Here’s how the UK can finally win a full ban on conversion therapy

LGBT activists who won comprehensive conversion therapy bans in Canada, France and New Zealand give the UK advice on what to do next 

Jeffrey Ingold
20 April 2022, 11.15am

Trans rights protesters in London, April 2022

Vuk Valcic / Alamy Live News

It’s been nearly four years since the Conservative Party first pledged to eradicate what prime minister Boris Johnson has called the “absolutely abhorrent” practice of so-called conversion therapy. Since then, the UK has left the European Union, Donald Trump has lost the presidency of the United States and the world has been upended by a pandemic. And conversion therapy still remains legal in the UK.

The LGBT+ charity Stonewall defines conversion therapy as “any form of treatment or psychotherapy which aims to change a person’s sexual orientation or to suppress a person’s gender identity”. These practices can range from pseudo-scientific counselling sessions or being prayed over, all the way to corrective rape and exorcisms. The United Nations said such interventions “may amount to torture”. 

In the UK, according to the government’s National LGBT Survey in 2017, 2% of LGBT+ people have undergone conversion therapy and a further 5% have been offered it. 

Despite repeated assurances that a comprehensive legislative ban was coming, news emerged recently that the government was planning to ditch its promise to ban conversion therapy in England and Wales. This sent shockwaves through LGBT+ communities and triggered a ferocious backlash. The government was forced into a partial climbdown within hours, pledging to introduce a ban after all. 

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But there was a catch. The ban would only cover lesbian, gay and bisexual people – not trans and non-binary people. The government has defended this position, claiming “this is a complex legal area” and saying it will therefore carry out “separate work to consider the issue of transgender conversion therapy”.

While the government has failed to give more detail on its reasons for excluding trans people, a majority of the British public (65%) support a ban on practices trying to change a person’s sexual orientation. A very similar number (62%) want to see practices that try to suppress or alter or a person’s gender identity outlawed too. 

NHS England, the British Medical Association, the UK Council for Psychotherapy, and the Royal College of Psychiatrists, among many other medical and mental health bodies, have also come out to urge the government to extend the ban to trans people. 

Unless the British government changes its stance, a parliamentary showdown is inevitable as proponents of a comprehensive ban attempt to amend any future bilI to include trans people. While LGBT+ communities and opposition parties continue to apply pressure on the government, it’s worth remembering that several other countries have already either partially or fully outlawed conversion practices. 

In the last few months, Canada, France and New Zealand have all passed laws banning conversion therapy that covers both sexual orientation and gender identity. They join the 14 other countries that each have some form of national ban in place.

At such a bleak time for LGBT+ communities in the UK, what lessons can be learned from the success of activists in these other countries? How might the UK apply some of the strategies and tactics used elsewhere to bring forth a holistic ban on conversion practices? I spoke with activists in Canada, France and the UK to find out.

Build a coalition

LGBT+ activists around the world told me that forming an umbrella body to organise collective action between individuals, groups and organisations is crucial to help bring about social and legal change. 

Nicholas Schiavo founded the national grassroots coalition group No Conversion Canada in 2018 to help bring an end to conversion practices. “I didn’t start the movement. There was already a lot of expertise, a lot of people fired up, but they didn’t know where to go,” he explains. “We needed a united banner that everyone could get behind and take the fight to parliament.”

In New Zealand, Shaneel Lal created the Conversion Therapy Action Group in 2019, while Benoit Siward set up Rien À Guérir (Nothing To Cure) in France in 2021. These organisations succeed by bringing together existing voices, research, expertise and advocacy efforts to present a unified front that can educate politicians, the media and the public on the realities of conversion therapy.

The UK adopted a similar approach in 2020, when Ban Conversion Therapy was established. It’s a coalition of LGBTQIA+ and faith communities and organisations, along with mental health practitioners. Leni Morris, chief executive of Galop (an LGBT+ anti-abuse charity and a member of Ban Conversion Therapy), confirms that the UK needed an umbrella organisation that could “really look at the issue from all angles and push for the comprehensive ban that we need”. 

So British activists have the right approach, but they must contend with a  government that simply may not be interested in listening to them.

Raise public awareness

After forming coalitions, one of the most significant hurdles LGBT+ activists face in fighting for legal bans is that conversion therapy happens behind closed doors. “Conversion therapy in the UK has been an invisible issue for decades,” says Morris.

Conversion therapy in the UK has been an invisible issue for decades

“Even now when the public thinks of conversion therapy, they think of ‘pray away the gay’ camp in America. While we do have people in the UK who are put through that kind of experience, that’s not what conversion therapy looks like here,” she adds.

So how do activists bring conversion therapy out of the shadows and into mainstream public conversation?

For Siward in France, public action was critical: “Most French citizens, including politicians, were not aware that conversion therapy was still happening. We needed victims to speak publicly about their experiences, so we could bring their stories and realities to the eyes of the people by involving the press with investigations and interviews.”

Schiavo in Canada agrees with Siward that “the most powerful weapon we have is people’s stories. Nothing compels people like when they hear from a survivor. So giving them a voice at the table, access to a journalist or column and letting them speak for themselves is what drives the movement forward.”

British LGBT+ activists have followed this approach, with many survivors speaking to the media about their horrific experiences of exorcisms and electroshock therapy, alongside stories of the pressure they faced in trying to change who they are.

Win the legislative fight

Getting a legislative ban on the political agenda is only half the battle for activists. Next comes the mammoth task of ensuring the legislation is comprehensive and isn’t undermined by hostile amendments or bigoted politicians. 

In Canada, it took three attempts over four years to get a comprehensive ban across the line, as the earlier legislative version created unacceptable “loopholes”, where, says Schiavo, “kids couldn’t be subjected to conversion therapy because it’s wrong and dangerous. But it’s fine for adults if they consent to it.”

He continues: “You have to make sure you’re not swept under the rug. It might take a few years to get a comprehensive ban, but it absolutely pays off.”

As in the UK, one of the biggest issues in France when the bill reached parliament was the inclusion of trans identities. Siward explains: “Most politicians were OK to ban this torture [on the basis of] sexual orientation. But for gender identity, which is less accepted and very wrongly understood, we had to face a huge wave of transphobia that tried to destroy the law.”

So what did they do? 

“We had to play strategically,” says Siward. “The question was not whether you understood the realities of trans people. The question being asked with this bill was ‘do you accept some French trans citizens being abused?’ You don’t need to understand gender identity to disagree with the fact that trans people are being subject to abuse.”

It’s a powerful argument – and one that LGBT+ groups in the UK may need to adopt given that trans people are one of the groups at highest risk of conversion therapy. The UK government’s own research reveals that 4% of trans people have gone through conversion therapy, while Galop found that 1 in 10 trans people (11%) have been exposed to conversion practices by their own family.

UK LGBT+ activists remain defiant and hopeful that they can influence the government to bring forward a trans-inclusive ban on conversion therapy. 

But if the government breaks their promise, the UK risks falling further behind as more countries, including Denmark, Finland, Ireland and Norway, actively look at legislation to ban conversion therapy. 

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