Why I do not support a ban on “conversion” therapy

As part of our politics month Karen Pollock challenges the idea legislation is always the best tool for protecting LGBTQ+ people


Conversion therapy, as in therapeutic efforts to change someones gender or sexual orientation has, rightly, been covered a number of times by TQ. Recently the Memorandum of Understanding (2) was released, after two years of discussion, and made the unacceptability of what are described as Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Change Efforts clear.

It is unacceptable for any therapist to offer to change something as fundamental as someones sexuality or gender, under any circumstances. Firstly, and bluntly, it does not work. This matters, since as therapists we should not be mere snake oil salesmen. When even the former leaders of Exodus (the largest ex-gay coalition in America) admit that they did not change anyone from gay to straight, the game is up for those making pseudoscientific claims.

Secondly, the harms of the various methods used, be they psychological, emotional or physical are well documented. Recently the Royal College of Psychiatry apologised for its former belief in using behavioural techniques to change sexual orientation.  In Europe and America such techniques are unlikely to be used now, but the very damaging impact of telling someone they are sinful, or broken, because of their sexual orientation has also been well researched. Therapists hold a position of power, and when they use that power to try to force someone to be something they are not great harm can ensue. It is important to note here that I deliberately only mention sexual orientation here, since many, including the RCP are much more equivocal about treating trans people with the same respect.

Every so often I see petitions calling for a legal ban on conversion therapy. They usually focus on techniques such as ECT which are well outside mainstream treatment now, and every time I see them my heart sinks a little. There are a number of reasons that whilst banning, as in making conversion therapy illegal, appears at first glance to be an attractive solution, it may be more complicated.

Sam Brinton, a brave campaigner against conversion therapy discusses in their Google talk that whilst mental health professionals in the US are licensed, churches, and other organisations are not. Any legal ban would never cover all of those who offered to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender. This is even more relevant in a UK context, where there is no legal requirement to be a member of a regulatory body in order to call oneself a counsellor or psychotherapist. Recently a church in Liverpool made the news, for its attempts to change sexual orientation. Again the calls to ban conversion therapy were raised. However, the use of “prayer ministry” to change sexual orientation is almost impossible to regulate, and even if we had a ban, the church would simply have to avoid words like counselling or therapy to circumvent it. A law which allowed abuse to continue, so long as its proponents avoided certain words does not feel like the way forward to me.

Something which is often overlooked when discussing conversion therapy is that many adults seek it. We hear the horrifying stories of children sent to therapists by parents, and rightly are revolted. However, many adults ask for help to change their sexual orientation, and freely, and willingly enter into programmes such as the Liverpool one.  The right of adults to make bad choices is incredibly complex. Ethically this is a difficult area, but autonomy and agency are fundamental principles which as a member of the BACP I work by. This means at times harm has to be balanced against the right to autonomy, such as in cases of suicidal ideation. Whether banning conversion therapy lies on one side of the harm line, as in beyond the pale, as suicide is, or should be allowed, as we allow smoking cigarettes, is not clear-cut. Indeed, I am unsure that our thoughts as a society are clear on issues such as assisted dying and suicide, and so conversion therapy, and banning it, merely muddies already murky water. It may be that others believe that in order to protect adults from their bad choices any attempts to change someones sexuality or gender should be illegal, including prayer ministry.  I believe that we need to use the force of law very carefully when it comes to individual liberties. What other choices deemed harmful by others should we also ban?

We do of course have laws which prevent harm to children which we allow adults to choose, buying alchohol for example. Given the lack of informed consent in a child being sent to conversion therapy it may well be the case that making it illegal would be beneficial. However I would argue this needs to take place in a wider conversation about how refusing to accept a childs gender or sexuality is abusive. Far too often we shower parents with sympathy, rather than calling their behaviour what it is, abuse. Sophie Labelle summed this up perfectly.

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Sam Brinton, and others, argue the for the need for education. It has been demonstrated in other areas that showing the harm of a thing, on people who others can relate to, has a greater impact than offering scientific evidence. So survivors telling their story are more likely to change minds than papers which statistically show conversion therapy does not work, as research into changing anti vaxxer minds shows. Part of the issue here is the assumptions made about who accesses conversion therapies. Parents genuinely believe their child will never be happy, adults genuinely believe their own happiness rests on being cis het. They also believe that conversion therapy works, and very often that being LGBTQ+ and religious is incompatible. Education is the road to challenging these beliefs, whilst bans only feed the countercultural narrative which has been seized on by the right.

The closure of Exodus, the recantation by the Association of Christian Counsellors, and the discussion of conversion therapy by the General Synod even if the motion was flawed show how the opposition to conversion therapy is growing, even in spaces where it has previously been supported. Education, listening to survivors, as well as scientific research are changing minds. It is possible that a simple ban, without this work, would not have the same effect.

It is also worth asking how such a ban would be policed. I believe there will be many therapists in the UK today who because of a lack of training, and internalized prejudices against GRSD people will try to work with a client to change their gender or sexuality. Anecdotally, Bi people report this happening even with gay and lesbian therapists.These individuals do not see themselves as offering conversion therapy, and would not be deterred by any kind of ban. Whilst laws can “send a message” it is important that education be the primary method of change of attitudes. I fear that if we did have a ban on conversion therapy many people would be left unprotected, as society patted itself on the back, and ignored the very real distress of believing your gender and sexuality were wrong. These distressed and vulnerable individuals would not be offered “conversion” therapy. Instead prayer, or “open-minded” therapists would collude with them in the belief it is better to be cis het. All this would happen behind closed doors, unseen, unregulated and unopposed.

We need to be clear that conversion therapy is wrong. We also need to be clear about what is right. That it is OK to be LGBTQ+ and a person of faith, and the LGBTQ+ community needs to work on the person of faith bit, as much as the faith community needs to work on accepting LGBTQ+ people. We need to be clear that there are many ways to be LGBTQ+ and that sexuality can be fluid, and that is OK. Most of all we need to be clear that you are OK as you are, and that radical acceptance is more powerful than hate and prejudice.

Follow Karen on Twitter (@counsellingkaz

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