Whenever I mention conversion therapy, most people are surprised that such things still happen in the UK. There is a sense of bafflement about how and why someone could get into that situation.
Although it is shocking, LGBT conversion therapy can and does still happen today. Two per cent of LGBT+ people have been through conversion therapy, and a further 5 per cent have been offered it. There is no law to stop it, and it can take many forms, from a prayer to rites of exorcism.
LGBT+ people don’t need to change who we are; these kinds of “therapies” do not work and are never “successful” – but they can, and do, cause lifelong harm to those who undergo them. It’s common for survivors of conversion therapy to experience mental health problems, including suicide attempts.
How do I know that conversion therapy is still happening today? Because of what happened to me six years ago, as a 24-year-old from County Londonderry. Back then, I was working as a missionary, with 400 other mostly young folk, on a ship sailing the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Outwardly, I was a cheerful guy, managing huge worship events, sometimes leading the singing on stage. Inwardly, I was wrestling with a growing awareness of a sexuality which, I had been told for as long as I could remember, would lead to my eternal damnation.
A few months after joining the mission a personnel manager, spurred on by someone’s accusation, asked, on a scale of 1 to 10, how gay I was. I lied, as I always had, and I always supposed I would.
But suddenly a few months later, while I was on the trip, crisis hit. I had been corresponding online with somebody back in the UK – a person I had never met, but whom I trusted enough to tell everything, every hope and dream, every part of this terrible intimate dilemma. Somehow, I managed to attach this three-month long WhatsApp conversation to an email that I accidentally sent out to the 100 members of my congregation back home in rural Northern Ireland, who were financially supporting me. This included my family, my pastor, the good people back in my hometown who had known me my entire life.
It has its funny side, looking back now, but at the time, it felt as if everything that I knew had imploded, and everything that I feared so dreadfully was happening. I had nobody to turn to.
The first reaction of the mission leaders was not to comfort or support me, but to immediately demand that I undergo therapy and publicly, in front of my 400 fellow missionaries, confess and repent.
I am glad that I had the strength of mind to refuse, and recognise that I didn’t need to change or “cure” myself. Somehow I got myself to London, where I found people who would help me build a new life and a new community. Now nothing remains from my old life except, after two years of silence, my family.
For many, refusing conversion therapy means losing your family, faith, community, career, friends – your entire life. While people might think that conversion therapy is consensual, or something that people willingly seek, this must be questioned when someone’s whole life is at stake. It can seem impossible to even imagine another life. You do not have free will with a loaded gun to your head.
Those who resist legislation against conversion therapy often resist the idea of a prayer or a pastoral conversation being subject to the scrutiny of law. However, if these things take place in an overwhelmingly homophobic or transphobic context the pernicious power of prayer must be dealt with.
Six months after my catastrophic coming out, I received a letter from one of my old churches. It formally cancelled my membership, because of my “lifestyle choices” and my refusal to go through counselling and change. That letter was sent in 2015, but I’m sure that similar letters are still being sent out today.
Five years on from receiving that letter, in July 2020, myself and Harry Hitchens launched Ban Conversion Therapy. We’re now working with Stonewall, along with a range of LGBT+ organisations, professional bodies and mental health charities, to call on the UK government to finally make good on its commitment to ban all conversion therapy across the UK. These degrading and discriminatory “treatments” ruin the lives of LGBT+ people. We must outlaw them now.
Matthew Hyndman is the co-founder of the Ban Conversion Therapy group.
You can find helpful tips on how to start a conversation, or if you are worried about someone else, on Samaritans website.
You can contact the Samaritans helpline by calling 116 123. The helpline is free and open 24 hours a day every day of the year.
You can also contact Samaritans by emailing email@example.com. The average response time is 24 hours.
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