Karen Pollock looks at how the lack of regulation of counselling and psychotherapy leaves LGBTQ+ people unprotected from the harms of conversion therapy.
We have previously covered the need for protection from reparation/conversion therapy for LGBTQ+ people. Since Patrick Strudwick began his investigations of counsellors and therapists who offered to change someones sexual orientation there have been some exceptionally positive moves. This has culminated in the Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy which was produced this January. Signatories of the MoU have agreed that being a member of any of their organisations involves not offering to change either gender identity, or sexual orientation, and affirming that these are not characteristics which should be pathologised.
So far, so good. However, we need to ask what happens if someone does work to change your gender or sexuality. A recent petition attempted to get this very issue debated in Parliament. Unfortunately, not only was the petition badly worded (speaking only of “gay cures” and erasing bi and trans people) but it spoke to treatments which simply do not happen in the UK such as electro -shock therapy. Historically, there have been many horrific tortures perpetrated on LGBTQ+ people to somehow make them straight or cis. Currently, this is not the risk in the UK. Instead, what is far more likely is that a therapist/counsellor will offer to “help”. It is hard to deal with daily aggressions, with homophobia, transphobia, biphobia. It is tiring, and often people lose friends and family. So under the guise of wanting to ease the pain conversion therapy is sneaked in by the back door.
This is why the MoU matters so much – but is not the whole picture. Yes, an unequivocal statement that LGBTQ+ identities should not, and must not be pathologised is important. It needs to be translated into training which confronts prejudices that those who work with LGBTQ+ people might have, and much firmer guidelines. It also has to include the NHS.
Which brings me to the government response to the petition.
There is no evidence that this sort of treatment is beneficial, and indeed it may well cause significant harm to some patients. It is incumbent on professionals working in the National Health Service to ensure that treatment and care, including therapy, is provided to every patient without any form of discrimination
This may come as a surprise to the government, but not all treatment occurs under the NHS in the UK. Just as was happening seven years ago people may be referred to private practitioners by GPs, who are not NHS employees or they may contact them independently. I am, for example, a counsellor in private practice. So, any reference to the NHS does not affect me one bit.
I am a member of the BACP, one of the larger bodies regulating therapy in the UK. I can see you thinking “that’s all right then, because if you offer conversion therapy, you will be struck off” – which is where it starts getting complicated. Membership of the BACP, or any other organisation regulating counsellors/psychotherapists in the UK, is voluntary. It not only means that I do not have to be a member of the BACP, but I do not have to be a member of any regulatory body. It gets worse; I do not need to have any qualifications to call myself a counsellor or psychotherapist.
Historically there have been many horrific tortures perpetrated on LGBTQ+ people to somehow make them straight or cis. Currently this is not the risk. in the UK. Instead what is far more likely is that a therapist/counsellor will offer to “help”
Let’s picture “Mr Peter”: he is a Christian who believes that homosexuality is wrong, but that we must “love the sinner, hate the sin”. He sets up his practice, call it Calagary Counselling, and sends adverts to all his local churches. He has done online training courses offered by evangelical churches in the US, on working with “confused teenagers”. He has a nice welcoming office, and promises the parents who contact him that he will work lovingly with their teens to bring them back to god. This is what happened to Leela Alcorn, and is perfectly legal in the UK.
Or perhaps consider “Ms Julie”: she did her counselling course a number of years ago, and has since volunteered with her local rape crisis center. She however, is concerned by the rise in “transgenderism”. Whilst her training course had no LGBTQ+ content she feels her lived experience as a lesbian, and considerable reading around issues of gender by people such as Janice Raymond and Shelia Jeffreys means she has a deeper knowledge than most. She sets up in practice advertising herself as specialising in gender identity. This too is perfectly legal in the UK.
If we had a licensing system, as in the US, then it would be acceptable for the government to point to the Memorandum of Understanding as sufficient protection. As it is, since you do not need to be a member of any organisation, or have any training to work with LGBTQ+ people this looks like they are washing their hands of the harm that can be done to LGBTQ+ people.
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