Conversion Therapy Is ‘Abusive’ And ‘Needs To Be Stopped’, Rights Groups Demand
Last month marked 1,000 days since Theresa May pledged to outlaw conversion therapy in the UK. In the years since, charities, human rights organisations and practitioners have rallied for a ban to come into effect, and yet the practice, which attempts to ‘change’ a person’s sexuality or gender identity, is still legal.
On March 15, Evangelical Alliance, a group that represents 3,500 churches, wrote a letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson urging him not to implement a total ban on the practice.
The alliance said an ‘expansive definition’ of conversion therapy will restrict religious freedoms and ‘place church leaders at risk of prosecution’.
The letter, which was signed by the alliance’s director, Peter Lynas, said it is ‘essential that those who experience same-sex attraction should be free to pursue and receive support to help live in accordance with their beliefs’.
While Article 9 of the Human Rights Act 1998 protects a person’s right to freedom of thought, belief and religion, authorities may interfere in order to protect public health and safety.
Advocacy groups who have called for a widespread ban on the practice have opposed the alliance’s stance. Humanists UK argues that it is ‘very legitimate to restrict people’s freedom of religion or belief if it stops them from causing harm to other people’.
Richy Thompson, Director of Policy at the charity, says the therapy has long-lasting and potentially devastating effects on the mental health of those who are subjected to it.
‘It can make it very difficult for them to come to terms with who they are, and to see themselves as accepted,’ he says.
‘I have no doubt that if a ban on conversion therapy was brought about, it would be the right thing to do and lawful to do so,’ he adds.
Stonewall, a charity that campaigns for the equality of LGBTQ+ groups in the UK, says there is ‘no contradiction between advancing LGBT+ rights and protecting people’s freedom of religion’.
‘This is not about criminalising leaders or criminalising belief, this is about ending specific practices that force an individual to change something about them that, fundamentally, should not be changed,’ Kieran Aldred, head of policy at Stonewall, says.
Luke Romesberg, an addiction and substance abuse counsellor based in Chicago, was subjected to conversion therapy at 13 years old after coming out as gay to his parents.
He says his therapist, who he would speak to over the phone every week, would primarily focus on making sure he wasn’t using terms that portray being gay in a positive light.
For a start, Romesberg was discouraged from acknowledging his sexuality, and instead was instructed to refer to himself as having a ‘same-sex attraction’.
This wording is distinctly similar to that used by the Evangelical Alliance in its letter to the prime minister, which describes gay people as ‘experiencing same-sex attraction’.
‘That was a way to separate me from my identity. It was like, ‘you’re not gay, you’re just suffering from this’. That was very common language to use,’ Romesberg says.
There was also a focus on trying to make him feel as ‘masculine’ as possible. ‘If I would do or say something that he didn’t seem as masculine, [my therapist] would almost criticise me,’ he adds.
While uncomfortable with the therapy from the start, things took a turn when Romesberg’s therapist would have him take off his shirt, stand in front of a mirror, and describe his body to him.
‘He would ask me about areas I was insecure about,’ he says, explaining that his therapist would then comment on and pry at his insecurities.
In July 2018, the UK government published the results of its national LGBT survey. More than 108,000 people participated, making it the largest national survey of LGBT people in the world to date.
It found that 2% of respondents had undergone conversion therapy in an attempt to ‘cure’ them of their sexual orientation or gender identity, while a further 5% had been offered it.
The figures were also higher among trans and non-binary and gender diverse individuals; 9% of trans men had been offered it and 4% had experienced some form of the therapy.
It’s important to note that the government did not provide a definition of conversion therapy in the survey, but practices can range from pseudo-psychological treatments to surgical interventions, exorcisms, physical abuse and ‘corrective’ rape.
‘All of these practices are at their heart, harmful and dangerous for the individuals that go through them,’ Aldred says.
He says whether or not therapists or religious figures truly believe the practice works is defunct because ‘nobody should ever seek to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity’.
Last year, a United Nations survey of more than 8,000 people from 100 countries found that 98% of those who had undergone conversion therapy had suffered some form of damage.
Stonewall’s own research into gender identity conversion therapy found that 50% of trans, non-binary and gender diverse people who had been subjected to the practice had tried to commit suicide. Additionally, nine out of 10 respondents had experienced anxiety and depression as a result of their experience with conversion therapy.
‘These practices are abusive and harmful, and they need to be stopped in all, in all circumstances,’ Aldred says.
He adds, ‘Being told that you are wrong, that you’re disordered and that you need to change, leaves people with real long-term mental health problems that really damage them.’
When Romesberg’s parents first told him he would be undergoing conversion therapy, he felt confident in his belief about who he was and pushed back.
‘That lasted for a while until eventually, it does wear on you,’ he says. ‘‘There were times throughout, where it’s not that I was doubting my sexual orientation, but I was doubting myself as a person. It really confuses you and makes you think less of yourself.’
‘There was so there was nothing positive about it, it was literally breaking you down,’ he adds.
Romesberg speaks candidly about the long-term effects he suffered from the practice, saying that he fits into ‘almost every category’ talked about when it comes to the consequences of conversion therapy, such as drug and sex addiction.
‘I was 18-19 years old, using a lot of drugs and having a lot of sex. I was also depressed and anxious, and it takes a long time to [recover from] that,’ he says.
Now, at 30 years old, he has an extremely positive relationship with his parents, who regret putting him through the practice.
‘My parents were totally ignorant,’ he says, adding that at the time, they truly thought conversion therapy was his best option.
The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy is among 19 organisations, including NHS England, that have signed a Memorandum of Understanding against conversion therapy.
Dr Igi Moon, chair of the coalition and lead for the British Psychological Society, has described the therapy as unethical, potentially harmful and unsupported by evidence.
‘The BPS believes that people of same-sex orientation and people with all varieties of binary, non-binary and gender-fluid identities should be regarded as equal members of society. This includes freedom from harassment in any sphere and a right to protect from therapies that purport to change or ‘convert’ sexual orientation or gender identity,’ Moon says.
While conversion therapy is no longer carried out by licensed therapists in the UK, it is still taking place in religious settings.
The 2017 LGBT survey found that faith organisations made up 51% of the groups conducting conversion therapy, making them by far the most likely group to carry out the practice. Of those surveyed, 19% reported having received conversion therapy from a professional therapist.
Thompson says it is important the government’s ban extends to religious settings in which faith leaders attempt to ‘pray away’ a person’s sexual orientation or subject them to exorcisms.
Aldred agrees, adding that the ban also needs to cover both children and adults. ‘Young adults who are still dependent on their families are often pressured into the practice,’ he says.
This is particularly true of religious communities, where young people themselves may think there is something wrong with them due to the beliefs they have been brought up with.
He says this vulnerability makes conversion practices even more dangerous for these people, as it further instils a belief that they should have to change who they are.
‘They are trying to deal with this deep form of shame and seek solutions in the form of conversion therapy, which isn’t really a solution, it’s a form of abuse,’ he says.
A spokesperson from the government’s Equality Hub said proposals to ban conversion therapy will be brought forward ‘shortly’.
‘We have made clear that we will take action to stamp out conversion therapy in this country. We have engaged with a variety of stakeholders as part of this process and will bring forward proposals shortly,’ the statement said.
If you’ve been affected by any of these issues and want to speak to someone in confidence, contact the LGBT Foundation on 0345 3 30 30 30, 10am–6pm Monday to Friday, or email [email protected]
Most Read StoriesMost Read