Have the UK Government Banned Conversion Therapy?
Updated: May 10
Although government officials have promised to outlaw conversion therapy, the harmful practice remains legal and negatively impacts thousands of LGBTQ+ people.
Conversion therapy, or the belief that one’s sexual orientation and gender identity can be altered through the use of invasive, psychological methods, has been banned in several countries because of its unfounded basis and detrimental effects on the LGBTQ+ community.
This article will explore the UK’s stance on conversion therapy, recent attempts to criminalise the practice, and why there has been so much scrutiny over the government’s proposals.
What is Conversion Therapy?
Conversion therapy, or reparative therapy, is a series of psychological mechanisms that aim to change or convert an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The practice dates back to the 1800s when psychiatrists claimed to be able to ‘cure’ sexual impulses in gay men.
The practice grew in popularity, especially as social stigmas, stereotypes, and religious beliefs viewed homosexuality as an illness or disease to be remedied.
Early practices of conversion therapy consisted of torturous treatment, including injecting gay men with drugs and sleep deprivation, hoping that the individual would seek comfort in women.
Although these cruel practices have since been criminalised, modern conversion therapy tactics remain detrimental and damaging to the individuals on which they’re imposed. For example, some present-day methods include monitoring an individual’s speech and behaviour or attending religious meetings that condemn the individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
The History of Conversion Therapy in the UK
Conversion therapy has been legal in the UK for decades, with some documented cases dating back to the 1950s. Before criminalising these practices, previous treatment methods carried out in NHS hospitals included shock therapy, psychoanalysis, and administering apomorphine to patients to induce nausea. These physical tactics have since been outlawed, but many mental practices still remain legal and present across the UK.
The government has failed to define what methods of therapy constitute ‘conversion therapy,’ meaning it’s difficult to understand how many people have been affected and what practices are legally considered cruel or inhumane.
However, UK charity Stonewall estimates that approximately 25% of LGBTQ+ individuals are forced to undergo psychotherapy treatments that attempt to suppress their sexual orientation, and one in five trans people have been referred to services aimed at suppressing their gender identity, particularly when accessing healthcare and related services.
And in the government’s 2018 National LGBT Survey, an estimated 5% of respondents confirmed being offered conversion therapy to suppress their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Of the survey’s respondents, about 30% said religious leaders and institutions were offering such services.
The UK Governments Previous Approach to Introducing the Ban
It wasn’t until reviewing the 2018 survey’s results that, in the same year, former Prime Minister Theresa May had promised to eradicate the practice. More recently, in 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson followed up with similar promises ensuring that legislation outlawing conversion therapy would be introduced.
In May 2021, the government set out plans to criminalise conversion therapy practices, calling them “abhorrent practices.”
In December 2021, Lizz Truss, the Secretary for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs and Minister for Women and Equalities opened consultations encouraging responses from public groups. The government’s findings and those from public groups were intended to help shape the policy proposals initially set out.
Some of the proposals included offering more support to victims of conversion therapy, restricting the promotion of conversion therapy tactics, and criminalising physical acts carried out in the name of conversion therapy.
The proposals had also been intended to “apply to everyone equally.”
What Has Happened Regarding the Ban in 2022?
Plans for a ban on conversion therapy continued into 2022 after consultations closed in February. However, in March 2022, leaked documents indicated that the Prime Minister was withdrawing those plans to criminalise conversion therapy due to the ongoing backlash of the proposed legislation.
After more backlash ensued, primarily from rights groups and MPs, the government quickly reversed its decision and indicated that it would continue with a ban after all. But the new plans, as the government stated, would come with a caveat – the ban would not cover trans people.
The government argued that the reasoning behind excluding trans people from the ban was that issues regarding trans people needed to be approached more sensitively.
What Has Been the Response to the Government’s Proposals?
The public response to the government’s proposals has been mixed, with some LGBTQ+ groups initially welcoming the ban. However, many later opposed the ban once the government announced that it would not include protections for trans people. Representatives from Trans Media Watch acknowledged that the ban was disappointing since it failed to offer support and protection to trans people.
Representatives from The Rainbow Project also said the ban wasn’t an absolute ban if it didn’t outlaw the practices carried out on trans people.
Since the government’s U-turn on the ban, more than 100 organisations have quit the UK’s LGBT+ conference, stating that without complete protection for all LGBTQ+ people, the government is infringing on trans rights.
The Welsh government also called the caveat ‘unacceptable’ and intended to challenge the ban to include protections for trans people.
Many religious groups, such as those represented by the Evangelical Alliance, believe that the ban imposes restrictions on their religious freedoms. Representatives from The Christian Institute also expressed their disappointment that the government would not drop the ban entirely, also stating that it was a way of “punishing evangelicals for their beliefs about sexuality.”
At the same time, other religious institutions, such as the Church of England, have taken a stance and opposed conversion therapy practices.
Other organisations, including the NHS England and the British Medical Association, have banded together to sign a Memorandum of Understanding Coalition Against Conversion Therapy to publicly condone the government’s failure to include trans people in the ban.
What Happens Next?
Since numerous LGBTQ+ groups have pulled out of the LGBTQ+ conference, the UK government decided to cancel the event.
Some groups continue to advocate for the ban to include trans people, while medical groups have also volunteered to work alongside the government and find a way to include trans people in the ban.
Ultimately, until the ban on conversion therapy can offer protection to all LGBTQ+ people, trans people will continue to fall victim to inhumane psychotherapy practices.
Edited by Christophe Locatelli