The UK and Conversion Therapy: A Complicated and Unresolved Relationship

TW: Homophobia; Rape

The UK government is currently consulting on whether to ban conversion therapy. The practice, sometimes referred to as ‘anti-gay’ therapy, is a form of supposed ‘treatment’ that aims to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity. It is intrinsically homophobic and transphobic due to it being built on the belief that being LGBTQ+ is an illness that needs to be cured. 

In a government survey of LGBT people, 5% said that they had been offered conversion therapy and that nearly 3% of them had gone through the treatment. Hubs for the practice have been identified in Liverpool and Dartford. Practices within conversion therapy have been compared to torture. Having its roots in some religions, prayer and religious counselling have been prescribed to some LGBT people. Others have suffered more extreme measures including fasting, electro-shock therapy and rape.

Why is it in the news again?

The proposed ban on conversion therapy is controversial. The government has presented a ban on all therapies for under-18s and non-consenting adults. This is being criticized by some groups because it does not go far enough; MP Kate Osbourne warned of a “dangerous consent loophole” that would allow consenting adults to be able to receive this therapy. Theoretically, if an individual wanted to change their sexual orientation, they would be legally allowed to do so.

However, faith groups have criticized the “repressive law” that stands to “victimize” and “discriminate” against some religious beliefs according to Kieran Andrews of The Times. It is important to note that there is no scientific evidence for conversion therapy working but there is evidence that it can cause severe psychological damage.

Is Britain too slow to act?

In 1999, Brazil was the first country to ban conversion therapy relating to sexual orientation people. The following year, Norway took the same action. In the next two decades, many countries have taken the same action and multiple European countries are drafting legislation to put through similar controls on the practice. Even this week, the French Parliament has voted to pass a bill banning conversion therapy in France.

In July 2018, an LGBT Action Plan was published by the then Conservative government headed by Theresa May. Within the proposals a focus on bringing forward plans to ‘end conversion therapy’ in the UK was included. A promise to the LGBTQ+ community before-Boris that, three years after, still has not seen its completion. 

The deadline for the Government’s consultation on conversion therapy has been extended by eight weeks on the 9th December meaning the movement to ban conversion therapy will have to wait until February 2022 for the government’s plan. 

Are LGBT rights being taken seriously?

The issue of conversion therapy not being banned in the UK has had effects on LGBTQ+ voices in government. The LGBT advisory panel was disbanded by former equalities minister Liz Truss in April 2021 due to three members quitting in protest at the lack of action from Truss on setting out legislation to protect LGBT people. The first to quit, Jayne Ozanne, said ministers created a “hostile environment” for LGBT people. 8 months later, there is still no replacement.

LGBT people are still encountering difficulties in the UK despite progress in the last decade. With the situation at the BBC and recent news reports of the Metropolitan Police being dubbed ‘institutionally homophobic’, causing them to allow three gay men to be murdered, the pressure is mounting on the government to take action to protect its’ LGBTQ+ community.

Want to learn more about conversion therapy?

Netflix documentary Pray Away is a great documentary with both the recipients and leaders of conversion therapy movements. Stonewall has resources on the history of the practice in the UK.

The memoir Boy Erased and the novel The Miseducation of Cameron Post both chronicle experiences of conversion therapy and are both now major motion pictures found on streaming services.

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