What is conversion therapy?

The government consultation does not say. They propose criminal sanctions, so must provide a definition at some point. If you might be liable to prosecution you should know what you are told to avoid. But it only gives hints:

Liz Truss in her foreword refers to “the coercive and abhorrent practice of conversion therapy”, which reminds me of old Scots statutes. They would inveigh against “the grueous and abhominabill cryme of Tressoun” rather than do anything to prevent it. “Coercive and abhorrent” appears three times in the introduction. Later, conversion practices are called “sinister”. As I am left-handed, I hate that word.

You might think you know what it is. I imagine a person sitting in a room with a counsellor, or a person with religious authority, who lectures them on how bad LGBT is, or hears them talk about their life, approving when they condemn their thoughts and impulses, and condemning when they say they are not that bad. You might also think of a group session, where “detransitioners” or “ex-gays” together talk about their lives.

The treatment I had was strictly aversion therapy, an attempt to change my behaviour, rather than an attempt to change my nature, but this distinction is not mentioned.

The document refers to “physical acts conducted in the name of conversion therapy” and I imagine religious healing or exorcism rituals. There is nothing more harmful to an LGBT+ child than growing up in a “traditional” religious group where gender roles are enforced and gay sex condemned. Arguably, a sermon condemning homosexuality should count as “conversion practices”.

But the consultation explicitly rules that out: they say, para 25, that religious practice will not be affected, that someone can seek support to be celibate (even if their reason for celibacy is self-hatred), parents can inculcate homophobic and transphobic “values of their faith” in their children, and a hellfire sermon- “simply expressing the teachings of a religion”- will not be affected. They say, para 25, that they will respect human rights, specifically “Freedom of thought, belief and religion”. There is no mention of oppressive religious practices.

Another vast loophole is in para 22: some people want to “live a life in line with their personal beliefs”. That is what I wanted, when I sought aversion therapy, or a “healing prayer” from my clergyman. He should not have acceded to my wishes. That feeling came from the self-hatred which I developed through my upbringing.

Para 36-7 say that a therapist might legitimately help someone questioning whether they were LGBT, but legitimate therapy does not start from the position that being LGBT is “a defect or deficiency”. This helps refute the idea that anyone would be converted from cis to trans- nobody believes being cis is a defect or deficiency, only that trans people are harmed if we pretend to be cis for any reason.

In the section “Prevalence and nature of conversion therapy,” paras 10-17, the document describes in detail various difficulties in creating statistics, but provides no definition. It provides one example in para 14: “talking conversion therapies delivered by faith groups or mental health professionals”. But the mention of faith groups is contradicted elsewhere.

I find the document extremely threatening. Liz Truss says she proposes civil powers to “remove profit streams” from conversion organisations. She says the proposals are “universal”- she intends to protect against an attempt to change someone “from not being transgender to being transgender”.

This terrifies me. No-one attempts to make cis people trans. The idea is ridiculous. It would mean imposing suffering for no gain at all. But trans support groups could be inhibited from supporting people like I was before transition. In my teens I read an article about a trans woman, and wrote to her. She wrote an encouraging letter back. I then wrote to her again calling her a pervert. I was chaotic and self-hating. I needed support groups which could accept me being trans, because I could not accept it myself.

But supporting someone like me in that situation would carry a risk. What if I decided I could not be trans, and condemned them as attempting to convert me? It happens. Sam Kane has oscillated, M-F-M-F, and now presents as a feminine male in their practice as a barrister. When they first reverted they complained loudly about anyone who had helped their transition.

Before transition, such self-hatred, attempts to change oneself, and pledges to stop are common. Trans women know of “purging”, getting rid of all their women’s clothes. I did this repeatedly. Many people do.

Because of the idea that conversion from cis to trans should be subject to civil penalties and defunded, I fear that providing hormones or surgery might be seen as “physical acts” of conversion therapy.

Given that conversion from straight to gay is also proposed to be criminalised, I wonder if a gay person making a pass at a straight person could be criminalised as an attempt at conversion. There is a line, now, between coming on to someone and a criminal sexual assault. Would that be complicated by conversion law?

Exclusions

The document says (para 34) “To be clear: talking conversion therapy could not be reasonably understood to include communication such as casual conversations, exchanges of views, private prayer or pure speech acts.” But, as part of an ongoing attempt by a religious authority to discourage gay sex or gender nonconformity, such conversations and even casual remarks can be deeply damaging. The priest has authority. The LGBT person is subjected to that authority by long conditioning and by internalised homophobia or transphobia. When someone has a position of authority, they should be especially careful not to damage their flock. John 10:13: “A hired hand does not care for the sheep.”

Research papers

Then I look to the three research papers published by the Government Equalities Office at the same time as the consultation. Do they help with a definition?

Conversion Therapy: an evidence assessment and qualitative study has a section, “What forms does conversion therapy take?” It says conversion therapy is typically undertaken within religious groups, though rarely sexual orientation or gender identity might be misinterpreted as symptoms of a mental disorder. But the consultation rules out banning religious conversion.

The study says parents and community members may attempt to convert a gay person to straight. I am divided on this. I know that a parent who will not accept their child is LGBT+ does them grievous harm. But often they will not know better, or want the best for their child as they best see it. However bad your coming out experience, you might not want your parents criminalised. But a child cannot get to the gender clinic without parental support- might a detransition group see that support as criminal?

The prevalence of conversion therapy in the UK quotes in its executive summary an older definition from the Government Equalities Office:

techniques intended to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. These techniques can take many forms and commonly range from pseudo-psychological treatments to spiritual counselling.

That’s pretty vague, but group work might be included. Again, support groups for trans people are under threat.

Finally, An assessment of the evidence on conversion therapy for sexual orientation and gender identity. It gives examples rather than a single definition. These include “talking therapies delivered by faith groups or mental health professionals”. But any conversion attempt by a mental health professional would already be unethical and subject to sanction by a professional body, even being struck off.

From the consultation document and studies, I fear trans support groups could be retrospectively criminalised for conversion of a cis person to trans, if someone detransitioned. This could make them fearful of accepting a self-hating trans woman like I was. Even if no criminal or civil sanction was applied, the law proposed could have a substantial chilling effect on treatment, counselling or support designed to help people transition.

As the Court of Appeal decided, children under 18 can consent to puberty blockers. But Liz Truss ignores this: at paragraph 5 she refers to people over 18 consenting, but the consent of those under 18 is irrelevant. At para 20 the civil servants echo this: talking conversion therapy against under 18s would be illegal even with consent. No professional tries to make someone trans. All of them will explore a client’s gender identity with at least an open mind. Perhaps there is a slight bias to find the client cis: trans people complain of gatekeeping. But professionals could be afraid to treat children, out of fear they were accused of “converting” a cis child.

11 thoughts on “What is conversion therapy?

  1. I want to say “thank you” but that hardly seems enough for the emotional labour you’ve gone to in sifting through the documentation. Of most concern to me is this notion that cis people can be converted to being trans people. It seems nonsense. But, of course, that’s the point; it is nonsense and only strengthens the hands of those that harbour disgust for any notion of challenge to a binary orthodoxy that is unchanging and unchangeable. Equally, as you identify, the chilling effect will be far more felt on one side than the other. That side being the support for trans people.

    Again, you’ve done an incredible amount of heavy emotional lifting here, and I appreciate what you have taken on yourself so that others, like me, can read your words and know.

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    • I want people to see what a big deal this is. I want them to see that, under the pretence of addressing conversion therapy, the British government has launched an attack on trans people. Johnson is not Orban, but is moving there as fast as he can.

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  2. “…for conversion of a cis person to trans, if someone detransitioned…”

    So if, hypothetically, an individual did detransition and felt they’d been converted, how long before a support organisation can reverse or overturn any complaint, when someone comes back to transition? This does not feel like reality to me.

    Being involved in a support group and also transgender awareness/Q&A workshops for organisations, the group doesn’t recruit. We don’t stand outside the school gates, on campuses, in the street, or outside parliament leafletting folk to bring them across. People find us and they want help & support in accepting who they are, wherever they may fall under the transgender umbrella.

    I’m struggling to think how you’d lure someone in and convince them to transition without triggering a person’s alarm bells of being scammed or tricked. But maybe I’m not part of the ‘trans mafia’ I hear about in the press 😉

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  3. Our conversion therapy legislation is further along than the UK’s I believe. It’s had its first reading and is currently before the Justice Select Committee. Submissions are now closed, but as there were 41, 907 public submissions, it’s going to take some time before the committee reports back to the house – due 5 Feb 2022.

    Clause 5 of the bill defines conversion practice as any practice that:
    – is directed towards an individual because of the individual’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression; and
    – is performed with the intention of changing or suppressing the individual’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.

    Conversion practice does not include:
    – a health service provided by a health practitioner in accordance with the practitioner’s scope of practice
    – assisting an individual who is undergoing, or considering undergoing, a gender transition
    – assisting an individual to express their gender identity
    – providing acceptance, support, or understanding of an individual
    – facilitating an individual’s coping skills, development, or identity exploration, or facilitating social support for the individual
    – the expression only of a religious principle or belief made to an individual that is not intended to change or suppress the individual’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.

    It would seem at first glance that many of your objections to the proposed UK bill have been taken into consideration in the NZ bill. More info can be found at the Parliament website: https://www.parliament.nz/en/pb/bills-and-laws/bills-proposed-laws/document/BILL_113397/conversion-practices-prohibition-legislation-bill. You can find find PDF versions of all 49107 submission there as well.

    I’m hoping that when the bill returns to the house, there’ll also be provision for banning ABA “therapy” for neurodivergent people as well. Many other conversion “therapies” are modelled on those for “treating” autistic people.

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