While it can be easy to think of conversion therapies as something of the past, conversion practices can – and do – still happen to lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, intersex, and ace (LGBTQIA+) people across the United Kingdom today.
We’ve developed this Q&A to answer some of the common questions about conversion therapy, and to tackle some myths and misconceptions you might have seen in the media.
If you’d like to use your voice and speak up in support of banning conversion therapy, you can contribute to the UK Government’s open consultation here. We’ll also be providing guidance to support you to fill in the consultation soon.
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- What is conversion therapy?
- Why do we need a ban?
- Where is conversion therapy happening in the UK?
- What would be banned under a Bill?
- Why must conversion therapy be banned in faith settings?
- What would criminalisation of conversion practices not include?
- Does a ban undermine an adult who consents to conversion therapy?
- Why should a ban on conversion therapy include gender identity as well as sexual orientation?
- Is supporting a person to socially, medically and/or legally transition not a form of conversion therapy?
Conversion therapy is any intervention that seeks to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Conversion therapies work towards one goal, and that goal is to ‘cure’ someone from being lesbian, gay, bi, trans, ace, intersex and/or queer.
Conversion practices are one-directional: the intention is to get a person to change or their sexual orientation or gender identity. This is the opposite of appropriate, affirming and healthy therapy or counselling, which will support an individual who is exploring their sexual orientation or gender identity whatever the outcome may be.
A non-exhaustive list of such practices includes pseudo-scientific counselling sessions; being induced to ingest “purifying” substances; threatening a person with homelessness; corrective rape; being prayed over as a form of “healing”; and exorcisms.
LGBTQIA+ people don’t need to be cured, and interventions that seek to make a person straight or cisgender can and do cause significant long-term harm to victims. Conversion practice is abuse, and it must be banned, in every setting and for everyone subjected to it.
Without a ban, conversion practices will continue to put our communities at risk of lifelong psychological damage. The National LGBT Survey 2018 found that 7% of LGBT+ people have been offered or undergone conversion therapy. Trans respondents were almost twice as likely to have undergone or been offered conversion therapy (13%), while asexual people were also at a higher risk of being offered or undergoing conversion therapy (10%).
Often people are surprised at how close a victim of conversion therapy is to the person or organisation who conducted it. The Government’s National LGBT Survey (2018) found that one in five (19%) of those who had conversion therapy were offered it through healthcare and medical settings, 16% were subjected to it by a parent, guardian or family member, and a further one in ten (9%) from a member of their community.
But by a large margin, most victims of conversion practices went through it in a faith setting. Over half (51%) of those subjected to a form of conversion therapy reported it was conducted by a faith organisation or group.
Any act or practice would be banned under a Bill that:
- Is directed against a specific individual or group of individuals and
- Is undertaken on the basis of the individual’s perceived gender identity or sexual orientation and
- Attempts to suppress, 'cure', or change their gender identity and/or sexual orientation with a predetermined purpose.
With such a high proportion of conversion practices taking place in faith settings, it’s vital that these would be included in a ban of conversion therapy.
Some LGBTQIA+ people take years to reflect on and explore their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, and many rely on the help of therapists, psychologists, and religious leaders or communities to support them through that process. Spiritual exploration or counselling in an open and affirming manner can be a massive support for a person.
But, if spiritual guidance, counselling or prayer takes the form of coercing a person to cure themselves of their sexual orientation or gender identity, this is not exploration or counselling. It is conversion therapy, and it is abuse.
It is important to be clear that a ban is not about restricting prayer or criminalising regular religious or faith-based activity. There is no question that freedom of religion or belief is a crucial and fundamental right, and one which is a central and cherished part of life for many LGBTQIA+ people. But there is no freedom or right that grants a licence to harm, abuse, or torture another person.
- Holding, writing, teaching, preaching, researching, reporting or any other form of declaration of belief about the morality, ethics, or preference of any sexual orientation, gender identity, sexual relationships, or forms of religious or legal recognition of relationships.
- Supporting a person with personal, emotional, psychological or spiritual struggles with their sexual orientation or gender identity where that support does not seek to direct that person to suppress, “cure”, or change their sexual orientation or gender identity.
- Exploring in therapy or private conversation or any other setting a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity without a predetermined purpose.
It is not possible to consent to conversion practices in a free and informed manner, and it should not be a defence that victims appeared to have consented.
Conversion practices result in significant harms to those who are subjected to them. Psychological harm that takes the form of a recognised psychiatric illness such as depression, PTSD or anxiety falls within the ambit of bodily harm under the Offences against the Person Act 1861. These mental health consequences occur at a higher frequency in LGBTQ+ people who are victims of conversion practices.
The ability to consent is not necessarily impossible when an act results in harms, but if those harms are of a significant level and the harms exist within an imbalance of power against a background of stigmatisation, where an individual’s ability to fully understand the consequences of the actions is constrained, then consent cannot be meaningfully given. This is the case in forms of harm that a victim may claim to have “consented” to, such as domestic or sexual abuse.
Gender identity conversion practices are equally as damaging as sexual orientation conversion practices – with the associated physical harms, risks of damage, and high rates of mental ill health and suicidal ideation/attempts.
Trans people are also at higher risk of conversion therapy – the National LGBT Survey 2018 found 13% of trans people had been subjected to or offered conversion therapy as opposed to 7% of the general LGBT+ respondents.
There is also an argument that conversion therapists treat any variation from “the norm” as wrong – they are as likely to think being gay is wrong as being trans and will often treat them interchangeably as the goal is to have someone act in the way their birth gender dictates, including only having attraction or sexual relations with people of the opposite gender from their birth gender.
It is also important to note that many people will be ‘LGB’ and ‘T’ and therefore at risk of being subject to conversion practices in relation to their sexual orientation and gender identity. It makes no sense to only protect one part of someone’s LGBTQ+ identity.
Finally, not protecting gender identity as well as sexual orientation would expose any ban to the risk of it continuing to tolerate all forms of conversion practices, including that directed to LGBQ individuals. This is because our presumed identities often overlap and intersect. To protect all LGBTQ+ people, it has to be a complete ban. An exemption in relation to gender identity would undermine the efficacy of the prohibition.
Is supporting a person to socially, medically and/or legally transition not a form of conversion therapy?
Gender-affirming therapy and gender transition healthcare are not conversion therapy.
The ban must not restrict the ability of transgender, including non-binary, individuals to transition and to access other healthcare provisions they require. It’s vital that any legislation distinguishes between harmful conversion practices and other practices that help people come to a consensual, comfortable, and self-accepting place with their gender identity or sexual orientation.
Conversion practices focus on an individual based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, with the intention to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity. There is only one acceptable outcome in conversion therapy: to convert an individual to regain their presumed heterosexual, cisgender identities.
Gender affirming therapy is a patient-centred and patient-led approach to supporting individuals who are experiencing gender dysphoria, other forms of gender questioning, or who seek to transition socially, legally and/or medically. Gender affirming therapy starts from the premise that there is no predetermined expectation and that the patient has autonomy to explore and know their own gender identity, to decide on how they wish to live their lives in accordance with their gender, and to request and seek treatment in line with their own stated needs.
It is important to note that a gender transition is not a process that changes a person’s gender identity – it is a process that supports and enables a person to live in their gender identity.