So called ‘gay conversion therapy’ has been much in the news of late. There has been a campaign to legislate a ban for which the current UK government has made supporting noises, increasing attention paid to the activity in the press, and even a Netflix documentary called Pray Away which examines the American ‘ex-gay’ movement.
It can be quite shocking to people who have become acclimatised to a world in which LGB people are visible, vocal, ordinary members of society, to realise that there is still a group of people who firmly believe that not only can homosexuality be changed into heterosexuality, it should be.
In the UK, this is probably more of a surprise as we don’t have the over-arching influence of religion in the same way that the US does. It’s not common here for people to attend church on Sunday as a matter of course, and despite having bishops in the House of Lords, the political and cultural influence of the established Church of England is of a very different character to the muscular Christian denominations of the US.
This is relevant because ‘gay conversion therapy’ as it currently exists is very much a religious phenomenon. Being homosexual was declassified as a mental illness by the World Health Organisation in 1992, and in the UK specifically, secular therapy services have all been signed up to the Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy, which acknowledged that it is unethical, potentially harmful and ineffective, since 2015.
So, in the UK, no secular therapists will be leading lesbians and gay men through counselling or physical therapies like electro-shock treatments to alter or suppress their sexual orientation. This is an excellent thing, of course, and a big part of the social and legal change that has seen equal rights won for lesbians and gay men.
So, what precisely is the campaign demanding a ban on conversion therapy in the UK about? We don’t have conversion therapy youth camps here of the kind which seem to be a feature in the US.
In part, it seems to be the sort of experiences I endured, which range from ‘deliverance sessions’, which in common parlance are ‘exorcisms’, to religious counselling with a very thin veneer of psychological respectability. These practices are either overtly religious in nature, or they are a hybrid of theological ideas and pop psychology.
So, what precisely is the campaign demanding a ban on conversion therapy in the UK about? In part, it seems to be the sort of experiences I endured, which range from ‘deliverance sessions’, which in common parlance are ‘exorcisms’, to religious counselling with a very thin veneer of psychological respectability.
The website for the main campaign against them wants a ban on conversion therapy in ‘all its forms’. The definition given on banconversiontherapy.com is ‘medical, psychiatric, psychological, religious, cultural or any other interventions that seek to erase, repress or change the sexual orientation and/or gender identity of a person’.
The call is for a ban wherever it occurs, whoever it is targeted at, and from the moment it is spotted. The actual specific details of such wide-ranging legislation remain completely opaque, and as I’ve mentioned, the practice is already shunned by all reputable secular medical, psychiatric, and psychological counselling services. Which means that the only reasonable target for such legislation is those who engage in such practices from a religious or cultural perspective.
The website also seeks to distinguish between coercion and consent while still requiring a ban whatever the motivation. This aspect intrigues me, as I don’t think I have spoken to anyone damaged by conversion therapy who did not experience some form of coercion, but this is where the waters begin to get murkier.
If you speak to those still committed to the ‘ex-gay’ movement, many will tell you they have freely chosen to embrace methods to change or suppress their orientation. I would have told you the same myself for several years. What that statement would have obscured was the pressure of being the daughter of a homophobic mother who was violent towards me, a teenager where Section 28 was still the law of the land, and an involvement and belief in the Christian religion that, in the main, still holds that being LGB is at best disordered, and at worst, a damning sin.
In that kind of environment, ‘freely consenting’ to try and repress and change a homosexual orientation looks almost identical to coercion. Of course, I can move past an abusive parent, Section 28 no longer exists and being openly LGB doesn’t carry the same stigma as it did a few decades ago. But being a religious believer, and specifically a Christian, will still require someone to face up to doctrines that condemn homosexuality. Some decide that they can reject the traditional doctrines and adopt a more liberal approach. Others feel that’s not possible. Some who feel that way, like me, walk away from faith entirely because of that. But for those who stay, reconciling their faith and their sexual orientation is a difficult path.
This is the ground from which the practices often termed ‘conversion therapy’ spring. It can escalate into what’s termed ‘deliverance’, whereby a complicated jumble of theology feeds into practices in which someone is subjected to long, intensive prayer vigils that look very obviously religious, and involve much talk of demons and the ‘prophetic’. My experience of this was in an extreme Evangelical Christian cult, now defunct.
However, most lesbians and gay men’s experience within Christianity will be with a more insidious version that looks a little less dramatic; a version of talking therapy perhaps combined with gentle prayer. It will mix in cod psychology that sounds reasonable because it’s talking about parental relationships, sexual experiences and so forth. Because the person will be in an environment where they believe their social network and very possibly their eternal soul is at stake, they will be strongly motivated to submit themselves to these, often incoherent, theories about the genesis of their sexual orientation, in the hopes of controlling or changing it.
For me, a single session of this kind of therapy occurred a few years after the more extreme version which had ended in sexual assault. It looked much less intimidating, but one session was all it took for me to see the same motivators. In that sense, I was lucky. Some people endure weeks and months of this kind of thing, pulling apart their relationships with their parents, siblings, and lovers to discern the root of their ‘disorder’. Because it operates under the auspices of religion, the secular agreements against conversion therapy are absent.
To adequately legislate against these practices would need a tremendously carefully written law, one which managed to cover all-night deliverance sessions and the crop of quack counselling services which offer talking therapies rather sneakier about digging into what made you gay for ‘self-reflection’. It can be done, I think, but there is an elephant in the room that means any legislation that does come to parliament will be fatally flawed and worse than useless.
Looking again at the definition of conversion therapy mentioned earlier highlights the problem. ‘Conversion therapy is medical, psychiatric, psychological, religious, cultural or any other interventions that seek to erase, repress or change the sexual orientation and/or gender identity of a person’.
More than one high profile family with a trans child, much vaunted by the press and the liberal church, were horrified by a feminine and possibly gay boy, but suddenly had an epiphany of acceptance when the boy turned out to be a girl after all.
I have watched groups of progressive Christians claim to be against gay conversion therapy, while they celebrated parents who have tried to enact forms of it on their gender non-conforming children out of fear those children might embarrass them or be gay. More than one high profile family with a trans child, much vaunted by the press and the liberal church, were horrified by a feminine and possibly gay boy, but suddenly had an epiphany of acceptance when the boy turned out to be a girl after all.
I have listened to heterosexual young females, involved in the progressive parts of the church in the UK, identifying as ‘gay trans men’, complaining of the ‘conversion therapy’ of those trying to convince them they were simply gender non-conforming women, and saying that gay men would refuse to consider them as partners and needed to think again. When I challenged these transmen that their attitudes towards gay men were identical to the conversion therapy methods that led me into deep self-hatred, it was clear they hadn’t the slightest clue about the dynamics of actual conversion therapy.
Visit any Christian group that claims to be progressive, and you will see voices speaking out against conversion therapy, but anyone who points out the overt homophobia in either the trans-affirming parents or the trans-identifying straight men and women claiming to be homosexual, or perhaps LGB and pretending they are now heterosexual, will be shut down quicker than you can say ‘heretic’.
When these groups refer to horrendous examples of actual conversion therapy practices, they will use experiences like mine. But it’s clear their target with legislation is the psychological and psychiatric practices of caution and investigation when someone claims, for whatever reason, to be something other than their physical sex. Again, read any account of an affirming family and most of what is described as a problem is the child enjoying things culturally designated for the opposite sex, and the initial attempts to discourage these inclinations. This is what is in view when they talk about ‘gender identity conversion therapy’. But not conforming to gender, whether in preferences, behaviour or ambitions, isn’t a problem and shouldn’t be approached as though it is.
Disassociation and distress about one’s body can be a warning sign of many things other than gender dysphoria, including hidden abuse, and it should be best practice to fully investigate all possibilities before experimental, irreversible medical intervention. Many of those young people who are gender non-conforming and express mental distress in any of these ways will eventually be well-adjusted lesbian and gay adults, especially once puberty has passed.
It surely cannot fail to be obvious, therefore, that a legislative ban on both ‘gay conversion therapy’ and ‘gender identity conversion therapy’, as defined by these groups, would not end gay conversion therapy, as they would effectively cancel each other out, and in fact permit a sanitised form of gay conversion therapy via gender identity clinics. Former clinicians at the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) Tavistock Clinic spoke of transitioning children with parents clearly motivated by homophobia.
In the established UK denomination, open lesbians and gay men still cannot marry but it’s completely possible to do so if one partner gets a gender recognition certificate and becomes legally the opposite sex. The conclusion that being trans is more acceptable in the officialdom of church than being LGB is obvious.
Given what I have seen of the church over the years, I cannot help but wonder if the motivation for many of these trans-affirming progressive religious groups is simply to get one over on their more traditional religious rivals. Scroll through comment threads on various online progressive Christian websites and groups and you’ll see a mirror of the comments you’ll see on conservative Christian websites. While there are undoubtedly well-meaning people in both wings of Christianity, there’s nothing that seems to motivate a group quite so much as the chance to say how very awful the opposing group is.
A blurry, indistinct legislative proposal that essentially banned conservative religious beliefs about sexuality while simultaneously banning cautious, thorough psychological care for distressed and possibly LGB people, would provide progressive Christians with a useful stick for them to beat their co-religionists, but it would do nothing to end the homophobia which breeds the desire for conversion therapy in the church. In the established UK denomination, for example, open lesbians and gay men still cannot marry but it’s completely possible to do so if one partner gets a gender recognition certificate and becomes legally the opposite sex. The conclusion that being trans is more acceptable in the officialdom of church than being LGB is obvious.
In my opinion, many progressive Christians campaigning to end conversion therapy while at the same time endorsing the unquestioning affirmation model for people exploring their gender, particularly given the overt homophobia I have seen from them, are using what should be a carefully considered campaign of targeted legislation and persuasion, as a bully pulpit to gain power over traditional Christians.
I am unwilling to let religious believers use the abuses the church enacted on me, via conversion therapy, as part of some inter-religious argument and in the process further entrench the sexist and homophobic attitudes which led to those practices in the first place.
I believe we should ban gay conversion therapy, and my own feeling is that requiring those who offer any sort of ongoing talking therapy, even in a religious context, to abide by guidelines over presenting homosexuality as a problem, would specifically address most of the manifestations of the current practice in the UK. It would be interesting to hear what other specific proposals might be workable. Emotive, indistinct slogans and religious jostling for prominence will not do. Lesbians, gay men and bisexual people have been harmed by the church long enough.
Kay Knight is a British writer and podcaster. She has a particular focus on women’s stories, and an enduring fondness for Doctor Who, despite everything.