- Conversion therapy is known to be harmful, yet making it illegal has been slow.
- The Memorandum of Understanding is an important document seeking to protect LGBTQ+ individuals.
- Therapists need better training in gender, sex, and relationship diversity.
Conversion therapy, also known as ‘reparative therapy’ or the ‘gay cure,’ is an extremely harmful practice which assumes that cisgender heterosexuality is the only ‘natural’ way to be, and that being gay, bisexual, or trans is a disorder. People who believe in ‘conversion therapy’ are usually highly religious and promote it as a path to ‘freedom’ so that people can turn heterosexual, marry, and have children as God presumably intended. The practice of ‘conversion therapy’ varies from violent ‘exorcism’ and sexual or erotic aversion therapy to more subtle and insidious techniques that sound like legitimate therapy but instead represent pseudo-science.
I am an experienced psychosexual and relationship psychotherapist ,and a trauma psychotherapist, visible on social media for embracing gender, sex, and relationship diversities. I was shocked to discover that my combination of specialisations attracted numerous survivors of conversion therapy. I realised with horror that the practice was thriving in the UK, harming the Queer population every day.
The body of scientific research unanimously finds that conversion therapy does not work and that it can cause great psychological harm, including depression, self-harm, eating disorders, self-hatred, hatred of one's sexuality, suicidal thoughts, and suicide. All the major psychology and psychotherapy regulating bodies in the UK have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU2) agreeing that conversion therapy is an unethical practice and that clinicians should neither promote nor offer it. However, unfortunately, it is not yet illegal in the UK.
In 2018, the UK Government made a promise to make the practice illegal, but action to make it so stalled. There are discussions to add a ‘religious loophole’ to the law, which would render any efforts to make it illegal useless, given that conversion therapy is mostly practiced within religious settings or by therapists of high religiosity. Once again, we notice how Queer people are perceived as second-class citizens and how the status quo of religion is preserved. The science is here, and the data is undeniable. What more does the Government need? With every passing day, therapists practicing conversion therapy are legally harming people in LGBTQ+ communities, and every day is another when a young vulnerable Queer person may take their own life as a result of the practice.
Recently, conversion therapy, a topic that usually stays in the shadows, was finally discussed more openly thanks to the Netflix documentary Pray Away and the phenomenal podcast by The Times, Thinking Straight, led by journalist Emily Sargent. Whilst Pray Away is based in the U.S., Thinking Straight is focused on UK practice. The podcast highlights an unsettling dark truth: Conversion therapy has continued to thrive during COVID-19 lockdowns. Many young Queer people had to leave the cities where they had a LGBTQ+ community to return to the homes of parents who were not always queer-friendly. Faced with constant misunderstanding and rejection, and struggling to conform to the strict heteronormativity to which society subscribes, it is easy to feel that life would be easier if they were heterosexual. In lockdown, most of us had to limit our life to online connections, but the online world was also where conversion therapy organisations spread their invisible web, exploiting the vulnerability of Queer people’s struggles.
The practice has become stealthier, using pseudo-science to prey on Queer individuals who struggle with their sexuality and gender identity, and weaponising the language of therapy to make it sound legitimate. Sargent went undercover and produced recordings of real conversion therapy sessions. If you don’t have an ear for pseudoscience, it would be difficult to notice any harm done at first. In the podcast recordings, the conversion therapist was extremely skilled at making the client feel comfortable, appearing to offer empathy and a sense of a safe space. Conversion therapy is a boiling frog.
Obviously violent versions of conversion therapy, such as exorcism, being beaten with a Bible, or sexual and erotic aversion therapy (making people sick each time they have same-sex thoughts, fantasies, or urges) may still happen behind closed doors, but subtle, gentle, therapy-like methods are more prevalent and much harder to detect. The conversion therapist will seem empathic, curious, and appear to genuinely want to help, but their line of subtle enquiries has little to do with a curious or affirmative therapeutic exploration. Instead, they are designed to find problems and pathology that are simply not there, to confirm their own assumptions that being gay is a disorder created in childhood trauma. They will coerce clients into believing that their cold mother, distant father, bike accident, parents’ divorce, sexual abuse—you name it, pretty much anything they can find in a client’s past—is the cause of their same-sex attraction or gender identity issues. When clients open up such emotional parts of themselves, they become highly vulnerable and suggestible. The conversion therapist heartlessly exploits those vulnerabilities to indoctrinate clients in the idea that they are broken or damaged, or that their same-sex attraction or non-binary gender identity is a disease. The Memorandum of Understanding explicitly includes the protection of trans and non-binary people, too, as these communities are also vulnerable to conversion therapists.
As the UK Government slowly prepares to discuss the passing of the ban into law, there is still much resistance from groups that think a ban will stop therapists from helping clients who question their sexuality and gender identity because, for some reason, they confuse exploration with manipulation. Affirmative exploration has always been part of the most fundamental principles of counselling and psychotherapy. The exploration of clients’ current thoughts and feelings about their own experiential processes, with the goal of helping help them make sense and meaning of their experiences, non-judgmentally, is an important part of therapy. Enquiring about clients’ past with the intention to make strenuous links with trauma for the purpose of illustrating why their sexuality or gender identity is wrong, is not exploration at all; it is manipulation and coercion, and it is harmful.
I know I am amongst a majority of therapists who will want a total ban of conversion therapy without any loopholes, but I am also saddened by the length of time it is taking to protect LGBTQ+ communities, and horrified to hear of the number of people who argue against the Memorandum of Understanding. Sadly, it is reflective of the intrinsic homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia of society, as well as the uncomfortable reality that counsellors and psychotherapists are not adequately trained in gender, sex, and relationship diversities (GSRD). The fight for the rights of LGBTQ+ people goes on.