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gay conversion therapy

What you need to know about the fight against gay conversion therapy

The British government has proposed a ban on the harmful ‘gay cure’ practice – but they’re not doing enough to ensure it happens

British prime minister Theresa May has announced that the government will ban conversion therapies that claim to be able to change patient’s sexualities. The news follows a national survey of 108,000 members of the LGBT community which found that two per cent had undergone the practice, while another five have been offered it. Most of them were overwhelmingly conducted by faith organisations.

Stonewall defines this so called “gay cure” as “any form of treatment or psychotherapy which aims to reduce or stop same-sex attraction or to suppress a person’s gender identity”. In a previous Dazed feature, we heard heartbreaking accounts from four men who were subjected to the practice. “They were telling me that I was surrounded by demons and that, through sessions, I could ward them away,” Charles told Dazed.

Just recently on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Kentucky-born, New York-based drag queen Dusty Ray Bottoms confided in other contestants that she had undergone the traumatic practice too. “I had this prayer warrior standing in front of me, my mom and dad were standing behind her looking at me, and I had to list every person I’d had a sexual encounter with,” they said on the TV series. “It was the most humiliating, awful thing of my life. Ever.”

A 75-point plan to improve the lives of LGBT people, costing £4.5m, has been produced in response to the British government’s recent survey. While promises were made to appoint an LGBT health adviser, support developing better sex education, and work against homophobic and transphobic bullying and hate crimes, the LGBT action plan has been criticised by Labour for its lack of solid commitments – the move to ban conversion therapy comes with no detail about legislation to implement it. Elsewhere, there’s no decisive moves made on funding HIV prevention drug PrEP, helping LGBTQ migrants, or supporting equal marriage in Northern Ireland.

LGBT lawyer Andrew Spearman remains sceptical of the government’s vague ideas. “They didn’t outline any particular plans – they just said they were looking into reform. The obvious answer seems to be with practitioners, or anybody conducting it they need to be criminalised,” he tells Dazed. We asked Spearman, an expert in LGBT policy and issues, to unpack the issue of conversion therapy, and give advice to anyone who may be at risk.

YOUNG PEOPLE ARE MOST AT RISK

Andrew Spearman: It’s, frankly, a form of torture. Abhorrent, malign, just atrocious. There's a bit of a contrast between my personal view and the legal view on it – the practice assumes that sexual orientation is a psychological disorder, even though psychological practitioners de-classified it many, many moons ago. Conversion therapy is usually for quite young individuals who are impressionable, who then go along to these practices, and are subjected to ‘psychological, and sometimes physical, therapy’. They don't have a support network around them – in fact, the support and the people that they trust are the ones taking them to these ‘therapy sessions’.

PEOPLE IN THE UK ARE GOING THROUGH IT RIGHT NOW

Andrew Spearman: I can think of two stand-out cases – one is where the parents had separated, and the child had come out. The parents disagreed on how that should be dealt with, and unfortunately one was pushing for medical attention. Obviously, where parents have a responsibility for their children and there’s disagreement, the court needs to become involved, and those practises need to be stopped in their tracks. Certainly that was the view that we took, and the court supported as well.

The other case that springs to mind is where one of the parents is actually realising that they are gay, the family has separated, they've got children of their own, and the other parent who I’m not representing makes allegations that they are somehow influencing the children. Making rather malign allegations, they say the children should be attending therapy, whether it’s conversion therapy or prevention therapy. That’s not illegal, and that’s what the LGBT action plan points out.  

THE GOVERNMENT PLANS ARE VAGUE AND COULD STILL GO FURTHER

Andrew Spearman: They’ve finally got the facts and figures from what is quite a monstrous survey, and hats off to them for actually doing it, it’s a massive project. (Conversion therapy) has been fairly well-criticised for a long time, certainly by anybody of a liberal mind, and in the liberal press. Stonewall, LGBT charities, and more have all indicated that it is an area which is yet to have any form of criminalisation or any real penalty towards it. I think it is a convenient time for them to slot it in with other aspects of their agenda. Their action plan has (approximately) 75 points, all of which are nice and broad, and slightly vague. All of them should be, obviously, applauded, but I'm yet to see any of them come into action. I'm not going to hold my breath yet to see how they'll go about dealing with it.

WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP, OR IF YOU’RE AT RISK

Andrew Spearman: At the moment, there are really very limited ways. It's not a criminal offence, so the police can't become involved. It's not a civil offence, so there's no right to bring claims. Depending on their age, I'd encourage them to speak to their school, who already provide support around the family to individuals, but they won't know unless they're told sometimes. There are a few charities, Stonewall, Childline. The worst thing they can do is stay silent.

OTHER EXAMPLES OF WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP

Write to your MP and ask them to put pressure on providing solid legislation that will ban conversion therapy. Use Pride, wherever you are, as an opportunity to protest. Follow campaigns and organisations like Amnesty, Stonewall, and LGBT Labour who regularly push for this issue.