‘Pain Went Through My Whole Body’: Electroshock Conversion Therapy Victim Speaks Out

As the UK considers banning all forms of conversion therapy, VICE World News speaks to one trans woman who was repeatedly shocked with electrodes to "cure" her.
uk-trans-woman-electro-shock-conversion-therapy
PHOTO: Carolyn Mercer.

Carolyn Mercer was 17 when she was subjected to barbaric conversion practises. Mercer, a headteacher who was publicly outed as trans in the 90s, was given electroshock therapy in her youth to “cure” her from being trans. This left her with years of mental and physical problems – some that still affect her today

What Mercer, now 74, went through is now illegal, but conversion therapy in the form of talking or praying is still not outlawed in the UK, even against children. In 2018, Theresa May’s government committed to banning conversion therapy – a type of pseudoscientific treatment intended to stigmatise LGBTQ people and force them to “convert” to being heterosexual or cisgender. Three years later, the government has still failed to ban what they call an “abhorrent” practice. A consultation on how best to implement the law closes on Friday.

Advertisement

According to a Stonewall report, five percent of LGBT people have been pressured to access services to question or change their sexual orientation, which an even higher percentage, one in five transgender people, have been pressured into accessing some sort of therapy to stop being trans. Despite the government pledge, organisations such as Stonewall fear that there could be a loophole in the proposed law that could undermine it – that if consent is given, it is legal. Some also fear trans identities may be excluded from the legislation, after a statement widely condemned by LGBTQ organisations from the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Sasha Misra, associate director of communications and campaigns at Stonewall told VICE World News: “Conversion therapy is a repulsive practice which devastates lives. We need urgently need comprehensive legislation. Any bill must outlaw all forms of conversion therapies in every setting without loopholes which permit LGBTQIA+ people to consent to conversion therapy because no one can consent to abuse.”

Under the new proposals, conversion therapy would be banned for under 18s but a bill proposed by the government would allow adults to consent to “counselling,” if it helped “them live a life that they feel is more in line with their personal beliefs.” This means conversion practices would merely be restricted rather than banned.

Advertisement

As the consultations comes to a close, we spoke to Mercer about her experience. 

VICE World News: Hi Carolyn. What was your experience of conversion therapy?
Carolyn Mercer:
I'd been struggling [with my identity] from the age of three or four, which sounds odd but I remember it so clearly. In school, I couldn't concentrate properly. I left school at 16 at the earliest opportunity. When I was 17/18 I went to a technical college, and I couldn't face going to college that day. And as luck would have it, or otherwise, my vicar came round because I ran a church youth club. I just broke down completely and started talking with him. Obviously, I wanted to be “cured” because society hated people like me, not that you saw anything about trans in the media at the time. He had someone who worked with him previously – a psychiatrist in a mental hospital. He said he could arrange for him to see me. I agreed to that.

What was the “treatment” you were given?
He referred me to an NHS hospital in Blackburn. I was taken into a dark, windowless room, strapped to a wooden chair with my arm in leather straps and had electrodes placed on my arm. And then from behind me, an epidiascope projected pictures of women onto the wall in front of me. There was a picture, then another picture, and then another picture and then they threw the switch which electrocuted me. The pain went through my whole body. My hands wanted to shoot up in the air, but my arm couldn't because it was strapped to the chair. The theory was that by making me associate what I felt myself to be or wanting to be with pain would make me not want to be who I wanted to be or for myself to be.

Advertisement

What kind of effect did that have on your mental and physical well-being?
For the next 40 years, whenever I thought about it, I shivered, physically shivered whatever I was doing. Now, I don't shiver. But the damage that that did was to reinforce self-hatred because I thought I deserved that treatment. Yes, I agreed to it, I knew what was happening, and I thought stupidly that it would cure me. You can't be cured – there's nothing to be cured. You can change behaviours with aversion and conversion practises, but you can't cure anything. 

What I went through and that societal rejection, and that self-hatred led me to attempt suicide. What a waste that would have been. Later in life, I was bulimic and I still struggle with that. At the time, I needed neutral therapy or affirmative therapy, what I got was the opposite.

Eventually, in 2002, I decided that I would align my character presentation with my gender identity [transition] and I stopped physically shaking. But the other thing that it did in terms of self-hatred, is that it took away from me any positive emotions because I had to focus on blocking out the feelings that were natural to me.

It sounds silly, but if I went to a restaurant I would just choose anything on the menu, because I felt no positive emotions. I'm still working on it 20 years on, but I can feel some positive emotion now. So that's what he did to me. When people are talking about the effects – this is lifelong.

Why is it so important that conversion practices are banned?
It's too late for the government to do anything to help me but my concern is for future generations. If they don't have an outright, complete, comprehensive ban, then people will suffer. Without trying to be overdramatic about it, people will die. And the government will be responsible.

The government announced three years ago that they were going to ban barbaric conversion therapy. It's taken three years to get to the consultation stage, and within a week of the consultation closing, you have this bombshell [from the Equality and Human Rights Commission] saying, “yes, well, let's exclude trans people.” Which is regrettably, what I feared would happen from the outset. 

How has life been since you transitioned?
I have found that people have been amazing and very accepting. I still live, as I said, close to the school where I was a headteacher and was very vulnerable in one sense to any problem, rejection or abuse. And yet, I haven't had a single problem – not one – to my face in those two decades. I was ‘outed‘ nationally in 1994, while still a headteacher. I went back to school after trumped up charges against me were dismissed [After she was outed, she was wrongly suspended and investigated by the school.] The school went on to be probably its most successful, and that indicates that those holding transphobic views are way out of touch. The vast majority of people may not understand, but they do accept.