Banning gay conversion therapy is a minefield Janice Turner in The Times 15.05.21

The original article is here.

Young men were forced to sit through slideshows strapped with electrodes, receiving vicious shocks if they dwelled on images of men. Lesbians were “cured” of their urges via “corrective” rape. Aged 17, the US writer Andrew Solomon saw a female “sex surrogate” to learn heterosexual ways. Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and Jews have suffered disturbing exorcisms to “pray away the gay”.

Two things are widely agreed about conversion therapy. First, it doesn’t work. Sexuality is essentially hardwired: for centuries gay people have braved violence, family rejection, even death, to love the person they desire. Second, it is an abhorrent practice with no place in a civilised society. The Church of England, NHS and many professional counselling bodies have called for a ban.

Theresa May promised this three years ago. Failure to deliver has led to cries of bigotry from Stonewall and caused three government LGBT advisers to resign. The ban was finally pledged again in this week’s Queen’s Speech, yet only pending a consultation. Surely this is a clear-cut moral issue, plus an easy way for Tories to show progressive credentials. So why the delay? The answer, inevitably, is complicated.

The vast majority of gay conversion therapy occurs in religious settings, especially African evangelical churches and mosques. (Gay ethnic minority people are twice as likely to be victims as whites.) Some horrific prayer rituals, in which gay people can be kept awake for days, are easy to legislate against. Indeed, coercive and violent rites like “corrective rape” fall within existing laws.

Yet campaigners like Jayne Ozanne believe it’s insufficient to ban only coercive practices. She points out that as a confused young lesbian, desperate to be “fixed”, she went willingly to a church which told her to vomit up a demon. She consented but feels that treating her homosexuality as a disease was still wrong. Ozanne, a member of the Church of England synod, also seeks a ban on prayer “with a predetermined outcome which says that you have to change and cannot be gay”.

That Boris Johnson has written to the Evangelical Alliance saying he differentiates between “pastoral support (including prayer)” and coercion is seen as a sop to religious conservatives that could dilute any ban. Yet both Labour and Tory MPs are concerned about religious freedom. Should a priest who gently counsels a gay parishioner be charged with attempted conversion? Who interprets the outcome sought from God in prayer?

Yet a more fraught question, which Baroness Falkner of Margravine, the new head of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, says MPs should be free to discuss without fear of “abuse and stigmatisation”, is whether a conversion ban should include “gender identity”. No one can be “cured” of their sexuality, but gender is fluid, and in the young especially it is shaped by outside influences such as peer pressure or social media. “I counsel teenage girls who start as lesbians, the next minute are bisexual/non-binary, then trans, then maybe lesbian again,” one former Tavistock Centre psychologist says. “What they need are calm, exploratory conversations: ‘Have you thought about this way of making sense of your life? Or this?’”

A ban should, of course, stop “reparative therapy” which might compel a gender-non-conforming boy to cut his hair short or play with trucks not dolls. However, many LGBT campaigners believe if someone (even a child) says they are trans this must be unquestioningly “affirmed”. Stonewall cites as an example of gender conversion therapy a complaint that psychologists “tried to make me feel more comfortable with being a woman”.

This horrifies clinicians who see their role as alleviating distress which, in patients with gender dysphoria, includes first trying to reconcile them with their bodies. Many of the young women attending gender clinics have underlying problems, including undiagnosed autism, anxiety and self-harm. Or they have suffered traumas such as sexual abuse which causes them to reject their bodies.

Psychotherapists have written to Liz Truss, the minister for women, defending their right to unpick such complex factors before a patient is moved on to the irreversible medical pathway of hormones and surgery. If therapists risk being accused of “conversion therapy” just for asking questions they will be silenced and vulnerable young patients will suffer.

Besides, many clinicians feel they have witnessed, even been expected to participate in, gay conversion themselves. Tavistock patients are overwhelmingly gay, including 90 per cent of girls. For some parents outside big liberal cities there is more stigma in saying your little girl is a lesbian than a boy “born in the wrong body” who doctors can fix into a straight son. Horrified gay clinicians at Tavistock told Dr David Bell, who wrote a whistleblowing report, that many parents were keener on medical transition than their child was or appeared to be reciting an activist script.

Ministers were alarmed by the judicial review against the Tavistock won by Keira Bell, a troubled young woman who was prescribed puberty blockers and testosterone by the centre, and who had a double mastectomy she regrets. They plan to include compelling someone to transition as a form of conversion therapy. This will allow “detransitioners” such as Bell to get funding and support as conversion victims.

Activist groups such as Mermaids that want to expedite cross-sex hormones for children, doctors who prescribe them without therapeutic oversight and parents who seek cures for their “effeminate” boys or “butch” girls should take note. It would be ironic if in trying to silence the “watchful waiting” therapists who urge caution before dispatching young people to lifelong patienthood, LGBT campaigners had made their voices stronger. But is erasing homosexuality with permanent medication any better than praying away the gay?

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