr. Obama to “wake up and understand the rights of people who he doesn’t know anything about and need his help and need his compassion.”
Correction: April 11, 2015
An article on Thursday about President Obama’s call for an end to therapies aimed at “repairing” gay, lesbian and transgender youth referred incompletely to the evolution of Mr. Obama’s position on same-sex marriage. While Mr. Obama began his national political career publicly opposed to same-sex marriage, he did not begin his overall political career opposed to it. (In 1996 he filled out a questionnaire during his first campaign for public office, an Illinois state senate race, saying he supported same-sex marriage. By 2004, when he was a candidate for the United States Senate, Mr. Obama said he did not support same-sex marriage.) The article also described incorrectly an executive order to ban discrimination by federal contractors. The action would cover sexual orientation and gender identity, not gender.