In the National LGBT Survey, more than half of respondents who had undergone conversion therapy – a practice that seeks to “cure” or change a person’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity – reported that it had been conducted by faith groups.
Recently, Boris Johnson indicated in a letter to the Evangelical Alliance that legislation to ban conversion therapy might exclude certain religious “non-coercive activity”. As a person subjected to faith-based conversion therapy, the PM’s suggested “loophole” is deeply worrying. As a criminal barrister, it doesn’t make sense.
I have vivid memories of the witch doctor that came to my parent’s door offering, amongst other things, to use prayer to “cure” my sexuality. By creating exemptions in legislation to ban conversion therapies, we leave thousands of young people vulnerable to abuse. I can no more cure my sexuality than I can scrub the brown from my skin. Young people should not be left susceptible to the notion that something about the way they were born is wrong and that there is any chance of changing it.
Years before, when I was less comfortable with my identity, I would have seen this witch doctor as a lifeline. The idea that therapy that hasn’t been forced on the person is more acceptable than coercive treatment must be rejected. Many volunteer themselves for such therapies, although often out of isolation, fear and an absence of hope. Rather than changing them, the experience can leave LGBT+ people feeling ashamed and even suicidal.
In his letter, the PM wrote that he did not want to see clergy and church members criminalised but advocates for a comprehensive prohibition on these outdated and barbaric practices do not seek to criminalise prayer. LGBT+ people can take years to reflect on and explore their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, and a lot of them rely on the help of religious leaders and faith communities for support through that process. Spiritual exploration or counselling in an open and affirming manner can be a massive support for those who are exploring their identity, and faith is a source of pride for many LGBT+ people.
The problem lies not in prayer, but in prejudice. Appropriate support, therapy or counselling – whether medical or religious – has no goal or specific outcome. If, however, the aim is to “cure” then our answer in law must be “you can’t”.
The prime minister emphasised how seriously he took freedom of religion but to frame it as an attack on this principle misses the point. Balancing competing fundamental rights is an ordinary and integral part of our legal heritage. Conversion practices inflict violence upon the queer community. Banning conversion therapy is no more a violation of freedom of religion than banning incitement to violence is a violation of freedom of speech.
More importantly, though, this is not a culture war. Many religious leaders are in favour of a ban. In December 2020 more than 370 senior figures from 35 countries representing 10 religions signed a historic declaration to call for an end to the criminalisation of LGBT+ people and a global ban on conversion practices. The signatories include Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Catholic former president of Ireland Mary McAleese, more than 60 rabbis, and senior Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists. Queer people, religious people and those who identify as both are united in the belief that conversion therapy is deeply harmful and can cause lifelong trauma. Banning it must be about protecting vulnerable people from harm, regardless of the setting they find themselves in.
Earlier this week, the Northern Irish assembly passed a motion calling for a ban on gay conversion therapy “in all its forms”. Definitions matter. It’s been more than 1,000 days since the government committed to implementing a ban and it only recently brought forward plans to make good on that promise. An exemption for conversion therapy in religious settings risks creating a piece of legislation that amounts to nothing more than a bucket with a hole in it.
Mohsin Zaidi is a London-based barrister and author of the memoir A Dutiful Boy. He is a trustee of Stonewall, a charity that campaigns for the equality of lesbian, gay, bi and trans people
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