The General Synod and a curate’s egg of protection for LGBTQ+ people

Whilst welcoming the agreement that cis LGB people should be protected from the harms of conversion therapy, Karen Pollock questions why the Church of England does not extend the same protections to trans people.


The practice of conversion, or reparative, therapy is one that has been long campaigned against by LGBTQ+ people, therapists (of all sexualities and genders) and, more recently, other medical professionals. The very real harms of trying to force someone through either physical or psychological torture or more subtle but often equally damaging manipulative techniques to change their identity have been long established. People may shy away from words like torture, but it is what conversion therapy is. When we condemn Chechnya, and other places, for their treatment of LGBTQ+ people, we must not forget how until recently, our medical establishment would have concurred with many practices. Castration, lobotomies and electric shocks were used to “cure” homosexuality up until the 1970s (and later) in large parts of the world.

After homosexuality was removed from the DSM (the bible of psychological diagnosis), the tendency moved away from physical torture to mental. The Oxford English Dictionary defines torture as;

The action or practice of inflicting severe pain on someone as a punishment or in order to force them to do or say something

The methods used to inflict the pain can of course be physical or emotional, overt or subtle. An unfortunate side effect of the lack of compulsory training in LGBTQ+ issues for counsellors and psychotherapists is that many may not have examined their own biases and prejudices. So they may not even realise they are engaging in harm as they agree that being LGBTQ+ is lesser, to be avoided, perverted, or a sin. Imagine being told, by a professional you trust, week in, week out, that you are intrinsically wrong, simply because of your sexuality or gender? It is impossible to underestimate the harm that can do.

Sin is a word which comes up frequently in discussions of conversion therapy – largely because, with the depathologisation of queerness, in some spheres at least, it is Christian organisations who have stepped into the “sickness” vacuum. Christian counsellors have, until very recently, openly offered “cures” for being LGBTQ+. If it were not so serious a matter, I would point people towards the Blackadder scene where Edmund tries to cure himself of being in love with Bob by eating leeches. Within a Christian context, the “cure” has often been presented within healing and prayer ministries, as well as more conventional talking therapies. LGBTQ+ people report being exorcised (the process of casting out demons), prayed over, and told themselves to pray to be healed of the sickness of being LGBTQ+.

With all this in mind, the General Synod of the Church of England has looked at what their stance should be towards trying to change something as fundamental as gender or sexual identity. This can only be seen as a positive. It does not mean you cannot work with someone who is struggling with their gender or sexuality. A false claim made by the supporters of conversion therapy is that if it is banned, it would leave this group without support. There are many different ways to support someone without agreeing that they are somehow flawed or sinful; I cover just one here. It is, for someone qualified and working ethically, no different from working with someone who is suicidal or engages in other forms of deliberate self-harm.

The Synod motion, which was passed, is worth reading in full.

That this Synod: (a) endorse the Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy in the UK of November 2015, signed by The Royal College of Psychiatrists and others, that the practice of gay conversion therapy has no place in the modern world, is unethical, potentially harmful and not supported by evidence; and 3 (b) call upon the Church to be sensitive to, and to listen to, contemporary expressions of gender identity; (c) and call on the government to ban the practice of Conversion Therapy

The first thing to note is that the General Synod voted not to sign the most up-to-date version of the Memorandum, the 2017 one, but an older version, which excluded protections for trans people. We covered the campaign to include protections for trans people at the time. There was no good reason to exclude trans people, and eventually, those organisations who regulate counselling and psychotherapy, along with NHS Scotland, Pink Therapy, the Scottish Government, Stonewall and others agreed.

The briefing paper produced for the General Synod attempts to explain why they voted on the 2015 Memorandum, not the 2017 one. It focuses on the change from may cause harm to causes harm, the definition of conversion therapy, and the inclusion of gender.

The 2017 addition of gender identity to the discussion on conversion therapy raises
questions. What evidence is there indicating the extent to which conversion therapy is being used in this context and how is it being utilised? What distinctions are made between conversion therapy on the one hand and counselling with regard to gender fluidity on the other? Given the paucity of research in this area what is the evidence base for stating that it is harmful? Is also unclear what is meant by the statement that ‘certain…gender identities are inferior to others’; which identities are in mind?

The section says certain questions are raised, but fails in any way to even attempt to point people towards the answers. It is reminiscent of those who make claims about puberty blockers, or the social transition of children, insisting we do not know if it is harmful, when in fact we have good evidence-based research to show that it is not.

The story of Leelah Alcorn raised the issue of conversion therapy for trans people into the public consciousness. We do not have to rely merely on anecdotal evidence of the harms of poor, transphobic and repartive therapy, however. There is a lot of peer reviewed-evidence availaible. To quote from the open letter to the BACP;

Findings by Jane Hunt (2013) found that there was a perception among some trans people that counsellors may not have experience of working with trans people, may try to link any psychological problems to being trans, or may actually express transphobic views.The ScotTrans report, Macneil et al (2012) found that 84% of respondents had contemplated suicide at some point in their life. It also reported that 66% of respondents had sought therapy for issues not related to their gender. Both Hunt  (2012) and Macneil recorded many incidences of people being discouraged from seeking therapy by negative experiences directly related to their being trans. Pollock’s research (2015) found that 18% of suicidal trans people were discouraged from seeking counseling due to a fear of a counsellor being transphobic. According to the Transgender Equality Network Ireland report (2013)  “Speaking from the Margins”, 40% of trans people were discouraged from seeking crisis support or counselling by previous experiences.

For some reason, the Synod has decided that trans people are somehow a different class of humans, and that the research into the harms of conversion therapy for cis LGB people does not apply to them. There is overwhelming research to show that conversion therapy is harmful and that it is used, often without full and informed consent, against gender-variant young people. Indeed, the controversial removal of Kenneth Zucker in Canada centered around conversion therapy, despite how it has been presented by extremists on both sides of the Atlantic. People have struggled to understand that a CAMHS was closed down because, among other issues, it offered conversion therapy as a solution because it is assumed proponents always display visible and obvious transphobia. However, punishing children for playing with the “wrong” gendered toys is simply reparative therapy, packaged as wanting children to be “normal”. It is very hard to give any benefit of the doubt to Zucker, a clinician whose research included rating the attractiveness of pre-pubescent trans girls as cute, pretty. attractive, handsome or beautiful (be aware that the link above is to research which misgenders the children).

To move on from the harms, the briefing document then asks a question so astonishingly basic, it genuinely made my jaw drop. “What distinctions are made between conversion therapy on the one hand and counselling with regard to gender fluidity on the other?” This, of course, is a question one would hope any first year counselling student could answer. However, since I imagine they would like someone with more letters after their name, if this is a genuine concern, why on earth did they not approach the Tavistock? The Tavistock Clinic works with gender-variant children under 18 in the UK. Counselling these children, exploring exactly what their gender means to them is a vital part of their role. A recent Channel 4 documentary showed the delicateness and experience its teams bring to their roles. When a question can be answered by simply watching a documentary, one has to ask how serious someone’s concerns are.

This leads me to my use of the word ‘genuine’ earlier. Those who work for better treatment of gender-variant people, including children and young people, are used to transphobia being hidden behind a veil of faux concerns. The briefing document given to the Synod contains two questions a simple Google search could have answered. If you believe there is no substantive difference between trans people and the rest of humanity, then the question about the proof of harms is answered. The closing question, that the writer did not understand what was meant by certain gender identities being seen as inferior, speaks more to their lack of imagination than anything else. However, it could have been simply resolved by asking the writers of the 2017 Memorandum what they meant by the phrase.

Perhaps part of the problem is that the Church of England agrees with Michael Gove; ‘we have had enough of experts’. As experts have moved away from upholding the status quo to questioning it, the establishment has moved away from expertise. The background paper highlights this;

Opinion is divided, though not equally so, with regard to whether or not conversion therapy is intrinsically unethical. Professional psychological bodies in the UK believe firmly that it is; some religious bodies and individuals disagree.

Basically, anyone with any training or expertise in the area believes conversion therapy is unethical, so opinion is not divided. If I insist that the Archbishop of Canterbury is three dogs in a suit, opinion is not divided, I am simply wrong. I call this the culture of “reckoning” as so wonderfully described by Mitchell and Webb. It seems to me that it is a sad day when an organisation which has been responsible for some of our greatest thinkers has succumbed to this cult of reckoning.

It seems clear that despite the discussion of services to welcome trans parishioners into the Church family, the Church of England still struggles to see them as equal and valid members of the community. By voting to allow conversion therapy for trans people, whilst banning it for cis LGB people, they are indeed saying some gender identities are inferior, that some people deserve fewer protections from harm. They have answered their own final question. It is welcome that cisgender lesbian, gay and bisexual Christians will not longer be offered “healing” for the ‘affliction’ of being queer. However, the Church of England must resolve its cognitive dissonance towards trans people and include them fully, without reservation.

Follow Karen on Twitter (@CounsellingKaz)

5 thoughts on “The General Synod and a curate’s egg of protection for LGBTQ+ people

  1. Excellently put, Karen! This was a lost opportunity for the Synod, and it would have been extremely good to hear a clear condemnation of therapies which attempt to manipulate or abuse those who identify as trans, intersex or non-binary gendered, as well as the condemnation of ‘conversion’ therapy for sexual orientation. I think that both the briefing paper by William Nye, and the comments made during the debate by Jamie Harrison, were disingenuous at best, and need a clear rebuttal. I hope your blog receives wide circulation!

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    1. Thank you so much! It is heartening to read that I had not misunderstood the processes involved, as a Quaker I had to give myself a crash course in the workings of the Synod. I hope people will reflect on the questions I raised and consider how to move this forward in a genuinely loving, Christian way

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  2. Hi Karen, as a member of General Synod who was campaigning for supporting the 2017 statement I was disappointed that that wasn’t the one we supported. In my opinion the main reason was that several other organisations didn’t sign the 2017 statement including the Royals College of Psychiatry, NHS England and the Association of Christian Counsellors all of whom signed the 2015 memorandum of understanding. There is work on an updated version of 2015 that will include transgender. Hopefully the other organisations will be on board but it wasn’t available to sign ahead of General Synod. The 2017 statement was something of an interim and this I think counted against it in the vote.

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    1. Thank you for your comment. It was disappointing that NHS England did not support the 2017 MOU, and unsurprising the RCP didnt. Self identification has sadly been resisted by a number of psychiatric bodies, and many people wonder about the motivations for this. MOU2 is currently being revised, and it includes very clear guidance on how it does not preclude working with people who are in distress about their gender or sexuality. Hopefully this will make it easier for the Synod to support.

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