What is conversion therapy and will it be banned?

So-called conversion therapy will be banned in England and Wales following a public consultation, it’s been announced in the Queen’s Speech.

The government said these “abhorrent practices” can cause mental and physical harm.

  • Government to consult before conversion therapy ban

What is conversion therapy?

According to NHS England, conversion therapy, sometimes called “reparative therapy” or “gay cure therapy”, is based on attempts to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

It and other professional bodies have warned all forms of conversion therapy are “unethical and potentially harmful”.

In practice, this means trying to stop or suppress someone from being gay, or from living as a different gender to their sex recorded at birth.

It can include talking therapies and prayer, says Jayne Ozanne, a former government equality adviser subjected to the practice. More extreme forms can include “exorcisms, physical violence and food deprivation”, she says.

Some forms, such as “corrective” rape, are already illegal.

One man who underwent conversion therapy, Justin, told the BBC he did it in a bid to fit in with his religious upbringing – an experience which left him “emotionally traumatised”.

“Explore and understand the child or young person’s past and
current gender identification.”

What has the government said it will do?

In 2018, Theresa May’s government promised to end conversion therapy as part of its LGBT equality plan. Last summer, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said plans for a ban would be brought forward.

But in March, three advisers – including Ms Ozanne – quit the government’s LGBT advisory panel amid concern it was being too slow. LGBT charity Stonewall urged the government to “stop dragging its feet”.

In Northern Ireland, politicians have passed a non-binding motion calling for a ban on conversion therapy “in all its forms”.

In England and Wales a further consultation will be held before a change to the law is finalised.

This will examine how to ensure that professionals, such as therapists, can still help people fully explore their gender identity. The government also wants “legitimate forms of pastoral support” to be able to continue.


Group prayer session

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How common is conversion therapy?

It’s difficult to know exactly how widespread the practice is. The government has not defined exactly what it counts as conversion therapy, and victims may be reluctant to share their experiences.

About 5% of the 108,000 people who responded to a 2018 LGBT government survey said they had been offered some form of conversion therapy, while 2% had undergone it.

Those from an ethnic minority background were twice as likely to be affected. About 10% of Christian respondents and 20% of Muslims said they had undergone or been offered conversion therapy, compared to 6% with no religion.

More than half said it was conducted by a faith group, while one in five received it from healthcare professionals.

The figure is higher among transgender respondents. Almost one in 10 trans men said they had been offered conversion therapy, and one in 25 said they had undergone it.

But the survey did not define what it meant by conversion therapy, and did not ask when it had happened, or whether it was in the UK.


Girl talking to a therapist

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Why are some groups worried about a ban?

Some groups say a ban could infringe on traditional religious teachings, such as the belief that all sex outside a heterosexual marriage is sinful. The Evangelical Alliance, which says it represents 3,500 churches, has suggested an “expansive definition” of conversion therapy could restrict religious freedoms.

UK director Peter Lynas said ministry leaders could be “at risk of arrest” for encouraging young people to remain chaste until marriage. He suggested it could criminalise supportive prayer for someone who asked for help dealing with same-sex attraction they wished to resist.

However, many other religious leaders support a ban. The Church of England said the practices have “no place in the modern world”.

Some mental health professionals say they fear being accused of conversion therapy if they question young people who are struggling with their gender identity.

Under-18s referred to the NHS’s Gender Identity Development Service (Gids) currently undergo an initial “wide-ranging” psychosocial assessment. This is to “explore and understand the child or young person’s past and current gender identification”.

Conservative MP Alicia Kearns, who has campaigned for a ban, said safeguarding measures could be put in place for accredited professionals who are assisting people considering gender transition.

The government has already said any reform will not prevent people from getting “legitimate medical… or spiritual support from their faith leader while exploring their sexual orientation or gender identity”.

Have other countries banned conversion therapy?

Many places have introduced a full or partial ban, including Canada, Malta, Germany, Mexico and parts of Australia.

In Germany, under-18s are not allowed to receive conversion therapy, while it is outlawed for adults in cases of coercion or deceit.

About 20 US states have banned the practice, although many of these do not include religious counsellors and organisations.

All countries that have introduced some form of conversion therapy ban have covered gender identity in their definitions.

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