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Response to the Government’s Proposed Ban on Conversion Therapy

Manchester Pride's Response to the Government’s Proposed Ban on ‘Conversion Therapy’
Dr. Christopher Owen; Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Manager; Manchester Pride

Manchester Pride welcomes the news that the UK government is intending to ban ‘conversion therapy.’ The historic and systemic oppression of LGBTQ+ people, also known as ‘heteronormativity’ and ‘cisnormativity,’ involves institutional structures and belief systems that insist that anyone who is not straight and/or cisgender does not and should not exist. Within this system, when LGBTQ+ people are indeed found to exist, they are treated like a threat to the foundations of a civil society (such as marriage, safety and health) and various attempts are made to limit our rights, freedoms and voices. As such, queer liberation requires us to completely stamp out any practices which seek to erase and silence us. We must assert and celebrate our unequivocal value on every level of society with resolute Pride. This resistance work includes eradicating so called ‘conversion therapy,’ a practice that is not therapy, and instead seeks to suppress, ‘cure’ or change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. While ‘conversion therapy’ does not work, it is still extremely harmful, causing severe psychological damage to victims and survivors of this practice, and reinforcing the myth that there is something inherently wrong with being LGBTQ+ and that we can and should be brought out of existence.

The government’s proposed approach to banning ‘conversion therapy’ is multi-faceted. While there are already several legal frameworks that protect individuals from harm, these will now be refined to explicitly recognize ‘conversion therapy’ as a crime (or as an aggravating factor for an existing offence) in order to fill any gaps in both the law and statutory services that may otherwise miss the specific issues related to ‘conversion therapy.’ Further to this, promoting, advertising and making profit from ‘conversion therapy’ will be strictly illegal, and protections will be put in place to try to ensure that no one is sent abroad for ‘conversion therapy’ elsewhere. Moving forward, charities will not be able to support ‘conversion therapy,’ and anyone associated with ‘conversion therapy’ will be prevented from being or acting as a charity trustee or holding any senior management positions within a charity. It is the UK government’s aim for statutory services to be able to recognize ‘conversion therapy’ and act quickly to protect victims, with further packages of support (such as helplines and online resources) being offered to help victims and survivors of ‘conversion therapy.’ In theory, these measures will discourage anyone from offering ‘conversion therapy’ practices, will penalize those who do and will bring much needed support to victims and survivors.

Despite stating outright that ‘The government will ban conversion therapy’ and that the government is ‘committed to building a society in which conversion therapy no longer takes place,’ there are some dangerous loopholes and omissions in the proposed plans that will indeed allow ‘conversion therapy’ to continue. The most dangerous problem with the proposed plans is the position that adults who consent to receive ‘conversion therapy’ will be able to access it. While the government claims that consent requirements will be ‘robust and stringent,’ this ignores the fact that a person cannot consent to abuse. Under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment is prohibited. This right is absolute, and thus holds irrespective of the appearance of consent. In cases where the perpetrator of ‘conversion therapy’ holds significant power over the victim/ survivor, such as in a religious context, the imbalance of power means that consent cannot be given in a way that is authentically autonomous, and these harmful practices will be able to continue in much the same way they currently occur.

While the government argues that the definition of ‘conversion therapy’ does not include ‘private prayer,’ these harmful practices are often delivered through the medium of prayer. These prayers may be gentle and quiet, or they may be loud and aggressive, but regardless they still result in psychological harm. Furthermore, the government has failed to identify exorcisms within their definition of ‘conversion therapy,’ a practice which treats being LGBTQ+ as a form of evil that can be expelled from a person’s body (or soul). While the government claims the ban on ‘conversion therapy’ will not impact religious practice or freedom, according to several world-leading human rights and ‘conversion therapy’ experts in the Cooper Report: ‘The freedom of religion can be justifiably restricted where limitations are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others [...] Importantly, there is no recognised right, be it in a religious or cultural context, to harm others physically or psychologically, or to expose individuals to a significant risk of harm.’ Patrick Corrigan of Amnesty International UK agrees, stating that ‘“Praying the gay away” is just as unacceptable as any other pseudoscientific approach which tells LGBTI+ people they are “sick” and “broken.”’ Prayer and other religious practices are perhaps the most common forms of ‘conversion therapy,’ and without specific restrictions on religious contexts, these harmful practices will continue to occur unchanged.

As more people come to recognize that a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity cannot be changed, one of the most common goals of ‘conversion therapy’ is instead to suppress a person’s LGBTQ+ identity. These practices acknowledge a person’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity while simultaneously asserting the wrongness of these identities, resulting in severe psychological harm. Despite this, the government’s definition of ‘conversion therapy’ has omitted suppression entirely, a huge oversight that will allow the same methods and beliefs informing ‘conversion therapy’ to continue. Instead, the government’s position is that ‘there are adults who seek counselling to help them live a life that they feel is more in line with their personal beliefs. We do not intend to ban adults from seeking such counselling freely.’ We agree with our friends at the LGBT Foundation in their position that the government’s 'proposal must not only consider attempts to “change” sexual orientation and gender identity but also attempts to suppress such lived experience.’ Otherwise the government’s plans only further reinforce the systems of heteronormativity and cisnormativity that seek to erase and silence LGBTQ+ people.

In fact, there are several ways that the government’s plans reinforce systems of LGBTQ+ oppression, primarily through the false equivalencies that are drawn in the government’s ‘universal’ approach to defining ‘conversion therapy,’ which includes banning any attempt to turn straight and/or cisgender people into LGBTQ+ people. While there is merit in having a broad and thorough definition of ‘conversion therapy,’ the fear that LGBTQ+ people are seeking to ‘convert’ straight and cisgender people is both common and unsubstantiated, and has historically lead to both legislative and physical violence against the LGBTQ+ community. This is especially concerning with the rise of transphobia across the UK, and the occurring myth that gender affirming transition is harmful. While it is comforting to hear from charities like Mermaids and the LGBT Foundation that the government’s plans do not consider gender exploration or affirmation as ‘conversion therapy,’ it is still important that this distinction is always explicitly clear, especially for the sake of trans children, neurodiverse trans people and vulnerable LGBTQ+ adults. It is also important to be clear that while there is a well-recorded history of ‘conversion therapy’ practices by both institutions and groups that have intentionally sought to harm LGBTQ+ people, the same cannot be said of anyone seeking to change the sexual orientations or gender identities of straight and cisgender people. To suggest otherwise is fear mongering and plays directly into the kind of queerphobic panic that results in hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people and harms the community as a whole.

When ‘conversion therapy’ is permitted to continue in any capacity, then the belief systems of heteronormativity and cisnormativity continue to be reinforced, legitimizing pre-existing stigma against LGBTQ+ people and leading to increases in anti-LGBTQ+ hate and violence. Whether directly impacted by ‘conversion therapy’ or not, its existence undermines the value of LGBTQ+ people, and can thus influence the mental and physical wellbeing of LGBTQ+ people across the country. Thus a ban on ‘conversion therapy’ must be a total ban, no matter where or when it occurs, no matter what form it takes and no matter whether someone consents to it. In order to ensure this total ban, we would like to encourage all those able to contribute to the government’s consultation on the ‘conversion therapy’ ban, which closes on 10 December 2021.

To learn more about the harms of ‘conversion therapy’ and help you prepare your answers for the government’s consultation, please consider reading the following resources:

https://www.banconversiontherapy.com/
https://www.ozanne.foundation/cooper_report/
https://www.hrc.org/resources/the-lies-and-dangers-of-reparative-therapy
https://www.stonewall.org.uk/about-us/news/ban-conversion-therapy-why-we-need-ban-no-exemptions-and-no-excuses

In the meantime, Manchester Pride is committed to supporting the LGBTQ+ community in our continued fight to create a world where LGBTQ+ people are free to live and love without prejudice. If you are a victim/ survivor of ‘conversion therapy’ and need support, please go to: https://www.banconversiontherapy.com/support

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