It was announced in the Queen’s Speech on 11 May 2021 that conversion therapy would be banned after a public consultation on the issue. Conversion therapy, or what has been called ‘reparative therapy’ or ‘gay cure therapy’, attempts to change, suppress or divert someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Theresa May’s government in 2018 promised to end conversion therapy as part of its LGBT equality plan. Prime Minister, Boris Johnson called conversion therapy ‘abhorrent’ in 2020 and announced in early 2021 that plans to ban the practice would be brought forward. Despite these pledges, it still remains legal in the UK.

The 2018 National LGBT Survey of 108,000 members of the LGBT community in the UK found that 2% had undergone conversion therapy and 5% had been offered it.

According to LGBT charity, Stonewall’s LGBT in Britain: health report, one in 20 LGBT people had been pressured to access services to question or change their sexual orientation when accessing healthcare services. This number rose to 9% of LGBT people aged 18-24; 9% of Black, Asian and minority ethnic LGBT people; and 8% of LGBT disabled people; with one in five trans people pressured to access services to suppress their gender identity when accessing healthcare. 

Global issue

According to Human Rights Watch, the potential harm caused by conversion therapy has prompted global debate. Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau stated that banning conversion therapy was a ‘top priority’ and legislation outlawing the practice in Canada took effect on 8 January. Lawmakers in Australia, France, Ireland, New Zealand, and Spain have also called for bans.

The United Nations issued a report in May 2020 calling for a global ban on all conversion practices, highlighting that they ‘may amount to torture’ . The spotlight has been cast on China, Ecuador, Mozambique, Ghana, Brazil and the United States for promoting practices involving electric shock, rape and submersion in an attempt to ‘cure’ people of same-sex orientation. The UN report found that minors are often subjected to this practice, in part because they lack the legal right to control their healthcare decisions and ‘as a result of the desire of parents or guardians to have them conform to expectations, either their or their communities, regarding sexual orientation and gender identity’.

This is the first time the UN has approach the issue at any length. The report noted that a recent global estimate found that half of conversion therapy survivors underwent the practice as children, and 80% were 24 or younger.

Questionable methods

The history of conversion therapy is bleak with its origins rooted in erroneous 19th century psychological methodology and physiological misdiagnosis. So wide-ranging were the methods used, that they varied from psychoanalysis to aversion conditioning, lobotomy and organ transplantation. Most recently, talking therapies and prayer have been promoted as means of ‘curing’ same-sex orientation. Recent extreme forms of the practice have included exorcism, physical violence and sensory deprivation including deprivation of food and sleep. Many of the practices are often carried out by unlicensed, self-defined therapists – either one-on-one or at retreats run by religious groups promising to ‘treat’ a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Not only is there risk of physical harm during what is labelled ‘treatment’, but also emotional and psychological harm and exploitation. These practices are now broadly discredited by the scientific and psychological communities and rejected by medical and mental health organisations which consider them under researched, often unspecific and, in many cases, unethical and potentially harmful. The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims has drawn comparisons between forms of conversion therapy and methods of torture with equally damaging effects.

Academics have argued that conversion therapy could constitute degrading treatment under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights and stress the association between the prohibition of degrading treatment, human dignity and antidiscrimination. Additionally, it could be argued that conversion therapy, in all its forms, undertakes a specific form of degradation that UK and international human rights law prohibits.

Conversion is not a cure

Conversion therapy reaffirms the view that those with minority sexual orientation or gender identity are suffering some form of mental illness which can be successfully changed. Stonewall has called for a clear message to be communicated by health and social care leaders, regulators, psychotherapists and counsellors that attempts to ‘cure’ LGBT people is harmful and dangerous.

Shockingly, over a quarter (26%) of doctors do not support the British Medical Association (BMA) lobbying to ban conversion therapy, according to a vote cast at the BMA’s annual representatives meeting on 23 September 2021.

Although societal attitudes and approaches to the LGBT community have improved over the last 60 years, and there has been significant progress in equality rights, has dialogue evolved as to the urgent need for conversion therapy to be banned outright? The World Health Organisation removed homosexuality from the international classification of diseases in 1990 yet the issue of conversion therapy remains current and in dire need of addressing.

Outdated views

In all its guises, conversion therapy is designed to isolate an individual from friends, family and community rather than encourage the finding of social support or propose methods which may assist the ‘patient’ in building their self-esteem and confidence. At its core, conversion therapy reaffirms the view that being LGBT is ‘wrong’, is in need of repair or change and that there are effective means of doing so.

The consequences for those who have encountered conversion therapy are great. These range from depression, anxiety and issues surrounding self-image to drug use and post-traumatic stress. According to the LGBT suicide prevention charity, The Trevor Project in its 2020 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, youths who reported undergoing conversion therapy reported more than twice the rate of attempting suicide in the past year compared to those who had not undergone the practice.

Ultimately, all forms of conversion therapy are misguided and contrary to the equal moral value of LGBT people. They violate specific protected areas of liberty and equality that are grounded in the idea of human dignity. Not only are LGBT people not cured through conversion therapy but the idea of attempting to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity as would be a disease or disorder, is ignorant and antiquated.

Although proposals for the criminalisation of conversion therapy may be a starting point, consideration should also be given to the possibility of establishing civil liability and recourse to those who have endured physical or mental pain and suffering that conversion therapy can inflict. A further safeguard could be found with the potential imposition of professional disciplinary measures on practitioners. 

© May James/SOPA Images/Shutterstock

Peter Tatchell (C) and other LGBT+ activists are pictured holding placards during the demonstration against the use of conversion therapy outside the Cabinet Office on 23 June 2021. The public consultation, Banning conversion therapyclosed on 4 February 2022.