Conversion therapy in the UK : the double-sided LGBTQ+ stance

Publication note: Originally due to be published in January 2021, publication was delayed for factors outside of our control.

Content note: This article recognises that sexuality and gender are two spectrums. It also acknowledges that the rights discussed below focus on cis-gendered gays and lesbians. 

This article problematises claims that the United Kingdom (UK) is a leading advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. To do so, the article juxtaposes statements made by the UK on the global stage with the fact that conversion therapy is still legal across the country. By taking more decisive action against conversion therapy,  the UK could improve  the everyday lives of LGBTQ+ individuals within their own borders and encourage other countries to do the same.

On the global stage, the UK regularly comments on their LGBTQ+ human rights record. This is one of the tools utilised by the country to enhance its position on the global stage. For example, the Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO) describes the UK as  “global leader on the promotion and LGBT human rights”. Similar remarks were made when the FCO announced its programme to promote LGBTi+ rights worldwide, stating that: 

“The UK record on promoting equality and non-discrimination for LGBT people domestically over the previous decade has brought an end to most discrimination in the content and the application of the law inside the UK.”

Statements like these are combined with an active position in international foras to promote this stance. For example, in 2019, the UK became the co-chair of the Equal Rights Coalition (ERC), alongside Argentina. The ERC is an intergovernmental association set up to monitor human rights internationally, protecting equality across nine grounds including sexual orientation and gender assignments. Chairing this institution positions the UK at the forefront of protecting LGBTQ+ rights globally. Through initiatives like the ERC, the UK can claim to be a key advocate for LGBTQ+ communities around the world . 

The UK also supported financing global initiatives to combat LGBTQ+ discriminations formally through the Department for International Department (DFID)1. Specific objectives of LGBTQ+ equality are tied to UK Aid funding. Additionally, DFID stated one of their objectives is “to promote the rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people internationally”. DFID also publishes blog posts emphasising the importance of #zerotolerance across the globe.  

Despite the UK government’s apparent commitments to protecting LGBTQ+ communities, the controversial practice of ‘conversion therapy’ remains legal. Conversion therapy is defined by the non-governmental organisation Stonewall as :

“any form of treatment or psychotherapy which aims to change a person’s sexual orientation or to suppress a person’s gender identity. It is based on an assumption that being lesbian, gay, bi or trans is a mental illness that can be ‘cured’”. 

In other words, they are programmes which seek to ‘convert’ LGBTQ+ members away from their ‘deviancy’ to bring them back to their ‘normal’ heterosexuality and cis-gendered identities. 

It remains legal across the UK despite being harmful in a multitude of ways. England and Scotland’s National Health Services, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and leading counseling and psychotherapy bodies in the UK have signed a joint statement describing the practice as unethical and unscientific. Additionally, they lead to serious psychological harm. The Human Rights Campaign has underscored that conversion therapies consistently lead to “depression, anxiety, drug use, homelessness, and suicide”. 

Stonewall estimates that 20 percent of transgender individuals in the UK have been pressured to suppress their gender identity and more than five percent of LGBTQ+ individuals have been pressured to change their sexual identities. 

Aware of its deeply damaging side-effects, the Cabinet Office has repeatedly called for its end, yet has failed to translate its words into actions.  

Under former Prime Minister Theresa May, the UK 2018 LGBTQ+ action plan outlined a governmental plan to outlaw conversion therapy. However, there was one important caveat to this claim. The report specifies that this ban would only apply to England as issues of health and gender fall within devolved powers (page 29 of the report). In other words, the Prime Minister may only make claims which are binding for England and Wales, but not for Scotland or Northern Ireland. 

Moreover, two years since the announcement, the practice stands as no ban has materialised. UK equalities minister, Liz Truss, announced in June 2020 that plans to end conversion therapy would be rapidly pushed forward. At the time of writing, four months after this announcement, no such proposals have been submitted. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also publicly come out strongly against conversion therapy. In July 2020 he accused the practice of being “absolutely abhorrent [which] has no place in this country”. This public statement is important. It sends a strong message from the highest office that it will no longer be tolerated. However, activists are yet to see concrete actions taken following these public statements. Moreover, in the same address, Johnson called for a ‘study’ to better understand the scope of the issue. Activists decried the move as another means to further delay legislation. They pointed out that several surveys had already been conducted. 

Despite these strong proclamations, there seems to be a general recalcitrance amongst UK government officials to outlaw the practice. Several factors may explain why the UK government have not yet legislated against conversion therapy. 

First,  there is uneven political momentum on the subject. During the 2019 general election, major parties across the political spectrum demonstrated their opposition. Tories, Labour LibDems, Greens and the SNP all proclaimed that it ought to be banned. However, after the election, little action has taken place. This is despite activists’ continued push for legislation. Petitions have been submitted to the Welsh, Scottish and English parliaments. Banning conversion therapy appears to be a good argument during  campaign but not once in power. 

Second, there are conflicting positions on conversion therapies across the UK. On the one hand, the Church of England has publicly condemned conversion therapies and the Isle of Man will be outlawing it2. On the other hand, MPs in Northern Ireland have occasionally defended it and the Catholic Church in Scotland is highly suspected of engaging in certain practices linked to conversion therapy. Due to this heterogeneous context, the UK government needs to have the political courage to enact a policy which will have its fair share of dissidents. 

Third, COVID-19 is being partially instrumentalised to justify inaction. The House of Commons has recently been embroiled in a controversy on the subject. They tweeted asking “How does conversion therapy affect the LGBTQ+ community? Should it be made illegal?”. The tweet was heavily criticised for being insensitive to LGBTQ+ lived experiences and for erasing years of research into the various psychological damage caused by it. The ensuing apology cited that Twitter was meant to be a subsiste to Westminster Hall debates because of the pandemic. They claimed that because they could not debate in person, Twitter was the appropriate platform to do so. While the defense has some merit, it cannot erase the lack of sensitivity shown. What is asked of policy makers is to outlaw the practice, not to consider whether it has negative repercussions. 

Fourth, there is no strong international pressure to reform. Only Brazil, Ecuador, Malta, Taiwan, and 20 US states have formally banned conversion therapies.  Malta was the first European country to do so in 2016. Four years later, only Germany and Albania3 have followed suit despite a vote by the European Parliament condemning the practice in 2018. Progress on the matter is slow across nations, including in Canada and France which are currently considering legislation but have not enacted it. 

More efforts are needed domestically to curb the lasting degradation on individuals’ wellbeing.  Many will continue to suffer for as long as the government legally tolerates it. Urgency and quick actions are necessary. A coordinated approach and shared commitments across the UK are necessary as it concerns devolved matters. The risks would be to have uneven LGBTQ+ protection amongst the nations. This has already taken place in the past. For example, fifteen years separated the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales with that in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Moreover, with the devolution debates related to Brexit, 10 Downing Street should take all necessary measures to translate their words into decisive actions. 

The UK should also see this as an opportunity to enhance its credibility on the international stage. The government could use this as an opportunity to work with Commonwealth nations to strengthen the alliance, particularly with those who have already made public commitments on the matter.  By effectively tackling conversion therapy at home, it sends a strong message to its partners that the practice will not be tolerated in other countries. The UK currently suffers from a credibility gap between its stated claims internationally and its actions domestically. Ending conversion therapy is the first critical step to addressing the issue. Further support will be needed from the government to address the grievances of survivors. 

Footnotes

1 : Since September 2020, Global aid is now provided through the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office.

2 :  Differences exist in the UK on these matters because they are devolved matters and each nation can legislate and rule independently. 

3 : Outlawed by the national association of psychologists rather than through central government or parliament.

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