Why is conversion therapy still considered “good enough” for trans people?

Conversion therapy has been shown to have as much scientific basis as magic mirrors, so why is it still acceptable to offer it to the trans community? Content Notes for suicide, transphobia and homophobia.


A year ago, many people were startled out of their post Christmas fug by the news of a suicide. A young trans woman, only 17 years old, had killed herself. She was far from the first trans person to commit suicide; research consistently shows how vulnerable, and unsupported this group is. Perhaps it was the very fact it was Christmas, as much as her youth and eloquence, that brought so much attention to this particular death. We all carry ideas of the myth of Christmas, surrounded by family, a time of joy and happiness, but for many trans young people the reality is so very different.

Leelah Alcorn was sent to a Christian Counsellor who offered conversion therapy. Conversion, or reparative, therapy is a form of therapy originally aimed at LGB people. Its proponents claimed that since being non-hetrosexual was an aberation, and one which caused distress to the sufferers, they could “cure” the condition. Unfortunately, one of the pioneers of the study of human sexual relations, William Masters, not only believed people should be “converted” from homosexuality, but in 1979 produced research claiming to have successfully done so.

As recently as 6 years ago, 1 in 25 therapists in the UK offered some form of conversion therapy, or would offer it to a client. Some will have justified this, as Masters did, by citing the genuine distress many LGB people exhibited. It is perhaps worth noting here that homosexuality as a mental illness was not removed from the DSM (the psychiatrists’ handbook) until 1973 (the WHO did not officially revise their literature to reflect this until 1990). Despite Freud’s later recanting of his views on “inversion” many psychotherapists continued to see homosexuality as a maladaptation of “normal” sexuality, caused by a failure of parenting.

We all carry ideas of the myth of Christmas, surrounded by family, a time of joy and happiness, but for many trans young people the reality is so very different.

Despite acts of homosexuality being legalised in England in 1967 (1980 in Scotland, 1982 in Northern Ireland), removed from the DSM in 1973, and the age of consent being equalised in 2001 in Britain (2009 in Northern Ireland), you could still offer conversion therapy and still work for the NHS, or be a member of the BACP or UKCP or any other regulatory body until extremely recently. It has taken until this year for the NHS and the regulators of therapy in the UK to speak out against conversion therapy. In the NHS’s announcement, they promised that “Lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people seeking therapy will be better protected from harmful ‘gay cures’ following commitments made today by NHS England, and leading medical and psychological professional groups.”

Notice who is missing from that “better protection”? Notice which group can still be offered conversion therapy? Notice which suicidal and vulnerable teenagers can still be sent to therapists who, on nothing but their own prejudices, can attempt to convert them to something they deem more acceptable?

There are no protections for trans people in the UK who are offered conversion therapy. Nothing to stop a therapist being able to make claims about turning you cisgender, or being able to cure you of being transgender.

Therapy has always suffered from being a predominantly white, cis, male profession, with correspondent prejudices. One which allowed personal prejudices to be presented as scientifically based. Some, like Laing spoke out against the idea of the job of the therapeutic professions being to normalise people, but they have been rare voices. It has taken until 2015 for those who regulate therapy to consider that it may be society which is at fault, rather than LGB people.That distress and anxiety may in some cases be reasonable reactions to a homophobic society.

Notice who is missing from that “better protection”? Notice which group can still be offered conversion therapy? Notice which suicidal and vulnerable teenagers can still be sent to therapists who, on nothing but their own prejudices, can attempt to convert them to something they deem more acceptable?

When the memorandum on conversion therapy was released in January, I contacted my own regulatory body (the BACP) and UKCP, and asked why trans people were excluded from the memorandum. The response, that it is under review, is frankly, not good enough. When the harms of conversion therapy are clear, and accepted by all, including Christian Counselling organisations which typically offered these services in the past, it should be as unacceptable to offer it to trans people as it is to LGB people.

Many trans people feel that the community could not be offered protection from conversion therapy whilst the NHS refuses to move to a self identification model. After all, our current system is one which explicitly says that cis medical professionals are able to decide whether someone is trans or not. To stand out against conversion therapy for trans people is also to stand out against gatekeeping and having to prove you are “trans enough” or “acceptably trans”. It is also exceptionally worrying that whilst people were happy to talk off the record about this in the course of my research, they did not want their names to be used in case it adversely affected their treatment.

If conversion therapy is harmful, it is harmful for everyone. It is unconscionable that in order to protect the gatekeeping model of trans health care that it can still be offered to trans people, when it is seen to be directly harmful to LGB people. Trans mental health is being sacrificed so that self identification can be resisted. How many more tragedies like Leelah Alcorn must we wake up to until this is deemed unacceptable and inhumane?

Trans mental health is being sacrificed so that self identification can be resisted. How many more tragedies like Leelah Alcorn must we wake up to until this is deemed unacceptable and inhumane?

Follow Karen on Twitter (@CounsellingKaz)

3 thoughts on “Why is conversion therapy still considered “good enough” for trans people?

Have your say!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s