Sue Pascoe: Conversion therapy needs to be banned for gender identity

14 Feb

Sue Pascoe was a candidate for Yorkshire and the Humber in the 2019 European elections.

The consultation to ban so called “conversion therapy” closed on February 4. The Government Equality Office will now analyse the responses before preparing legislation which is expected before the Government’s flagship global LGBT+ “Safe to be Me” London conference commencing June 29.

The Prime Minister has called this an abhorrent practice and the UN regards it as a practice of “torture”. So what is it? It is when someone tries to exert coercive pressure over another to try and suppress, cure or change their sexual orientation or gender identity. It can range from pseudo-psychological treatments, deliverance prayer, to in extreme cases, electric shock treatment and “corrective” rape.

In my case I was six when my mother tried to crucify me to prove that God did not believe what I was telling her; that I was a girl and not a boy. I was 15 when my mother and the doctors ignored what I was telling them about my innate feelings and operated on my variation in sex characteristic condition to make me more functionally male.

I was 20 when I went to see a therapist asking for help to change my gender and I was given “conversion therapy”, and made to be totally ashamed of who I was. So I went into the world as best I could hiding my true self, deep inside suffering life-long pain resulting from these “conversion practices”.

I’m 61 now and finally after many years I have managed to fully transition to be Sue. I’m at peace with myself having aligned all my sex characteristics as best I possibly can.

I’m not alone having suffered conversion therapies. In 2017, the Government launched the largest national survey of LGBT people in the world to date of over 108,000 people.

It found “Five percent of respondents had been offered ‘conversion’ therapy (but did not take it up) and a further 2% had undergone it. These figures were higher for trans respondents (e.g. 9% of trans men been offered it and 4% had undergone it). Faith organisations were by far the most likely group to have conducted conversion therapy (51%), followed by healthcare professionals (19%)”, then parent, guardian or other family member (16 per cent). The survey showed that “Transgender respondents were more likely to have reported having undergone or been offered conversion therapy (13%) than cisgender respondents (7%).”

This information was reported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to the UN in 2019. This formed submissions from countries all over the world all showing similar results.

One study of 27,000 transgender respondents in the US found of the nearly 80 per cent that had discussed their gender identity with a religious adviser or secular therapist, 20 per cent had been subject to conversion therapies – and these had “shown that gender identity conversion efforts are associated with adverse mental health outcomes, including suicide attempts.” As therapists and religious practitioners are all online nowadays, what happens globally can now come into our front room or bedrooms.

So it’s really not surprising that the Scottish Human Rights Commission issued a statement to the Scottish Parliament in August 2021, based on the UK being a signatory to the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Ratified by the UK in 1988, it said: “the UN Committee Against Torture has expressed its grave concern in relation to reports about the existence of “conversion therapies.” Based on the obligations set forth in the Convention, the Committee has determined that States are required to:

a. Take the necessary legislative, administrative and other measures to guarantee respect for the autonomy and physical and personal integrity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons and prohibit the practice of so-called “conversion therapy,” and other forced, involuntary or otherwise coercive or abusive treatments against them”

With this evidence and the EHRC being described as the UK’s “National Human Rights Institution, we monitor the UK’s compliance with the seven United Nation’s human rights treaties it has agreed to follow.

It was quite extraordinary to find the EHRC submitting a statement on conversion therapy which said that due to “the lack of evidence about conversion therapy in relation to being transgender and the importance of any ban not preventing appropriate support for individuals with gender dysphoria”, no ban should take place for gender identity at the same time as the ban on conversion therapy for sexual orientation.

What is perverse is that Minister Freer will be steering this legislation through Parliament, and as the consultation document itself makes clear, therapeutic support for people with gender dysphoria will be unaffected and that it is right and proper that exploratory therapies and consultations are required in order to determine if someone is or isn’t gender dysphoric.

What is also very strange is the EHRC ignored the qualitative study commissioned by the Government Equality Office from Coventry University and the Stonewall Gender Identity Conversion Therapy Study of 2020, both of which evidenced conversion therapy harms against transgender people happening in the UK now.

So what’s going on? Frankly, how much evidence of harm do you need? Are we also to ignore our UN treaty obligations? The call for more evidence by the EHRC appears to be just a way of trying to put the gender identity part of the ban into the long grass. For our human rights organisation to do this is shameful.

But the EHRC then gets itself into very dangerous territory. It says: “The Government should make clear that psychological, medical and healthcare staff can continue to provide support to people experiencing gender dysphoria; this should include support to reduce distress and reconcile a person to their biological sex where clinically indicated, including for children and young people aged under 18 if this is in their best interests.”

I’m not sure if the EHRC realises that if a person has been diagnosed as gender dysphoric and you then try to “reduce distress and reconcile a person to their biological sex”, as it suggests, this could be tantamount to trying to cure, suppress or change a person’s gender identity if a pre-determined outcome is set by a clinician to do this – and that is conversion therapy!

I am deeply troubled with the breakdown in trust that has now occurred with large swathes of the LGBT+ community and the EHRC as a result of its statements on conversion therapy and Scottish gender recognition. There have also been significant allegations of bias against transgender people made against the Commissioners in the online magazine Vice, with whistleblower revelations and staff leaving the organisation as a result.

Major LGBT+ charities are now refusing to work further with the EHRC. This is not sustainable especially not with the Government’s “Safe to be Me” conference to be held soon. I too have lost trust and confidence in the leadership of the EHRC to act to properly protect the rights of LGBT+ people.

I retain trust in Lord Herbert, the PM’s LGBT+ Envoy and Minister Freer. I was pleased with his response to everyone’s concerns about the EHRC statement where he posted on twitter:- “Everyone should be free & safe to be themselves. No one should be subjected to conversion practices because of who they are or who they love. Trans people will be protected by the upcoming Bill to ban conversion therapy practices.”

I trust and pray the legislation will reflect this and we will get a comprehensive ban on all types of conversion therapy practices covering both sexual orientation and gender identity.

Anonymous: Adding gender identity to any bill to ban conversion therapy risks more harm to children

7 Jan

In its current form, the conversion therapy bill risks harming our children

The conversion therapy bill has laudable objectives, but could have unintended consequences for the very people it’s meant to protect: gay, lesbian and bisexual children and young people.

Along with two others I co-founded the Bayswater Support Group, which supports 400 families navigate the tricky waters of parenting a trans-identified adolescent or young adult.

Our children tend to have complex, pre-existing mental health histories, and over 50 per cent had come out as lesbian or gay prior to hearing about trans. The majority have backgrounds of trauma, homophobic bullying or social rejection due to neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism and ADHD.

Of Bayswater members, approximately 75 per cent are parents to girls, most of whom first announced a trans identity around puberty. This reflects tendencies globally, and is a reversal of historical trends before 2010.

Gender identity is different from sexual orientation

As a group, we agree that there is no evidence that any sexual orientation can be changed, nor is it ethical to attempt to change this by physical or coercive means.

However, gender identity is not the same as sexual orientation, nor is it necessarily innate.

Unlike sexual orientation, gender identity concerns can lead to invasive, permanent medicalisation for which there is a very low evidence base, according to NICE.

Schools across the UK are teaching gender identity as a scientifically established fact, on par with – or even superseding – biological sex. This is often the first time our children have heard of this concept, which is then echoed across social media.

They are then directed to online communities and lobby groups, which promise an array of tempting outcomes from ‘gender euphoria’ to finding one’s ‘authentic self’ via surgery and hormones.

Unpicking these issues is exceptionally challenging. As parents, we obviously favour the route of least harm.

Ethical therapists could be criminalised

Parents therefore seek an exploratory perspective that looks at all of these factors underlying the desire to transition.

Ethical therapists tend to provide a safe and non-judgemental space to question assumptions and beliefs, and encourage children to consider a range of options. This is especially important, given the one-sided perspective that dominates in education, social media and popular culture.

To a non-conforming, same-sex attracted teen desperately trying to fit in with peers, a trans identity can appear to solve many problems of adolescence. It can also offer an illusory route to social acceptance by peers, or temporarily alleviate the distress caused by internalised homophobia.

The Stonewall-endorsed 2017 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), mandates a ‘gender affirming’ approach by regulatory bodies such as the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), British Psychological Society (BPS) and UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP).

This MOU was written without the consensus of the therapeutic community, in a process that lacked transparency. Subsequent attempts to engage with the MOU committee have been systematically “blocked”, prompting questions about whether the guidelines are based on ideology or therapeutic best practices.

Affirmation means taking a child’s new opposite sex or non-binary identity at face value, and immediately using their chosen names and pronouns. It also directly instructs therapists to condone/recommend/discuss medical ‘affirmation’ if so desired by the child vs. exploring alternative routes to alleviate distress..

This bill would enshrine this approach in law. We worry that any deviation from the affirmative approach could result in children or authorities reporting parents, therapists or teachers to the police.

Under the affirmative model, exploration of the etiology of the trans identity, especially same-sex attraction, would be considered a form of conversion therapy.

There is a strong chance that a ban could lead to children with gender identity issues not being able to receive any therapy at all. This is already the case in Victoria, Australia, where a similar conversion therapy ban has become law.

Whose lead should we follow?

The countries that are most enthusiastically embracing the idea of medical transition, and enshrining into law, include Iran, Argentina and Malta. These are also known for their chequered human rights records.

In contrast, Sweden, which is known as a socially compassionate democracy, has taken a step back from paediatric transition after examining emerging evidence on poor mental and physical health outcomes.

Listening to detransitioners

There is no clear, objective definition for gender identity, and no clarity about the ever-expanding range of terms associated with trans and gender.

The growing numbers of detransitioners (those who regret having transitioned and come to reject the idea that they are ‘trans’) demonstrate that feelings around ‘gender’ can evolve along with age and maturity.

Keira Bell, after winning her initial High Court victory in 2020, called for better mental health support – and safeguards – for trans-identified children. Banning therapy that explores underlying issues would be the opposite of this.

There is increasing evidence that the affirmation-only approach can lead to tragic outcomes, as experts question the data on how many over-18s have truly benefited from early transition.

Adding gender identity to any bill to ban conversion therapy is likely to result in more harm to children, not less.

We are asking politicians to engage with a broad range of parents, consider a wider set of evidence and think about longer-term impacts on children.

The most pragmatic action would be to remove ‘gender identity’ from any bill, pending evidence informed by the Cass independent review into UK-wide child gender identity services.

Alicia Kearns: Let’s interrogate the attacks on the conversion therapy ban

7 Dec

Alicia Kearns is the MP for Rutland and Melton.

As Conservatives, our calling card must be the defence of individual freedoms. Surely, we must all believe that it is better when individuals have as much liberty to define for themselves their own happiness, so long as it is done within the bounds of a stable, law-abiding society?

LGBTQ+ so called conversion therapy is utterly incompatible with that vision, which is why I have campaigned to end it.

I want to take a look at some of the arguments being made against this Bill, and hopefully demonstrate why ultimately what we all need is to take the heat out of this discussion, get the facts right, and a good shot of empathy on all sides.

1) The practice is ‘already illegal’?

Campaigners against a ban cite the fact that physical torture is already illegal, making a ban superfluous. It’s universally recognised in clinical professions that mental health is as important as physical health (including in legislation) – and therefore suffering can be psychological.

A specific ban on forms of conversion therapy that aren’t necessarily forms of physical torture is needed. The State, police, courts and civil society bodies are better able to address the issue when a specific statutory framework is spelled out, similar to how a framework was needed to address female genital mutilation.

A ban will also send a very explicit message, making it harder for people in positions of trust to abuse vulnerable people, and protecting potential victims before abuse occurs.

2) Conversion therapy is not happening?

Maya Forstater’s piece on this site specifically stated there is no recent evidence of Conversion Therapy in the UK. This is wrong. I have been in contact with many therapists and regulatory organisations, all of whom still regularly see patients scarred by conversion ‘therapy’.

What is more, I would encourage anyone attacking this ban with this argument to meet many of the survivors I have met: people in their 20s, 30s and yes, the 70 year olds still living with the impact of this abuse. Do not silence victims with your prejudice, to do so causes enormous harm.

3) An attack on religious freedom?

I would not support efforts to police private prayer, and that’s not what’s being proposed. A ban on conversion therapy must not infringe on practice of religion or religious belief.

Many opponents of a ban on conversion therapy cite religious freedom in their arguments. However, these arguments do not wash, given that mainstream religion in this country – former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Rowan Williams, The Right Reverend John Sentamu, former Archbishop of York and Steve Chalke, Baptist Minister and Canon at Southwark Cathedral, as well as representatives of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism and any other major faith you care to mention – all back a ban. The Church of England has not requested any opt-out from a ban.

Religious liberty, a fundamental right, must so too is the right of every person to be free of torture and other forms of degrading treatment. As we would not accept a religiously based argument for FGM, so we should not accept a religious argument for forms of therapy (as distinct from prayer) that are clinically discredited and found to cause long-term psychological damage.

We must protect conversations between a religious leader and a member of their flock, but also provide recourse to justice against those who abuse their positions of trust.

4) Will the Bill legislate for affirmative-only therapy?

It does not, and it must not. Conversion Therapy often takes the form of one-directional talking therapies, more often than not conducted by quacks in unregulated settings. Regulated psychotherapists and similar professions have always, while pushing for a ban, also insisted that exploratory therapy should not and must not prescribe a specific outcome, to the therapy, which is in fact what conversion therapy does.

What our children deserve, and need, is to have fully explorative, challenging and critical conversations with accredited and regulated individuals such as GPs and psychologists. Those who actually adhere to ethical tests set out by the counselling and psychotherapy profession and won’t push pre-determined outcomes (in either direction!).

A regulated therapist would never say that someone must act on their attractions or that they must eliminate them. Surely we can all agree on that?

Some claim gay and lesbian people are being forced to “convert” into a transgender person. This legislation would help them, by ensuring critical conversations take place by professionals, and not the well-meaning. Critical conversations before medical interventions.

5) Would a ban criminalise mental health practitioners?

Representatives of organisations such as the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the British Psychological Society, the Albany Trust, Royal College of General Practitioners, Association for Christian Counsellors and many more stand behind a ban.

Conversion therapy has been thoroughly rejected by the psychiatric and psychological profession precisely because it is the opposite of an open-ended exploration with difficult conversations throughout.

It is rather a ‘therapy’ where there is only one objective and end point: stopping someone from being gay or from being trans. Conversion therapy is not about keeping choices but eliminating them completely.

Mental health practitioners back this legislation. It’s not going to criminalise them, nor teachers or others who support children to have open and challenging discussions.

6) Gender identity, language, sports rules and shared toilets

This ban is not about any of these things, despite how hard others are pushing to resolve grievances – some legitimate.

This legislation doesn’t need to define gender identity in legislation (noting we already have the Gender Recognition Act and hate crime legislation that acknowledges transgender people). Stonewall isn’t demanding it does, and has publicly said the ban doesn’t need to define gender identity or introduce it into law, so who is this ‘lobby’ that everyone argues is trying to introduce gender identity into law?

It’s also not about another woke frontier for those who want to suppress freedom of speech. Women aren’t ‘people with cervixes’. We’re women. I don’t chest feed. I breast feed my baby. This isn’t a backdoor effort to criminalise dissent from gender ideology.

7) Is the ban being rushed?

No. This is far from a rushed job, but an important piece of legislation many years in the making. There was a survey of over 100,000 LGBTQ+ people in 2017-18, a debate in Parliament, now there is a consultation, and then there will be much debate in Parliament and a vote by Parliamentarians.

So why do we need to ban conversion therapy?

Call me old fashioned, but the first duty of responsible government should be to protect its people, and that means everyone. Conversion therapy is about a person of trust suppressing and subverting someone’s sexuality or gender identity to such an extent that mental damage is almost inevitable, and physical damage all too frequent. It is done without any scientific or therapeutic evidence whatsoever, and about exorcising an integral part of our self-identity.

This is not about pandering to the woke crowd. This is about punishing practices that leave real and enduring psychological and physical scars, and holding accountable those willing to perpetrate and often profit from misery.

The only people who have to fear a ban on conversion therapy are quacks and charlatans who profit off misery, bigotry, and torture. Let’s protect our children and leave the real professionals to do their jobs.

Maya Forstater: A conversion therapy ban threatens to leave unhappy children medicalised, sterilised and left with impaired sexual function

29 Nov

Maya Forstater is co-founder of Sex Matters.

Why is talking therapy being conflated with torture?

“Conversion therapy” is a term used for barbaric acts of abuse, such as electric shocks, starvation, chemical castration and corrective rape, intended to change or supress a person’s sexual orientation,. The UN Independent Expert on the topic has called for a global ban, citing “beatings, rape, electrocution, forced medication, isolation and confinement, forced nudity, verbal offense and humiliation.”

“Gay conversion is torture; the UK must ban it” say campaigners, and the Government has responded with a proposal to legislate and a rushed, six week consultation. But is there any evidence that these acts of violence are taking place in the UK?

Is there any evidence of physical acts of conversion therapy in the UK?

Police reports say no. Sex Matters has seen the responses to Freedom of Information requests for details of arrest or detention for electrocution or ‘corrective rape’ in the last five years from 24 police forces. All reported that there had been no such arrests or detention in that period.

Responses from Devon and Cornwall Constabulary, Humberside Police, Leicestershire Constabulary, Metropolitan Police Service, Northumbria Police, Staffordshire Police, Bedfordshire Police, Derbyshire Constabulary, Suffolk Constabulary, Cheshire Constabulary, City of London Police, Cleveland Police, Dorset Police, Hertfordshire Constabulary, Norfolk Constabulary, North Yorkshire Police, Northamptonshire Police, South Yorkshire Police, Warwickshire Police, Gwent Police, North Wales Police,  British Transport Police, Ministry of Defence Police and Port of Dover Police all stated this was not a crime they had seen.*

Press coverage says no. Nor have we been able to find any recent accounts of physical abuse in the name of conversion, undertaken in the UK, in the press.

International reports say no. There are no reports of abusive practices from the UK in the UN Independent Expert’s report. Research by the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) does not cite any cases in the UK.

Campaigners rely on old case studies. The website of the campaign to ban conversion therapy features one heart wrenching tale: “Carolyn’s story”, about aversion therapy “in a dark room and strapped to a wooden chair. Doctors gave me painful electric shocks while images of women were projected on the wall in the front of me.”

Another story that was reported in the media concerned “​​Chris” (not his real name). Chris spoke of similarly painful and distressing sessions.

But what happened to Carolyn and Chris took place 50 years ago.

What’s more, were the same attempted today, it would already be illegal. As the consultation document states: “no act of physical violence done in the name of conversion therapy is legal in this country”.

Bracketing therapy with torture serves to scare off discussion

The Government’s proposal includes making conversion an “aggravator” to existing crimes; offering an uplift on sentencing. However it is not clear why there is an urgent need to legislate to create a deterrent for a practice which appears to have long since died out.

The reason is one of salesmanship. The promoters of the ban have packaged torture together with talking therapy, and used condemnation of abhorrent gay conversion therapy to promote a much wider ban – that also takes in the treatment of children with gender dysphoria.

It is clever marketing. Everyone agrees that the kind of thing that Carolyn and Chris went through is barbaric and should be banned. Few will pay enough attention to notice it is already illegal.

In July 2020, in response to the petition to ban conversion therapy, the House of Commons petitions committee set up a survey to collect evidence about people’s experiences and tweeted “How does #conversiontherapy affect the #LGBT community? Should it be made illegal?”

It was an ordinary democratic act of collecting evidence and views  on a complex and little-understood topic. But it was met with a pile-on of outraged posts accusing the petitions committee of “encouraging debate about whether torturing LGBT+ children should be allowed”.

The committee retreated, issued a statement of apology and deleted the tweet, saying: “We apologise. Our intention was to provide a platform for people to share their opinion with the Petitions Committee, and inform its case to the Government. Clearly we misjudged this.”

A recent review of international published research, commissioned by the Government from Coventry University, confirmed there is no evidence on the prevalence or nature of conversion practices in the UK, and that there are no robust studies showing evidence of harm related to “gender identity conversion”.

The scare tactics aren’t working any more

In 2021, we’ve seen this manufactured offence-taking once too often.

With the Kathleen Stock affair shining a light on bullying in universities, the BBC standing up to Stonewall, and public bodies leaving its Diversity Champions programme, the environment feels different.

Organisations are starting to realise they can stand firm and do their jobs, even in the face of name-calling and hyperbolic accusations.  When we are warned off talking about something, we should pay particular attention to that something.

The thing we are being warned off talking about here is that, at the heart of the proposal to ban conversion therapy, is a plan to criminalise delivering talking therapies to under-18 year olds “with the intention of changing them from being transgender”.

This will mean that if children claim to be transgender, therapists who try to explore  possible alternative diagnoses or causes for their distress could be accused of attempting conversion and face criminal investigation.

Future young people such as Keira Bell – who at 15 was sure she was a boy, and was given puberty-blockers, testosterone and a double mastectomy before the age of 21 – will have even less chance of avoiding permanent damage to their bodies in the name of “affirmation” of their gender identities.

More gender non-conforming children will be rushed onto Lupron (previously given to sex offenders as chemical castration), and then onto cross-sex hormones (as given to Alan Turing as “treatment” for homosexuality). And parents, teachers, therapists, social workers who try to make space and time for them to grow up and accept their bodies will be threatened with prison and professional ruin.

The ban against the spectre of outdated “conversion therapy” threatens to advance a savage modern form of conversion by which unhappy children are told that they can literally change sex – with the result that they are medicalised, sterilised and left with impaired sexual function before they have a chance to find out whether they are gay.

It may be that the Government can legislate carefully and avoid this outcome. But that won’t happen if every time anyone so much as mentions complexity,  or asks for evidence of the hyperbolic claims made in support of the proposed ban, they are accused of defending torture.

*Freedom of Information Requests were submitted to 50 police forces in Febuary 2021 asking this question: Gay ‘conversion therapy’ is an attempt to use medical, psychological and social methods to ‘convert’ someone away from their innate sexual orientation against their will. This has included the use of barbaric aversive treatments like electroshocks or even ‘corrective’ rape. Please provide me with the number of people a) detained by your force and b) arrested in each of the calendar years from 2010 up to and including 2020 for using 1) electroshocks or corrective rape on a victim because they were/are gay. Twenty-four police forces provided information, all in the negative.

Emily Carver: If our choices are lawful, can we really trust the state to judge which ones will harm us?

19 May

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs. 

At some point in every child’s life comes the bleak realisation that their parents are not infallible. That they’re muddling through like everyone else, have bad habits and never get everything right, however hard they try. Perhaps they hold irrational prejudices or equivocate on who you should go out with, what you should eat, what subjects you should study.

And in as much as children think about government competence, they likely assume that policymakers know what’s best for them. That a benign state has their best interests at heart.

But at some point, it will dawn that policymakers are, in fact, humans. Flawed like the rest of us, and capable of making mistakes – some minor, some catastrophic, and some poorly-intentioned. An inability to accept or understand this fundamental truth was, in part, to blame for the failed socialist experiments throughout the twentieth century.

Yet as a nation we nonetheless collectively endorse the Government’s “we know best” attitude – be it with reference to our lifestyle choices, the economy, or ministers’ attempts to regulate our lives from what they deem to be ‘harmful’.

Granted, at times of national crisis, there is justification for government intervention in our lives that would be deemed excessive in normal times. While I would argue that very few of the restrictions that we’ve lived under over the past year or so are defensible (surely the state should never command the right to dictate who and when we can hug, for example), there is a broad consensus that protecting the public from a deadly virus justifies a level of government intervention we would usually reject.

However, even as the risk of the virus abates – with the Government on track to offer a first dose to all adults by the end of July, and the Indian variant showing no signs of being resistant to the vaccine – the rhetoric from ministers still implies that we all remain in peril.

We should be suspicious of this: fear is undoubtedly being mobilised to increase uptake in the vaccine, while ministers are reportedly considering local lockdowns once again to limit the spread of the variant. And it’s working; polling shows that only half of us will feel comfortable hugging despite the Government easing restrictions.

Just as we’ve seen ministers continue to call for the utmost caution as lockdown measures ease, it’s clear that this Government sees its purpose as protecting us from anything that could possibly cause us ‘harm’, with its increasingly paternalistic streak encroaching into nearly every area of our lives.

Take the Online Safety Bill which was published last week, and made a notable appearance in last week’s Queen’s Speech. The stated aim of the legislation is to “put an end to harmful practices” on the internet – a suspiciously large remit and one, which, as Victoria Hewson points out in a recent briefing paper for the Institute of Economic Affairs, will undoubtedly lead to a curtailment of free speech.

While it is glaringly obvious that the internet contains sordid material, from violent porn to Islamist and far-right extremist content, the Bill goes far beyond seeking to stamp out illegal content.  It will seek to extend a “duty of care” to social media firms, which, while it may sound to some like a positive step, includes a duty to remove “lawful but still harmful” content, which includes “misinformation” – a notoriously nebulous and undoubtedly subjective term.

So, when it comes to the internet, ministers believe that censoring is justified to prevent harm. However, the Government is clearly conflicted over the matter of free speech. On the one hand, we have the Education Secretary seeking to stamp out unlawful ‘silencing’ on university campuses through the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill; on the other, in seeking to ban the abhorrent practice of gay conversion therapy, it may well end up curtailing legitimate forms of therapy for those struggling with gender dysphoria.

Much like a parent intent on disciplining their naughty child, this Government’s preferred policy tool seems to be prohibition. It had been thought that the Government had decided against bringing in an ill-considered ban on so-called ‘junk food’ advertising on TV and online – but no, the proposed legislation reared its ugly head once again in the Queen’s Speech.

Not only is there no evidence to suggest this will have any impact on the nation’s collective waistline, but it is also fundamentally illiberal, severely curtailing businesses’ freedom to communicate with their customers and threatening broadcasters’ revenue.

The trend towards paternalism is concerning and, even more so, the level to which the public seem to be acquiescing with it. Even before Covid hit, the Government was encroaching in ever more areas of our life; the pandemic has only accelerated this trend.

Peter Lynas: The Government is digging itself deep into trouble over conversion therapy

17 May

Peter Lynas is the Director of the Evangelical Alliance.

The Government has got itself into a pickle on conversion therapy. It has promised to end it, pledging legislation in this year’s Queen’s speech, but also to protect those seeking spiritual support.   In reality, those two things are not mutually exclusive, but delivering both objectives will require a much more nuanced approach from the government than has been displayed to date.

Some of the practices carried out under conversion therapy have been abusive and wrong. The Church must also recognise its own failings in this area, and commit to doing better.

The challenge for the Government is that much of what it is committed to ending is already illegal. So it has committed to banning something it is reluctant to define, and ending something that is already unlawful. At the same time, Liz Truss, the Minister for Women and Equalities, has committed the government to protecting those seeking “spiritual support”.

Seizing on the Government’s dithering around definitions, the lobby group Ban Conversion Therapy has argued that “any form of counselling or persuading someone to change their sexual orientation or behaviour so as to conform with a heteronormative lifestyle or their gender identity should be illegal, no matter the reason, religious or otherwise – whatever the person’s age.”

This expansive definition risks criminalising not just counsellors and pastors, but anyone seeking to persuade another person to conform with a heteronormative lifestyle. It raises two significant questions – what is a heteronormative lifestyle and what is meant by persuasion?

The Cambridge dictionary defines heteronormativity as “suggesting or believing that only heterosexual relationships are right or normal, and that men and women have naturally different roles.” This puts orthodox Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality in the frame for being banned – especially as the definition above also makes particular mention of religious settings.

So imagine a youth leader giving a talk to a room full of young people and setting out a traditional Christian sex ethic – sex is best kept for marriage between one man and one woman. If someone is ‘persuaded’ to change their behaviour in response, an offence would have occurred.

The young person might not say anything, and the speaker wouldn’t necessarily know but nonetheless, a crime would have been committed. The Rev Ed Shaw, a gay celibate Christian, has written about the potentially bizarre implications that mean he couldn’t pray with, or pastor, someone like himself.

If a male friend of mine is having an affair and I ‘persuade’ him to end it, my actions might be an offence depending on who he was having an affair with. If it’s a man, it’s an offence because I was persuading him to return to his wife – ie conforming to a heteronormative lifestyle. If the affair is with a women, I might be in the clear – because his actions will have been heteronormative throughout.

The bullish statements from the Government about what it intends to do in this area, combined with its failure to define conversion therapy, has already created a climate of the fear. Everyday practices such as prayer ministry and pastoral support have been put in jeopardy.

The irony is that to turn this into policy, the Government risks discriminating against gay people. To persuade or counsel a straight person to live a celibate life is fine. To do the same with a gay person is likely an offence, because they have suppressed their sexuality. Why can a straight person make that choice and a gay person cannot? Treating people differently based on their sexual orientation is discrimination.

The definition from Ban Conversion Therapy also mentions gender identity. Gender is a complex, psycho-social construction built on sexual biology. For most, our gender conforms to our sex. Some wish to adopt a different gender for a variety of reasons. I may well disagree with their choice, but in a free and tolerant society they should be able to do so.

LGBT and women’s organisations have raised concerns that the current push to ban conversion therapy is being used as political cover to promote an affirmation-only approach to gender identity – something they oppose. The differing views on this aspect of conversion therapy provide a further challenge for the Government.

Conversion therapy is a challenging and emotive topic to discuss because some have experienced significant harm in its name. However, the lack of definition makes meaningful engagement very difficult, threatening to shut down free speech and failing to help the very people it claims to serve.

Confusion also arises because the word conversion is at the heart of the Christian faith. In the death and resurrection of Jesus is the power to change our lives, our attitudes, our hearts and our sexual desires. To think otherwise is to empty the cross of its power.

Those calling for a ban, and those in Government drafting policy on this issue, must articulate exactly what they want to stop, end or ban. If it’s the horrific and coerced treatment of people forced to try and change their sexual attraction, then I for one am with them. If it’s about stopping people choosing how they express their sexuality, and attempting to redefine or limit the faith of others then they should be resisted.

The Government has made two commitments – to end horrific practices linked to conversion therapy and to protect those seeking spiritual support. Its challenge is to find a way to honour both.