Conversion therapy: What is it and has it been banned in Britain?

Boris Johnson previously described the practice as ‘absolutely abhorrent’

Sarah Young,Kate Ng
Friday 01 April 2022 10:46 BST
Boris Johnson says gay conversion therapy is 'abhorrent' and has 'no place in a civilised society'

The government is reportedly U-turning on a plan to keep gay conversion therapy legal following major backlash from campaigners and MPs.

On Thursday, a leaked document seen by ITV News revealed that prime minister Boris Johnson decided against making the practice illegal despite having pledged to ban it in 2018.

But just hours later, it was reported that the government has reversed that decision and will now outlaw conversion therapies, which falsely claim to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

However, ITV News reported that the ban would only apply to gay conversion therapy, and the equivalent practice for trans people will remain legal.

In July 2020, Johnson described gay conversion therapy as “absolutely abhorrent” and said it “has no place in a civilised society, has no place in this country”.

But, what exactly is conversion therapy and will it be banned completely in the UK? Here is everything you need to know.

What is conversion therapy?

According to Stonewall, a charity that campaigns for the equality of lesbian, gay, bi and trans people, conversion therapy (otherwise known as “cure” therapy or “reparative” therapy) refers to any form of treatment or psychotherapy which aims to change a person’s sexual orientation or to suppress a person’s gender identity.

The practice is based on an assumption that being lesbian, gay, bi or trans is a mental illness that can be “cured”.

The Trevor Project, a charity focused on suicide prevention efforts among LGBTQ+ people, adds that conversion therapists use “a variety of shaming, emotionally traumatic or physically painful stimuli to make their victims associate those stimuli with their LGBTQ identities”.

How often does it happen?

A national survey of 108,000 members of the LGBTQ+ community suggested that two per cent have undergone the practice, with another five per cent having been offered it.

Research conducted by Stonewall also found that one in 10 health and social care staff have witnessed colleagues express the belief that sexual orientation can be “cured”, which rises to one in five among health and care staff in London.

Similarly, a 2009 survey of over 1,300 accredited mental health professionals found that more than 200 had offered some form of conversion therapy, with 35 per cent of patients referred to them for treatment by GPs and 40 per cent treated inside an NHS practice.

According to the a report published by the Government Equalities Office in 2018, titled the National LGBT Survey, trans respondents were more likely to have undergone or been offered conversion therapy (13 per cent) compared to cisgender respondents (7 per cent).

Is conversion therapy harmful?

The American Psychiatric Association has clarified that “the potential risks of reparative therapy are great, including depression, anxiety and self-destructive behaviour, since therapist alignment with societal prejudices against homosexuality may reinforce self-hatred already experienced by the patient.”

The Pan American Health Organisation, a regional office of the World Health Organisation, concluded that conversion therapy, “lack[s] medical justification and represent[s] a serious threat to the health and well-being of affected people.”

The Trevor Project agrees, adding that conversion therapy “amplifies the shame and stigma so many LGBTQ+ young people already experience”.

In a study by San Francisco State University, lesbian, gay and bisexual youth who were rejected by their families and caregivers due to their identities were nearly six times more likely to report high levels of depression and more than eight times more likely to have attempted suicide when compared to youth from accepting and affirming families and caregivers.

Will it be banned completely in the UK?

The government has said it will ban controversial “gay conversion therapies” for gay or bisexual people in England and Wales, but not for trans people.

According to the BBC, a senior government source confirmed that the ban will feature in the next Queen’s Speech, which will take place in May when Parliament reopens.

But the news that the government does not plan to ban the “therapy” for trans people has sparked fury among LGBT+ campaigners and MPs.

Consortium, a UK-wide organisation that supports LGBT+ groups and projects, said in a statement: “Conversion therapy is abhorrent and for the UK government to U-turn and U-turn again is disgraceful.

“Their own research found trans people at higher risk of conversion therapy and we were assured a ban would include everyone.”

Stonewall UK said: “Conversion practices are abuse. They must be banned. In every setting and for everyone subjected to it. We demand a ban which is inclusive of all LGBT+ people.”

The group urged people to email their MP to protest against trans people being left out of any ban on the practice.

Labour MP Nadia Whittome tweeted: “Boris Johnson has U-turned again after the strength of feeling and will ban converion therapy for cisgender lesbian, gay and bisexual people but not trans people.

“It’s still not good enough. LGB comes with he T, and the Tories are not on our side.”

Has conversion therapy been banned in other countries?

The United States, Mexico, Australia, Canada and Spain are among countries seeking to outlaw the treatment.

Worldwide, Brazil, Ecuador, Malta, Taiwan, Uruguay, Switzerland, Germany and Fiji currently have national bans on conversion therapy.

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