Conversion Therapy Still Isn't Illegal in the UK

Earlier this month, the British government tweeted – and quickly deleted – a survey asking how "#conversiontherapy affects the #LGBTQ community".
July 17, 2020, 9:14am
conversion therapy
An anti-conversion therapy protest in London. Photo: Zefrog / Alamy Stock Photo

Taylor Bystrom was raised to be "the perfect little girl" by his "hardcore Christian family". Still a child, he hadn't yet realised that he was actually a trans man, so when he started having feelings for girls he presumed he was a gay woman. When they found out, his parents tried to have Taylor – who was 14 years old – "cured" at various camps in his home state of Tennessee.

"All these men would be laying hands on me while speaking in tongues – most of the time I didn't even know who the hands belonged to," he recalls. "It was so jarring and suffocating that I would literally end up weeping. I was constantly being told there was something really dark inside of me that they needed to pray out. I was terrified."

Bystrom was being subjected to conversion therapy, a widely discredited pseudoscience predicated on the false and incredibly damaging idea that being LGBTQ is a mental disorder that can be "cured". Most readily associated with conservative religious communities in the US, like the one Bystrom was born into, it's also a problem in the UK. A 2018 report by LGBT charity Stonewall found that one in 20 lesbian, gay and bi people – and one in five trans people – have been offered it.

On the 3rd of July, the UK House of Commons' official Twitter account shared a survey asking people to discuss conversion therapy. "How does #conversiontherapy affect the #LGBTQ community?" the tweet read. "Should it be made illegal? What would that mean to you?" The tweet and survey were swiftly deleted after members of the LGBTQ community expressed outrage that the government was effectively asking them to debate an abhorrent practice condemned by every major counselling body in the UK.

Dr Adrian James, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, tells VICE News: "We oppose LGBT conversion therapy. Any intervention purporting to 'treat' something which is not a disorder is wholly unethical and should be banned. Psychiatrists should be committed to reducing inequalities, not supporting practices that are explicitly based on pathologising LGBT individuals and their sexual orientation."

As recently as the 1960s, gay men at Queen's University Belfast underwent electrical aversion therapy in a bid to rid them of homosexual thoughts. Patients would be shown photos of naked men, then given electric shocks if they became aroused. These days, conversion therapy is much more insidious. "One of the big challenges with effectively eradicating conversion therapy is the fact that it comes in so many different forms from so many different sources," says Stonewall's Josh Bradlow.

Some of these sources are upfront and unapologetic about the treatment they offer. Matthew Hyndman, who co-founded the Ban Conversion Therapy campaign with Harry Hitchens, points to the Core Issues Trust, an organisation based in Northern Ireland that describes itself as a "non-profit Christian ministry supporting men and women with homosexual issues who voluntarily seek change in sexual preference and expression".

However, conversion therapy doesn't only take place in Christian, Muslim and other faith-based communities. "Often it's hidden," says Bradlow. "It may be disguised as pastoral care or a form of support to help someone with these 'difficult feelings' that they're experiencing. Sometimes LGBT young people don’t even realise they’re undergoing conversion therapy until they find themselves in a room with someone who's trying to tell them they aren't who they say they are."

In May, Germany's parliament passed a law banning conversion therapy on anyone under 18. It's also prohibited in Brazil, Switzerland and Taiwan, plus parts of Australia, Canada and the US. Two years ago, then-Prime Minister Theresa May pledged to "end the practice of conversion therapy" in the UK as part of her LGBT Action Plan. Since then, the Conservative government has dragged its heels; it's highly criticised tweet was the first time in recent years it has attempted to engage with the issue.

Conversion therapy isn’t just unethical – it can also have devastating long-term effects. A 2018 study by the Ozanne Foundation found that nearly 70 percent of conversion therapy survivors have had suicidal thoughts, 40 percent have self-harmed and nearly 25 percent have suffered from eating disorders.

Justin Beck, 35, was raised in an evangelical Christian community in Glasgow and endured a similar form of conversion therapy to Taylor Bystrom in Tennessee. At times, he was even "exorcised" and "had church elders trying to cast demons out of me". He says it’s taken him a decade of counselling to unpack the frightening and belittling rituals he succumbed to between the ages of 17 and 23.

"As a mature adult looking back on it now, I can see that conversion therapy relies on this negative, toxic mentality of eradicating your self-worth and manipulating you against all of your own natural instincts," he says. "I'm a really tall person, but I used to stoop down all the time because I wanted to be invisible. I hated everything about myself because I thought I was evil."

Pressure is now mounting on the UK government to fulfil its promise to crack down on conversion therapy. Celebrities and prominent members of the LGBTQ community, including Munroe Bergdorf, Olly Alexander and Dua Lipa, have signed Ban Conversion Therapy’s open letter to Liz Truss, the Minister for Women and Equalities. Co-founder Hyndman concedes that "conversion therapy is going to be difficult to define and police", especially within insular faith-based communities, but points out that "something this detrimental to LGBT young people shouldn’t be ignored or sidelined just because it’s difficult".

Meanwhile, a petition started by Mased Ahmad calling on the government to make conversion therapy a criminal offence has gathered more than 220,000 signatures.

"When young people grow up hearing that being LGBT is the worst thing you can be, that puts them in a very vulnerable position where they see who they are as fundamentally wrong," says Stonewall’s Josh Bradlow. "And that is what creates the conditions for conversion therapy to thrive. So if we're going to truly tackle conversion therapy, we also have to tackle the onslaught of negative messages that LGBT young people hear from the day they're born."