A stain on our 'civilised society': why is conversion therapy still legal?

For the privileged, there are some injustices that are so utterly removed from their life experiences and understanding of society that it is as if the issues themselves do not exist. Acts of persecution that impact such a narrow cross-section of society are wrongly characterised as a non-issue in 2020 and for the future; they seemingly don’t exist outside of the realms of dystopian fiction and historical documentaries. Conversion therapy is one such issue. 

Stonewall defines conversion therapy as any practice or form of ‘treatment’ which aims to “change a person’s sexual orientation or to suppress a person’s gender identity”.

Conversion therapy is not as distant a memory for Britain’s LGBTQ+ community as one may first presume for one primary reason: it is still not a criminalised practice in the UK. 

Historically, conversion therapy has been carried out through methods such as electroconvulsive therapy, which uses small electrical currents passed through the brain, triggering small seizures. Another common method is aversion therapy, which involves showing a person explicit photographs or videos of people of the same sex, whilst the victim receives electroshocks or is injected with a nausea-inducing chemical. The aim here is to train them to associate pain and discomfort with homosexual behaviour, and in some extreme instances, individuals are even subjected to lobotomies. 

Whilst, thankfully, such barbaric practices are not as commonplace in the UK as they once were, those who still feel the need to force their homophobic obsessions upon others have found more ‘acceptable’ methods. For instance, reparative therapy is a method which aims to teach one how to ‘behave like a heterosexual’ person, with the intention of ingraining heteronormative sexual habits in their mind so that they will no longer see the apparent benefit of being homosexual. This practice and others – which have been condemned by major bodies including the NHS – are, of course, very dangerous and based on entirely false assumptions about human sexuality (not least the idea that sexuality is chosen and not assigned) rather than any real scientific evidence. 

‘We are talking about tens of thousands of victims in the UK alone’

Conversion therapy relies on traditional societal ideals of heteronormativity and homophobia, aiming to change what is, according to most experts, a trait that is both unexplainable and unchangeable. It perpetuates the dangerous idea that being anything other than heterosexual and within the traditional binaries of gender is wrong and unnatural. This so-called ‘treatment’ is exceedingly outdated, morally indefensible and deserves no place in British society. Whilst still being legal in the UK, conversion therapy is outlawed in numerous countries and territories, including Malta, Brazil and various US states such as New York, Virginia and California. The UK and our apparent ‘civilized society’ must follow suit in order to support its LGBTQ+ citizens and stop the endless hypocritical grandstanding on the issue.

A 2018 national survey revealed that five per cent of LGBTQ+ people in the UK had been offered conversion therapy (sample size of 108,000). In addition, two per cent had actually undergone some form of this practice, of which, 19 per cent stated that it was conducted by a medical professional or healthcare provider and a majority of the respondents (51%) indicated that they were subjected to a non-medical form of conversion therapy by a faith organisation. These may sound like small numbers, but we are talking about tens of thousands of victims in the UK alone.

These statistics are brought to life by real stories about conversion therapy, such as that uncovered by the Liverpool ECHO. In 2018, the paper exposed a church in Ainsfield that was offering a three-day starvation and prayer combination programme, with the aim of ‘curing’ an individual struggling with their sexuality. Both the Ainsfield incident and the findings of the 2018 survey are greatly concerning, and point towards the need for the government to step in and make legislative change in order to protect the LGBTQ+ community.

Boris Johnson’s promise to end conversion therapy came this past July, almost two years after Theresa May’s government had made similar pledges with her 75-point LGBT equality plan. Johnson is clear that conversion therapy has “no place in civilised society”, with this comment coming at the same time as a survey was tweeted out by the House of Commons, allowing the public to have their say on the matter.

While I, like many others, did fill in the survey, I couldn’t help but question why this issue is still up for debate. If the UK is, in fact, a “civilised society” as Johnson states, then banning barbaric practices that unnecessarily harm people – LGBTQ+ or otherwise – should be an undeniable necessity, rather than an issue up for debate. Apparently this isn’t the case, as highlighted both by the House of Commons survey and the two year stalling period between Theresa May’s original promises to ban conversion therapy and Johnson’s recent similar statements. 

An “ongoing threat to the LGBTQ+ community”

Layla Moran MP

I, it seems, was not the only person outraged at the survey, as the House of Commons was met by immense backlash from numerous LGBTQ+ groups, academics and many others who felt as though this was a poor way to frame the issue of conversion therapy. The House of Commons – which acts independently in posing questions for debate, rather than as a machine of government – has since issued an apology and deleted the tweet, stating that “we clearly misjudged”

Multiple celebrities have voiced their desire for conversion therapy to be banned in the UK, through an open letter to the government; from music stars such as Elton John and Dua Lipa to comedians Stephen Fry and Katherine Ryan, the letter has garnered much support. Many politicians have also actively condemned its continued legality, notably Liberal Democrat Layla Moran, who is clear that she shall “continue to campaign against this dangerous practice” which she describes as an “ongoing threat to the LGBTQ+ community”. 

Although seeing the enthusiasm of MPs like Moran does provide some reassurance for the future of Britain’s expanding LGBTQ+ community, the lack of conviction from Conservative governments on this issue serves only to create doubt in the minds of myself and many others about the sincerity of their statements, as they are continually not matched with action. While members of the government expressing their disapproval of these practices is definitely a step in the right direction, their words hold no value until actual feasible changes are made. 

Banning conversion therapy is, of course, the ultimate goal but in addition, the IRCT (International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims) have made various other recommendations to world leaders. These include the issuing of an apology to LGBTQ+ people for their historical oppression and the undertaking of extensive research into the varied methods of conversion therapy, which would allow governments to ensure that all forms are considered in any legislative action.

But why does any of this matter? By outlawing this oppressive practice, the UK government would be explicitly standing in solidarity with LGBTQ+ people and against their discrimination. It would finally be confronting those who believe it is morally right to attempt to use torturous ‘science’ to try and change the very fabric of an individual’s personality by forcing unimaginable pain on them that leaves them scarred for life. Such a move would potentially be saving the lives of many vulnerable people, both young and old. 

Banning conversion therapy should, therefore, be much more than just passing discussion in government, an opportunity to appear compassionate or the subject of an absurd survey tweeted out by the Commons. It is the sole way forward to protect the LGBTQ+ community, side with science and help to create a more just society for all. It must become an unequivocal mission of government.