Good news: if you’re gay or bisexual and under-18, conversion therapy is going to be made illegal. But it’s bad news for everyone else in the LGBTQ+ community, as the government’s proposed ban has more holes in it than a distractingly tasty slice of Swiss cheese.
Announced in this year’s Queen’s Speech, the ban will make conversion therapy illegal when it targets sexual orientation, and in cases of coercion or force. Initially, the ban was proposed to be comprehensive, covering all forms of conversion therapy. But then, a government U-turn in late March (allegedly thanks in part to lobbying by anti-trans group, the LGB Alliance) resulted in a new version of the legislation unveiled at the eleventh hour. And this one is anything but far-reaching, enshrining three major loopholes into the new law.
Firstly, it’s still going to fine for conversion therapists to target gender, meaning pseudoscientific practice of trying to “convert” a person – even a child – from being trans or non-binary to being cis will be allowed to continue (though the government has said it will “carry out separate work to consider the issue of Transgender Conversion Therapy [sic] further”).
Secondly, conversion therapy won’t be illegal if adults “voluntarily consent” to what the government’s own documents describe as “abhorrent practices which do not work and cause extensive harm”.
Thirdly, the legislation looks set to include exemptions for religious groups.
This isn’t a ban. It’s changing the status of conversion therapy from legal to gently restricted. Crucially, the government isn’t failing to ban conversion therapy because trans people are an afterthought, but because anti-trans sentiment has poisoned the well of public debate.
The Conservatives have been stalling on trans rights for years, but the omission of gender from the conversion therapy bill has coincided with politicians more brazenly embracing transphobia. Boris Johnson has more recently begun parroting anti-trans talking points, such as Gillick competence, a legal precedent that allows young people to access key healthcare – like contraception – without parental consent, and which anti-trans campaigners are trying to dismantle. “I don’t think that it’s reasonable for kids to be deemed so-called Gillick-competent to take decisions about their gender or irreversible treatments that they may have,” he said after announcing the U-turn on banning conversion therapy wholesale. “I think there should be parental involvement at the very least.”
Such transphobic logic has infected the debate on conversion therapy. One claim often used to muddy the discussion around conversion therapy is that that gender transition itself is a form of gay conversion therapy, whereby queer cis people are being “converted” into straight trans people. It hardly needs saying that this is a lie, one that ignores the existence of queer trans people. Still, anti-trans campaigners are calling for the introduction of gender exploratory therapy, which aims to find a non-trans explanation for gender dysphoria, then “cure” it without transition. Thankfully, such transphobic activists are in the national minority. A recent YouGov poll found that 62 per cent of Brits – including a majority of Conservative voters – want a ban on trans conversion therapy; 145,000 of them signed a parliamentary petition calling for a trans conversion therapy ban, forcing MPs to schedule a debate on the subject for 20 June. Anti-trans voices might shout the loudest, but they are still the smallest in number.
Under the proposed legislation, conversion therapy will remain legal: participants just have to “consent” to it. This ignores how consent works, and the subtler forms of peer pressure or coercive control whereby someone may feel forced to seek out conversion therapy to prevent being socially ostracised.
It also ignores the role of internalised transphobia and homophobia. Can you “consent” to conversion therapy if you’ve spent your life being told your gender or sexuality are unnatural or immoral? People seeking conversion therapy would be better served by mental health professionals who can help them unpack their socialised self-hatred – not by seeing a charlatan who will deepen it.
Finally we come to the religious exemption, where the nominal ban is at its most tenuous.
The 2018 National LGBT Study found that 51% of conversion therapy survivors reported having their therapy conducted by a faith group. Exempting religious organisations from a conversion therapy ban would as good as nullify it.
Fears that the ban would not cover faith groups began last year, when Johnson wrote to the Evangelical Alliance promising a conversion therapy ban would take “freedoms of speech and freedoms of religion very seriously.”
This was confirmed by the PM’s spokesperson at a lobby briefing, where journalists were told: “It’s important that the freedom to express religious teachings is not affected by the ban, individuals will still be able to access support and counsel from religious leaders should they wish. But that’s a separate issue to seeking to force this abhorrent practice on people.” The issue is that the lines around ‘counsel’ and ‘coercion’ can be blurred, as testimony from survivors illustrates.
The government doesn’t care about getting rid of conversion therapy, because the government doesn’t care about queer people. The UK has been sliding down the annual Rainbow Europe rankings rankings of LGBTQ+ rights for years, from first in 2015 to 14th in 2022, and a half-arsed ban on conversion therapy suggests this decline will continue.
Being queer or trans is not something than can or should be fixed, because it’s not a problem. If you agree, as the government claims to, that conversion therapy causes harm, then what logical reason is there to allow the practice to continue?
Since the Conservatives first promised a conversion therapy ban in 2018, 14 countries around the world have successfully introduced bans of their own. England’s neighbours are well on their way: Wales has pledged a full ban, while Scotland is working on its own. But if conversion therapy remains largely legal in England, the UK will end up with a US-style approach to queer rights: transphobic Welsh parents will be able to take their trans kid to conversion therapy simply by crossing the Severn; queer Scots to get on a train to have a pastor pray the gay away.
As long as conversion therapy exists in any form, there will be queerphobic parents twisting their (adult) children’s arms into attending; religious fundamentalists using conversion as control; and adults seeking to change their gender or sexual orientation because society condemns it.
Anything less than a total ban is a farce.
VS Wells is a British freelance journalist based in Vancouver.