Considering the progress we have made in this country in recent decades with LGBTQ+ rights and freedoms, one may presume that conversion ‘therapy’, the pseudoscientific practice of attempting to alter someone’s sexuality and/or gender identity, is a concept confined to the history books. The recent government announcement of plans to ban it in the UK, however, brings to light the enduring struggle of LGBTQ+ people in the face of this terrible practice, and the ongoing battle to have it outlawed.
History in the UK
Beginning in the late 19th Century, homosexuality began to be studied in the context of medicine, subsequently turning it into a medical issue and thus opening the door for medical ‘treatments’ aiming to ‘cure’ gay people. After the Criminal Justice Act in 1948, which abolished prison time for being gay but validated medical ‘treatments’ as alternatives, conversion and aversion ‘therapies’ became surprisingly widespread in Britain through to the 80’s. The success of the gay rights movement in the 60s and 70s and the subsequent understanding that homosexuality is not a disease caused these therapies to die off and be taken over largely by faith-based groups, though they still exist and are practiced covertly.
Electroconvulsive therapy, lobotomies, talk therapy, exorcisms; all were methods of conversion therapy used to attempt to convert gay people to the societally accepted way of life at the time. Aversion therapy, whilst similar, aims instead to trigger disgust in victims at the idea of same-sex desire. Sometimes this was done by giving them nausea-inducing chemicals whilst showing them pictures of their partners, other times via electric shock when presenting them with homosexual pornography.
These of course didn’t work, and what has been left in their wake instead is generations of trauma, shame, pain, and fear. It is hard to believe such an unjust and archaic practice has not yet been outlawed in the UK, though this may be about to change.
It has been nearly five years since the government first announced plans to ban conversion therapy. Previously, plans have been scrapped due to perceived complexities in outlawing the practice, such as “inadvertently criminalising” those trying to provide guidance to young people confused about their gender identity. Then, last year, a ban was announced again but was not planned to cover transgender people. After being met with intense criticism, the plans to ban were scrapped again and it was announced at the end of January that there will be a ban on all conversion practices which would cover transgender people as well.
A draft Bill outlining the Ban will be published soon and will then be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by a Joint Committee.
Reaction and Implications
There has long been widespread support for a ban on conversion therapy, including from religious leaders and the NHS. However, claims have surfaced of conversion therapy treatment under the NHS during the 60’s, which the NHS has not commented on specifically, despite some victims stating that an apology would be “powerful” for those living with the consequences of conversion therapy.
Criticisms of the ban are predominantly regarding how it would be hard to police, and its potential to criminalise conversations between parents, guardians, therapists and children and young people who have sought out guidance surrounding their sexuality and gender identity. Whilst this is a legitimate concern and deserves thought, this has been weaponised by some religious groups as imposing on “religious freedoms”, in an attempt to squash the ban. Overall these concerns do not outweigh the benefits of outlawing conversion practices.
Though it is still in question what specifically will be included in the new Bill, criminalising such unethical and dangerous practices is important to protect LGBTQ+ people. A government survey published in 2018 of 108,000 in the UK showed that 5% of respondents had been offered conversion therapy, and 2% had undergone it. This averages out to just over 2,600 people and increases further for transgender people, to 9% and 4% respectively. Over two thirds of respondents were between 16 and 34, proving that conversion practices are still very much a threat in the UK even in the 21st Century.
Conversion therapies have already been banned in multiple countries. Brazil was the first to issue a ban on conversion practices for sexual orientation as early as 1999, which was expanded to cover gender identity as well in 2018. Bans of varying forms have been passed in Samoa, Taiwan, Argentina, Uruguay, Ecuador, Malta and Germany, as well as certain provinces, territories and states in Spain, Australia and the United States.
Although it has been in the works for some time now, it seems that this recent government announcement may signal a legitimate step forward for the ban of conversion therapies in the UK, and we await the release of the draft Bill to see exactly how they plan to protect LGBTQ+ individuals from this harmful practice.