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UK Politics

Flat-earthers or just good Christians? Meet the gay converters

Two religious groups are fighting a bill that would outlaw controversial ‘gay cure’ therapy

Few meetings in Westminster start with a reading from scripture on “desires and love” and an announcement that the participants won't be filmed or identified without their permission, but the Setting Love in Order conference wasn't purely a political meeting.

It was the first of two events run by two Christian campaign groups to protest against a private members bill aiming to ban the controversial practise of “gay conversion” or “gay cure” therapy.

The conference held today in central London will next move on to Northern Ireland, but both events are set under the tagline: “ Protecting the freedoms to believe, to exist and to change when homosexual feelings are unwanted.”

Among those involved is Andrea Minichiello Williams from Christian Concern, who made headlines last month when The Independent reported her suggestion that Olympic diver Tom Daley is in a relationship with a man because of the loss of a paternal figure when his father died.

Along with Ms Williams, who declined to be interviewed for this story, the events also see addresses from Dr Mike Davidson of the Core Issues Trust, one of the most well-known organisations to back therapy seeking to turn gay people straight.

It was therefore odd that the meeting in London - which was chaired by Dr Chris Sugden, a member of the Church of England's General Synod, and attended by everyone who is anybody in the gay-conversion world - was opened by Geraint Davies, a Labour MP who is seeking to ban gay-to-straight conversion therapy.

Speaking at the Emmanuel Church Conference Hall, the Swansea MP told the audience of gay-conversion therapists, academics, social workers, Christian authors and faith campaigners that he felt “a little like a vegetarian opening a meat market” introducing the details of his private members bill.

“As it stands there is no regulation of gay-conversion therapy and nothing to protect vulnerable people being inadvertently being sent by their GP to a psychotherapist who beneath a mask of professionalism has particular religious axes to grind,” he said.

Mr Davies went on to say it was “wrong to say that sexuality can be healed like a disease or a disorder”, and called on the two Christian bodies to back the bill. He said regulation is required because the NHS is spending “enormous sums of money” referring “ vulnerable people” to “unregulated and dangerous gay conversion therapy”.

The bill, which has been described as a “threat to Christians” by Anglican groups, is unlikely to become law as it stands. However, Mr Davies hopes it may become part of the Labour Party Manifesto for the 2015 election.

A ban was dismissed as an impractical by Conservative Health minister Daniel Poulter in Parliament this week - he claimed it could have “unintended consequences” for counsellors who are supporting gay people.

Despite obvious hostility to the bill, the response to Mr Davies was respectful. But after muted applause to the MP's remarks, Dr Davidson, who rejects the term “gay cure” to describe his work, asked: “On what grounds should a married man with children be forbidden the opportunity to reduce unwanted same-sex attraction in order to hold his family together?”

He continued: “People who are troubled in this area, who genuinely want to seek the possibility of reducing feelings or eliminating them, need to be provided a safe context in which to do that.”

To applause, he added: “Just because you have homosexual feelings does not mean you are gay, because I do not accept the assumption that homosexuality is innate, genetic or biological and therefore unchangeable.”

He praised Mr Davies for his “sincerity as a politician” and agreed “there is no room” for unwanted therapy on anyone. Yet a statement promoting the event said: “The debate on therapeutic help to move away from unwanted same-sex attraction has been hijacked and distorted by a small and vociferous gay lobby.”

The Westminster event went on to cover topics including “Don't want to be gay anymore? Sorry we're not allowed to help you! Is that ethical?” and “Straight, gay, bisexual - what about ex-gay and post-gay?” But much of the discussion focused on Mr Davies' bill and his alleged-bias against gay-conversion community.

Ms Williams, who spoke in the afternoon and has previously called on Jamaican lawmakers to keep same-sex intercourse illegal, , said the bill as “subversive” and written in “double speak”.

She said: “It talks about respecting the rights of all people to personal freedom but for Geraint Davies personal freedom can only go one way. Anything less than protection and approval for a practising homosexual lifestyle will lead to punishment. This is the motivation behind the bill: it is coercive and deeply illiberal.”

John Marsh, who was handing out copies of his book The Liberal Delusions, said: “Mr Davies has a definite ideological agenda, the words he used were loaded, that we were fundamentalists for example… my faith is a liberal theology.”

Mr Marsh, who in his book argues that society has become too liberal, told The Independent: “There is more stability overall in heterosexual rather than homosexual relationships and there's no reason we shouldn't be able to help people who are bisexual and want to choose a heterosexual path of having children and a family.

“Homosexuality is a developmental thing that often comes about because a person often hasn't developed a good relationship with a same sex parent, like an absent father.”

Colin Coward, the head of Changing Attitudes, which works to include LGBT people in the Anglican Church, also spoke at the conference on “what gays bring to marriage” but said he was met with “strong hostility and even derision.”

Speaking to The Independent after the event, Mr Davies questioned much of the science put forward by the speakers at the conference and was quick to point out that Dr Davidson is not a medical doctor and was removed from the British Psychodrama Association after comments about gay-conversion therapy.

Likewise, fellow event speaker Lesley Pilkington was struck off in 2012 by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy after she tried to “cure” an undercover journalist of his homosexuality and said he had been “sexually abused” and that was what made him gay.

Mr Davies told The Independent that there was “overwhelming scientific evidence that gay conversion is harmful and should be banned“ and compared the gay-cure lobby to people “who believed the world was flat” and to scientists “who continue to insist that there is no such things as global warming.”

He said: “There is evidence that one in six psychiatrists and psychotherapists are engaged in sexual orientation therapy, however the Council for Psychotherapy and the British Medical Association have said it's positively harmful in terms of trauma and psychological damage.”

James Taylor, head of policy at Stonewall, echoed his concerns and said the gay rights charity was “deeply concerned about 'voodoo' gay-cure therapies and their promotion”.

He told The Independent: “Any attempt to 'cure' lesbian, gay and bisexual people is damaging to self-esteem and contributes to unhappiness. It's vital that gay people can access effective support”.

Last week the leading body for Christian therapists, the Association of Christian Councillors, instructed its members to stop trying to turn its gay patients straight, in a move welcome by gay rights campaigners but condemned by the Core Issues Trust and Christian Concern.