50.50: Analysis

UK conversion therapy ban must include trans people, say campaigners

Government’s proposed ban leaves all LGBT people vulnerable because anti-trans practices harm cis people too

Lou Ferreira 2022.jpg
Lou Ferreira
17 May 2022, 2.18pm

Trans people and allies gathered in London and other UK cities including Brighton, Cardiff, Liverpool and Sheffield to demand a trans-inclusive ban

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Yui Mok / PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

“Ban it for everybody. Ban it for sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. Don’t have an age limitation. Don’t have a consent limitation. Those have no place,” Florence Ashley told openDemocracy as the UK government said its ban on conversion practices will not include all LGBT people.

These are the same demands put forward by UK advocates such as Ban Conversion Therapy, a coalition of LGBTQ+ organisations, faith groups and human rights groups including Amnesty International, Gendered Intelligence and Stonewall, which is calling for an outright ban.

But last week, Downing Street confirmed that its proposed law will only apply to practices relating to sexual orientation. It will also only protect under-18s, allowing adults to ‘consent’ to “non-physical” forms of conversion practices.

Ashley is a transfeminine jurist and bioethicist at the University of Toronto, Canada. Their new book combines legal expertise with survivor knowledge to help advise governments how to legislate effectively against conversion practices’. The UK’s current proposals leave all LGBTQ+ people vulnerable, they told openDemocracy because anything short of a full ban will allow these practices to continue – and because anti-trans practices harm cis people too.

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Conversion practices’ or ‘conversion therapy’ refers to any therapeutic approach or view that assumes that one sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression is innately preferable to another, and attempts to change or suppress someone’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression on that basis. These efforts range from talking ‘therapies’ – communicating a belief that someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity is wrong, disordered or ‘sinful’ – to physical violence.

While there is no evidence that conversion practices can ‘succeed’ in changing sexual orientation or gender identity, there is significant research and first-hand testimonies underscoring its severe, long-term and sometimes deadly psychological consequences.

A 2018 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that LGBTQ+ young people who had been exposed to conversion therapy were more than twice as likely to report attempting suicide following the experience. The American Psychological Association has also linked conversion therapy to depression and suicidality in survivors.

The UK government’s 2018 National LGBT Survey found that trans respondents and respondents from some ethnic minority backgrounds were twice as likely to have undergone conversion therapy as other respondents. Yet, last month, openDemocracy revealed that groups linked to anti-trans lobbying, including the LGB Alliance, met with equalities minister Kemi Badenoch to argue against a ban that includes trans people.

The LGB Alliance has argued that lesbian, gay and bisexual people’s “interests” are “under threat” from “attempts to introduce confusion between biological sex and the notion of gender” – a narrative move that positions the rights of trans and LGB people as necessarily at odds with one another. The group claims that a total ban would “promote an affirmation-only approach to gender identity”, and has accused transition-related services and healthcare of providing anti-gay conversion practices.

However, conversion therapy “cannot be conflated with life-saving therapies” for trans people, Ibtisam Ahmed, policy and research manager at LGBT Foundation, told openDemocracy: “Genuine therapeutic interventions, such as gender affirmation practices, are aimed at letting individuals safely explore their needs and identities, before coming to a place of self-awareness and self-acceptance. Conversion ‘therapy’ does not have this same foundation.”

Trans exemption harms the most vulnerable

The current proposals leave all LGBT people vulnerable, Ashley explained. Anti-trans conversion practices harm all queer youth – including those who don’t identify as trans.

According to Ashley, there is a long-running belief among practitioners that childhood femininity leads to people becoming gay or trans. They told openDemocracy: “Most of the time, conversion practices target gender nonconformity as a way of trying to prevent people from growing up as gay and/or trans […] To the extent that cisgender gay, bi or lesbian folks are gender nonconforming, they’re going to get caught up in that – especially at a younger age.”

The government’s decision to exempt trans people from the ban will affect some of the most vulnerable: gay, bi, lesbian and gender nonconforming young people, whose ‘effeminacy’ or ‘tomboyishness’ can be targeted on both homophobic and transphobic grounds.

“You’re opening a big loophole in the law that conversion practitioners are going to take,” Ashley warned. “It’s so easy to take.”

Homophobia and transphobia are often framed as two distinct forms of bigotry, but they are linked more than we might think

In a recent op-ed for Dazed Digital, writer James Greig made the powerful point that, while homophobia and transphobia are often framed as two distinct forms of bigotry, they are linked more than we might think.

“It’s true that gay people do frequently get abused in the street for expressing intimacy with their partners in public, and that discrimination based on sexuality alone is still a big problem,” he wrote.

However, a significant proportion of homophobia relates to gender expression, Greig explained. “Just about every instance of homophobic abuse I’ve experienced has been occasioned by simply vibing in a way that was read as feminine […] It’s impossible to whip up fury against the trans community without this eventually backfiring on cis gay people.”

Of course, our reasons for protecting trans people shouldn’t be predicated on the risks posed to cis gays if we don’t. But it’s important to acknowledge the points at which homophobia and transphobia overlap – to correct arguments that frame trans rights and LGB rights as mutually exclusive projects.

Nonetheless, this narrative is taking hold in the government’s approach to a ban. In March, a leaked document revealed plans to scrap the legislation completely. Hours later, the government performed a partial U-turn, following intense backlash from MPs and ministers, charities including Stonewall, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community. It then said it would proceed with a ban, but would not include protections for trans people.

A petition for a trans-inclusive ban has since amassed more than 144,000 signatures, making it the third most-signed currently open petition. On 12 May, the government responded, pledging: “We will bring forward a ban that protects everyone from attempts to change their sexual orientation as soon as parliamentary time allows.”

However, it has not promised to include gender identity and expression. “There are different considerations when it comes to transgender conversion therapy and the Government remains committed to exploring these,” the response said. “One of the complexities is that those who experience gender dysphoria may seek talking therapy. It is vital that legitimate support is not inadvertently impacted.”

Loopholes for ‘consent’

The proposed ban will also allow over-18s to ‘consent’ to “non-physical” forms of conversion practices – as long as they do not cause “serious harm”. But NHS England and numerous expert bodies have described all forms of the practice as “harmful”.

“Healing [from conversion practices] is a lifelong project,” Ashley told openDemocracy. “I see a community that has lost the brilliance of so many people who went through conversion practices and did not survive – or doesn’t have the full brilliance and shine of people who were so deeply traumatised by conversion practices.

“It’s not this theoretical thing. It’s right there in my face; it’s in the tears of my friends when I hang out with them; it’s in my friends who wish they could do more in the community but have so much trauma, they just can’t.

“Survivors are, of course, the most impacted – but it’s also the very fabric of trans communities that is changed by conversion practices,” Ashley continued. “All these people that are abandoning trans communities have blood on their hands.”

Moreover, there is simply no such thing as “informed consent” in this context, LGBTQ+ advocates told openDemocracy. Anti-abuse charity Galop set up a helpline for survivors of conversion therapy. Many of the callers to the helpline supposedly ‘consented’ to what happened to them, said Leni Morris, Galop’s CEO – but they were not aware of the risks and severe psychological harm that the practice would cause.

“Conversion therapies nearly always take place within imbalanced power dynamics,” Morris explained. “Those who ‘consent’ to conversion therapies are often financially or emotionally dependent on those asking them to do so.”

“What is someone’s non-prejudiced reason for wanting conversion practices?” Ashley asked. “What’s the value of ‘consent’ when you have all of those pressures – both from the practitioner and/or your family, all of that internalised homophobia or transphobia? Without homophobia or transphobia, no one would be trying to undergo conversion practices.”

Providing so-called ‘consent’ does not prevent conversion practices from being harmful, they explained. “It doesn’t stop them from sending the message that being gay, trans or bi is wrong and less valuable. That’s just not something that is OK in a society that wants to establish equality and anti-discrimination as core principles.”

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