Why the UK Government’s Promise to Ban LGBTQIA+ Conversion Therapy Is Not a Cause for Celebration

Following the Conservative government's announcement in the Queen's Speech that LGBTQIA+ conversion therapy will be banned, Joey Parker discusses why the proposed legislation doesn't go far enough and why the Tories have failed to deliver on this promise before.

WORDS Joey Parker

Trigger warnings: LGBTQIA+ conversion therapy, discussions of rape, forced starvation

With mainstream media portrayals of conversion therapy often being set in a historical context – most recently in Ryan Murphy’s Netflix hit series Ratched, where a lesbian in a 1940s psychiatric hospital was subject to hydrotherapy in an attempt to “cure” her of homosexuality – it may be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that corrective practices like these are a thing of the past. However, they are still being carried out in countries across the world, including in the UK. Now, after countless years of campaigning by a coalition of LGBTQIA+ organisations, mental health practitioners, and faith communities, the UK government has suddenly announced via the Queen’s speech on Tuesday that they will ban LGBTQIA+ conversion therapy once and for all.

Numerous praise-filled headlines followed, lauding this announcement as another step towards positioning the UK as a world leader in LGBTQIA+ rights. Unfortunately, the nuances of this ban are more complicated than they may seem at first glance as this is not the first time that a Conservative government has made such a promise.

Conversations around conversion therapy entered mainstream discourse in 2018 following an investigation conducted by Josh Parry for ECHO that exposed a Liverpool church, Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries, for offering LGBTQIA+ individuals the ability to cure themselves of their “affliction” through a three-day-long starvation period accompanied by constant prayer. Parry was advised by a pastor at the church that if he underwent prayer therapy his queerness could be reversed, enabling him to get married and have children.

Following this investigation, multiple groups campaigned for the ban and, in July 2018, Theresa May announced that the government would work on implementing a complete ban on conversion therapy across all settings – medical and religious. However, partly due to ongoing Brexit negotiations and the ousting of May, this commitment was generally neglected until May 2020 when Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch, after describing conversion therapy as a complex issue, insisted that:

“There are a wide range of practices which may fall within its [conversion therapy] scope and we want to ensure we have a thorough understanding of the situation in the UK to inform an effective approach. Before any decision is made on proposals for ending conversion therapy we must understand the problem, the range of options available and the impact they would have.”

Over 1000 days on from the Conservative government’s first official commitment to ban conversion therapy, not a single tangible action has been taken.

Over 1000 days on from the Conservative government’s first official commitment to ban conversion therapy, not a single tangible action has been taken. This delay and inaction has equated to three years of government-endorsed LGBTQIA+-phobic violence being committed against queer individuals, the impact of which is long-lasting, often irreversible, trauma. While Her Majesty’s recent statement has promised, once again, that the UK government intends to ban conversion therapy, they have not yet outlined or taken any concrete actions aside from announcing plans to launch a public consultation on this matter. Additional consultation time is not only going to extend the amount of time for which these practices are practicable – and thus increase the number of individuals that suffer as a direct result of this delay – but also will incite further divisive public opinion on the tension between religious freedom and LGBTQIA+ rights; a relationship that is often, incorrectly, presented as dichotomous. 

Aside from considering the harmful repercussions of this delay, it is also important to note that the UK government has not announced a ban on conversion therapy across all settings, as was originally promised by May 2018. Boris Johnson has now stated that “religious freedom” is as much a priority and that only “coercive” treatments will be banned. 

Coercive therapies are those in which the individual does not consent, and sit on the more extreme end of the spectrum; these include practices like corrective rape, starvation, physical violence, and exorcisms. On the other hand, non-coercive therapies are undertaken on a volunteer basis, and involve practices on the less extreme end of the scale, such as so-called “deliverance healing” events and intense, ritualistic prayer sessions. While a commitment to banning coercive therapies is welcome news, the nuances of this statement leave a terrifying grey area around non-coercive therapies. In April 2021, following concerns from religious group Evangelical Alliance that a ban on conversion therapy was “a direct threat to religious liberty” and a restriction of “personal freedoms”, Johnson stated that the government “will continue to allow adults to receive appropriate pastoral support (including prayer), in churches and other religious settings, in the exploration of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

In allowing the continued practice of “pastoral support” that aims to change a person’s sexuality, gender identity, or gender expression, the UK government is enabling churches to continue to deliver conversion therapy in the form of ritualistic prayer.

It is clear from these statements that, along with being waylaid by yet another public consultation, a complete ban is also likely to be hindered by the UK government’s refusal to directly confront LGBTQIA-phobia from faith groups. In allowing the continued practice of “pastoral support” that aims to change a person’s sexuality, gender identity, or gender expression, the UK government is enabling churches like Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministry to continue to deliver conversion therapy in the form of prayer and teachings such as the below:

“In Deuteronomy 23:18, the Lord describes what is referred to as dogs. “Thou shalt not bring the hire of a whore, or the price of a dog, into the house of the Lord thy God for any vow: for even both these are abomination unto the Lord thy God.” We can see the way the Bible handles the issue.

The Bible refers to homosexuals and lesbians as dogs. Anyone who has ever engaged in these kinds of things would need to receive deliverance from the spirit of the dog, which has entered into him or her. Generally, in the spirit world, dogs symbolize sexual perversion. So, if you see yourself being pursued in the spirit by a dog, check your sexual life. It means that something must be wrong somewhere, whether in your heart or your activities.”

The Prime Minister and the UK government are engaging in a woeful game of semantics by insisting on the importance of religious freedom in this context, as if the institutional torture of LGBTQIA+ people is somehow akin to an individual’s ability to practice whichever religion they may subscribe to in the UK.

According to the recent announcements, practices imposed by therapists are also likely to be excluded from the ban due to the fact that they are not necessarily coercive. Yet, it is clear from queer people’s experiences with conversion therapy that this is often a covert route through which they are subject to what is akin to, if not, torture. Speaking to gal-dem, Reverend Jide Macaulay observes that, “within Black and Muslim communities… if your parents tell you to go to conversion therapy, you do not argue with them, regardless of age.” It must be recognised that this grey area of consent would enable individuals who do not feel able to state outright refusal – whether due to internalised queer- or trans- phobia, or out of respect for family – to continue to experience conversion therapy on the grounds that it is not coercive.

Despite the pressures from religious groups for the ban to contain the above distinction, the negative impact of corrective practices on survivors must be at the forefront of conversation. Moreover, we must acknowledge that there is a crucial difference between support that enables vulnerable individuals to understand the pain, shame, and fear that many may have associated with an LGBTQIA+ identity and helps them to work through these feelings to live an authentic and fulfilled life, and repetitive shame-inducing abuse masquerading under the guise of “pastoral support” that prevents a vulnerable individual from exploring, or even considering, any aspect of an LGBTQIA+ identity.

There is a crucial difference between support that enables vulnerable individuals to understand the pain, shame, and fear that many may have associated with an LGBTQIA+ identity and helps them to work through these feelings to live an authentic and fulfilled life, and repetitive shame-inducing abuse masquerading under the guise of “pastoral support” that prevents a vulnerable individual from exploring, or even considering, any aspect of an LGBTQIA+ identity.

It is no surprise that, in response to continued backlash and challenge from campaigners, the Conservative government are now leading with an announcement of new funding that will be made available to support the survivors of conversion therapy, which has been lauded as “the first time a government has offered this in the UK.” While this is a positive step in the right direction, one cannot help but note that whatever budget is set aside for this support will already be stretched to its limits due to the government’s years of inaction on banning conversion therapy. Moreover, any further delay caused by the consultations to come will simply mean that even more individuals will have been subject to this assault, and will be in need of support when the ban is actually implemented. With each day that the ban is not in place, the amount of funding available to each survivor decreases, rendering such a promise unsatisfactory.

The rights and wellbeing of LGBTQIA+ individuals are clearly not priorities for this government. While Minister for Women and Equalities Liz Truss may claim that, “this government has always been committed to stamping out the practice of conversion therapy”, this repeated empty promise of a ban follows hot on the heels of the recent disbanding of the government’s LGBT+ advisory panel after three members quit, citing the fact that the government are “dragging their feet” on banning conversion therapy. Jayne Ozanne, a former member of the panel, also stated that ministers created a “hostile environment” for LGBTQIA+ people. It is far from reassuring that the planned consultation on conversion therapy will take place in this same hostile environment.

It is clear that the recent commitment to banning conversion therapy is nothing more than meaningless reguritation and a perfect example of this government’s ‘all talk and no trousers’ approach to LGBTQIA+ rights. Rather than further consultations that aim to placate the campaigners and the public, we need imminent action and for the government to clearly outline the difference between conversion therapy masquerading as pastoral support and sincere religious support for LGBTQIA+ people of faith. Without an extensive ban that eliminates any possible loopholes, the UK government will merely criminalise the outwardly extreme forms of conversion therapy while simultaneously green-lighting more insidious forms and allowing groups like Evangelical Alliance to take advantage of vulnerable individuals by convincing them that an LGBTQIA+ identity is shameful, malleable, and reversible. In order to protect queer individuals in the UK from further trauma, any further legislation must explicitly clarify the intention behind this ban – it is not a restriction of religious freedom or freedom of speech, but rather an end to the government-endorsed abuse of LGBTQIA+ people.

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