Obama looks to end LGBTQ ‘conversion therapy’, still legal in Canada

The White House was reacting to an online petition, signed by more than 120,000 people since Jan. 3, to enact "Leelah's Law" and ban LGBTQ conversion therapies. File / AP Photo

Please note: This story was updated on Friday, April 10 to include a clarification from Journey Canada (below).

Public outcry following the suicide of transgender teen Leelah Alcorn, just days after Christmas, has led to U.S. President Barack Obama calling for an end to so-called “conversion therapy” for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) youth.

“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. Soon, perhaps, he will decide it’s time to let that secret out,” Obama said in a statement released by White House on Wednesday. “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.”

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The White House was reacting to an online petition, signed by more than 120,000 people since Jan. 3, to enact “Leelah’s Law” and ban LGBTQ conversion therapies — religious and psychological treatments that can change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity – in honour of the 17-year-old.

Such therapies, often labeled as the “ex-gay” movement, are widely discredited. A 2009 report from American Psychological Association “concluded that efforts to change sexual orientation are unlikely to be successful and involve some risk of harm.”

The White House statement stopped short of calling for a federal ban on such treatments targeting young people. Only three jurisdictions — California, New Jersey and the District of Colombia — have laws that prohibit licenced therapists from trying to treat minors for this purpose. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 18 other states, including Ohio, where Alcorn lived and died, have proposed legislation to do the same.

READ MORE: US court upholds 1st ban on gay-to-straight therapy for minors

“While a national ban would require congressional action, we are hopeful that the clarity of the evidence combined with the actions taken by these states will lead to broader action that this Administration would support,” Obama Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett said in the statement posted on

Across Lake Erie from Alcorn’s home state of Ohio, legislators in Ontario have thrown their support behind a private member’s bill that would ban such therapies aimed at children 18 years old and under.

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READ MORE: NDP bill would ban any attempt to change gender of people under 18

Put forward by Cheri DiNovo, the provincial NDP critic on LGBTQ issues, the bill would also de-list it from the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) and stop the therapies from being provincially funded.

“To tell a child that who they are is wrong, we consider abusive,” DiNovo said March 16, adding she believed most Ontarians would be “shocked to learn” taxpayer dollars were being used to attempt to alter a young person’s orientation.

WATCH: Cheri DiNovo speaks about her private member’s bill that seeks to ban conversion therapy in Ontario

In Canada, there are several organizations that counsel homosexual people or minister to individuals with same-sex attractions — including the international organization Exodus Global Alliance that has a branch in Ajax, Ont.

“We believe freedom from homosexuality is increasingly experienced as men and women mature through ongoing submission to the lordship of Christ and His Church. This transformation enables him or her to shed the old, sinful identity and in its place learn new ways of relating to self and others,” Exodus said on its website, adding there is a “realistic hope for change.”

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READ MORE: Court orders Chinese clinic to compensate man in gay conversion case

Exodus and some other organizations — including Vancouver-based Journey Canada (formerly Living Waters Canada) — are registered charitable organizations and “exempt from paying tax on their revenue, and can issue official donation receipts.”

Journey Canada told Global News, in an email, that they are a spiritual organization that doesn’t offer conversion counseling.

“[W]e are a Christian discipleship ministry focused on spiritual formation and do not offer counselling of any kind. We also have no involvement in conversion therapy,” Journey Canada Executive Director Toni Dolfo-Smith said in the email.

Journey Canada’s website indicates the organization ministers to Christians of all backgrounds “facing various relational and sexual experiences, including unwanted self-identified same-sex attraction.”

Leelah Alcorn’s wish

Alcorn, before taking her own life by walking in front of a tractor trailer on Interstate 71, about 6 kilometres from her home in Kings Mills, Ohio, wrote a note on her Tumblr page.

“People say’it gets better’ but that isn’t true in my case. It gets worse. Each day I get worse,” The Advocate reported Alcorn’s post saying.

Alcorn detailed her parents sending her to a Christian therapist to treat her for depression, after coming out as transgender at the age of 14. Her parents eventually took her out of school and isolated her, she wrote in her post.

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“[They] took away my laptop and phone, and forbid me of getting on any sort of social media, completely isolating me from my friends. … I was completely alone for 5 months. No friends, no support, no love. Just my parent’s disappointment and the cruelty of loneliness.”

“My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say “that’s fu***d up” and fix it. Fix society. Please.”

The Tumblr page has since been taken down.

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