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The dark reality of trans conversion therapy

‘It was just normal therapy – except my therapist was a TERF’

Last summer, 17-year-old Jessie* was forced to see a counsellor by her parents, supposedly to help her navigate her gender dysphoria.

She describes the first few sessions as “weird”. At first, the therapist insisted that he “wanted what was best” for Jessie and offered to talk through her emotional issues with her. “But any time I brought up how deeply I was suffering from my parents’ anger towards my dysphoria, he’d say that medical transition wouldn’t help and that I would regret it,” she says.

Jessie’s parents – who she describes as “gender critical” and “anti-trans” – had told her that they’d found a therapist who was a “trans ally”. Initially, she believed them. But when a friend sent her a YouTube video of her therapist chatting with Graham Linehan and making transphobic comments, she realised that she’d been subjected to conversion therapy. “He tried to basically gaslight me into thinking I wasn’t trans,” she recalls. “Over the weeks it got more overt, to the point where he’d just outright say that I’d never actually be a woman, so there’s no point in trying.”

Last week, the government announced that it would ban conversion therapy for gay or bisexual people in England and Wales, but would exclude transgender people from the ban. The announcement has sparked a wave of urgent conversation about conversion therapy – notably hundreds of people protested against the decision outside Downing Street over the weekend – but what can sometimes get lost or obscured in these discussions is what actually constitutes conversion therapy and the tangible impact it can have on queer people.

Conversion therapy is the practice of attempting to change an individual’s sexual orientation to heterosexual or gender identity to cisgender. It can take many forms: people subjected to conversion therapy might have homophobic or transphobic psychotherapists push the idea that their homosexuality or transness is an ‘illness’ that can be ‘cured’, or experience a religious leader ‘praying for them’. Speaking to Dazed, Cleo Madeleine, communications officer at trans rights organisation Gendered Intelligence, adds that “recent Galop research found that sexual violence is often used as a weapon to suppress or punish LGBTQ+ people for their identities.” In the 20th century, invasive and violent methods like lobotomies or electroconvulsive therapy were also common.

A report from Stonewall recently found that one in 20 LGBTQ+ people have been pressured to access services seeking to change their sexual orientation when accessing healthcare services. Disturbingly, this figure rises to 20 per cent of trans people. In a recent interview with Sky News, Health Secretary Sajid Javid stressed that it was “absolutely right“ to ban conversion therapy for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, but stopped short of advocating for banning it for trans people. He argued that it is “right“ for medical experts to be able to “question“ young people’s identities: “Is it a genuine case of genuine identity dysphoria? Or could it be that that individual is suffering from some child sex abuse, for example?“ he said.

As a teenager, Theo*, now 20, came out as gay to their priest during confession. Their priest told them “being gay doesn’t exist”, encouraged them to forget about it, and prayed with them. But despite attempts to repress their true identity, Theo knew they weren’t cisgender. “As much as I tried to change myself, it's not something that can be changed,” they tell me.

Their parents then took them to a psychiatrist in 2020. “They wanted to make sure I wasn't trying to ‘solve any issues going on underneath by making changes to the outside’. They wanted me to do the ‘internal work’, under the assumption that that would lead me to becoming cisgender and heterosexual,” they recall. The psychiatrist referred them to a gender therapist, and Theo recalls being “very excited” for this. “I’d heard brilliant things about gender therapy as a tool for self-discovery,” they say.

“He was very good at walking a fine line: not deadnaming me, but not using my actual name either, suggesting ‘maybe this’ or ‘maybe that’. At one point he said ‘maybe you’re just a woman.’ When I stared at him, shocked, he apologised” – Theo

“After the first session, the therapist sent me a chapter from a book that was about how many autistic women don’t feel connected to their genders. He also sent me an article dissuading me from binding,” they recall. “He was very good at walking a fine line: not deadnaming me, but not using my actual name either, suggesting ‘maybe this’ or ‘maybe that’. At one point he said ‘maybe you’re just a woman.’ When I stared at him, shocked, he apologised.” In hindsight, Theo says it’s now clear his aim was to “get me to work through my internalised homophobia and misogyny and then I’d realise I was a butch lesbian.”

Initially, however, Theo didn’t realise the harm their therapist was inflicting on them. But the pieces soon began to fall into place: during a discussion with a friend about JK Rowling, they realised that their therapist had parroted similar transphobic views. More recently, when Theo went to the conversion therapy ban protest in London, they got chatting with another protestor who informed Theo that their therapist’s research had been endorsed by anti-trans groups. “It was hard, because the therapist was a very nice person. The therapy was similar to normal therapy. There was nothing sinister about it, the lights weren't ominously flickering,” they say. “It was just normal therapy – except my therapist was a TERF.”

Naturally, forcing people to deny a fundamental part of their identity can have incredibly damaging psychological effects. NHS England and other UK psychotherapy bodies have condemned all forms of conversion therapy as “unethical” and “harmful”, while studies have shown that people who undergo conversion therapy have significantly higher rates of depression and are more likely to attempt suicide. Jessie tells me that she feels as though her mental health has been “permanently” damaged by her experience with her therapist. “To the point where I had a phase of trying to be cis, because I had subconsciously taken in what he’d said,” she says.

“To suggest that a single marginalised group be excluded from legal protections is to legalise a form of torture,” Madeleine says, adding that it’s at least cheering to see most Brits believe that all forms of conversion therapy should be banned. “The unity and solidarity of the LGBTQ+ community in boycotting the ‘Safe to be Me’ conference demonstrates the true public opinion in the UK,” she surmises. “Nobody is fooled by the government's justifications. With or without the support of the government, we will continue to fight conversion practices in all forms.”

*Names have been changed