I was born in 1990, the same year the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from the International Classification of Diseases. 31 years later, conversion therapy and attempts to ‘cure’ us are still happening — and still legal.
LGBT+ History Month is a time to remember, to look back. A time to celebrate those who paved the way and secured the freedoms we enjoy today. We remember those who protested, paraded and pushed for our rights and protections; our equal treatment under the law. The outcasts, the rejects, the drag queens, the trannies. The faggots and benders and poofs and pooves and queers and dykes. The tank-top bum boys. Those who, in the face of unfathomable LGBTphobia, stood up and said, “We exist. We are here. You are not alone.”
But as this important month draws to a close I want us to look forward to one dangerous war that is still raging — conversion therapy.
| WHAT IS CONVERSION THERAPY?
Conversion therapy is a catch-all term which encompasses a wide number of practices. In simple terms, it refers to any attempt to try and change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. You may have heard of ‘pray away the gay’, the gay cure, or reparative therapy — they are all one and the same. It is based on the belief that LGBT+ identities are wrong, sinful and changeable.
I am often met with disbelief when I tell people that so-called conversion therapy still happens here in the UK. People think (or hope) that it’s a thing of the past, confined to dusty old churches in the US. I can’t blame them. It is unbelievable.
The reality is that two per cent of LGBT+ people have been through conversion therapy, and a further five per cent have been offered it, according to a Stonewall survey. This rises dramatically when we look at the trans community. As many as one in five trans people have been pressured to access services to suppress their gender identity when accessing healthcare services.
| CONVERSION THERAPY HARMS
One of the most important guiding principles — for anyone, but especially for medical professionals, counsellors, teachers, and church leaders — is “do no harm”. It shouldn’t be a big ask. But it seems when LGBT+ people are at risk, harm becomes a price worth paying.
And conversion therapy certainly is harmful. It can cause life-long emotional turmoil and suffering, sometimes with deadly consequences. In a 2018 survey by the Ozanne Foundation, they found that 20% of those who experienced conversion therapy attempted to take their own life. We cannot allow anyone to be put through this, no matter how much they may think they are doing the right thing.
I have heard first-hand the conversion experiences of folks in the UK, often dealt by people they trusted or people in positions of power. Many feel they cannot speak up because in doing so they would have to out themselves to their wider community, or potentially worsen already strained relationships with their family. Some simply don’t feel safe enough to do so. The coercive and controlling pressures many LGBT+ people face growing up must be recognised.
Since the majority of cases are faith-based it is vital that any ban includes religious practices. Homosexuality is rarely seen in a positive way within faith communities and teachings. Any LGBT+ person who grows up within one of these communities knows to keep their sexuality hidden. They will hear frequently throughout their life that it is wrong and sinful, and as a result they will suffer great shame. Most likely, they will believe that being LGBT+ is wrong long before they accept that they themselves are LGBT+.
To say no to conversion therapy and pursue an authentic life can come at a high price, one too great for many to risk paying. Often, one’s entire life is built around faith; their family, friends, community and career. Rejecting it can mean they risk losing it all — losing, in your most vulnerable state, your greatest hour of need, your entire support network. Everyone you know and love.
In what way is this choice free? You do not have free will with a loaded gun to your head.
The good news is that the LGBT+ community and their allies are fighting back. The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims has said that conversion therapy is torture. The U.N. has called for an end to conversion therapy globally. A Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy in the UK was signed in 2015 and again in 2017 by all major UK medical and psychotherapy organisations. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has released guidance for a more affirming approach supporting LGBTQ+ children and young people. Even the Church of England has supported a ban. Opinions are changing. But despite this widespread support, there has been little progress by our government.
| THE CAMPAIGN TO BAN CONVERSION THERAPY
I’ve been campaigning to #BanConversionTherapy for the last year, driven by my own near miss with it. Next week I will launch a large campaign in partnership with LGBT+ and faith communities and organisations, and mental health practitioners all united in calling for the Government to Ban Conversion Therapy and support victims and survivors.
Banning conversion therapy is just the first step, but it’s an important one. Without it, we cannot continue to educate, inform and stamp out these harmful beliefs that perpetuate a vicious and damaging cycle of shame and abuse. We need to heal LGBT+ people from years of shame and guilt forced upon them.
We cannot create a culture where LGBT+ people are taught to be ashamed of themselves and then use that same shame as evidence of a ‘brokenness’ which needs to be fixed. Conversion therapy is the antithesis to the LGBT+ equal rights movement. Whilst we are fighting for inclusion and representation, others are trying to cure us, and make out that we are damaged and fixable.
LGBT+ people are not broken or sinful or wrong. If we are to truly create an equal society, we need to ensure that every person is safe and protected to be who they are.
I leave you with one of my favourite quotes:
“To suggest that a person comes voluntarily to change his sexual orientation is to ignore the powerful environmental stress, oppression if you will, that has been telling him for years that he should change. To grow up in a family where the word “homosexual” was whispered, to play in a playground and hear the words “faggot” and “queer,” to go to church and hear of “sin” and then to college and hear of “illness,” and finally to the counselling centre that promises to “cure,” is hardly to create an environment of freedom and voluntary choice.
What brings them into the counselling centre is guilt, shame, and the loneliness that comes from their secret. If you really wish to help them freely choose, I suggest you first desensitise them to their guilt. Allow them to dissolve the shame about their desires and actions and to feel comfortable with their sexuality.Charles Weinstein, 1972