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Why the ban on conversion therapy has to include religious groups

Protesters opposed to conversion therapy hold up protest signs that say 'I love my transgender child' and 'does conversion therapy work for bigots?'
Protesters in Michigan, USA, come out in support of LGBT+ rights. Jim West/Alamy

After many delays, the government’s concern about whether religion should be exempt from prohibiting conversion therapy in England and Wales has led to more setbacks. A blanket ban, it’s argued, would infringe on religious freedoms and the belief among some groups that any sex outside heterosexual marriage is sinful.

In response to proposals for a total ban on conversion therapy, Peter Lynas, director of the conservative lobby group Evangelical Alliance, echoed what some other religious figures believe. Namely, that leaders might be “at risk of prosecution” for conducting guided prayers for those who have asked for help with their sexuality.

Last month, Boris Johnson’s reaction to these concerns was that “appropriate pastoral support (including prayer)” would remain legal, prompting criticism of his less than progressive track record on LGBT+ issues. The news also followed concerns that three members of the government’s LGBT+ advisory panel had resigned in March 2021 over allegations of hostility towards LGBT+ issues in Johnson’s government.

The potential loophole is being pushed despite earlier suggestions that religious practices would be included in the ban, leaving victims with no recourse to legal justice. It’s also related to wider debates about equalities and legislation introduced in 2003 and 2010 to protect a range of minority groups, including LGBT+ and faith groups. But upholding both a ban and religious exemption is proving to be inherently contradictory.

A history of conversion therapy

Denounced by the UK government as “absolutely abhorrent” with “no place in a civilised society”, so-called conversion therapy, sometimes known as “gay cure therapy” or “reparative therapy”, promises to change a person’s gender (from transgender or gender non-conforming, to cisgender) or sexual identity (from LGB+ to heterosexual).

Read more: LGBTQ+ conversion therapy in India: how it began and why it persists today

Bodies like the NHS have called these programmes “unethical and potentially harmful”, the UN has asked that conversion therapy be banned globally and 20 states in the US, Albania, Brazil, Germany and Malta have all legislated against it too. Yet many religious groups continue to recommend them to members of their LGBT+ congregation by prayer, social isolation, starvation and sometimes the illegal use of “corrective” rape.

The belief that LGBT+ identities are unhealthy, morally wrong or dangerous, and that a person can be cured of this “problem”, isn’t new. In 1899, German psychiatrist Albert von Schrenck-Notzing claimed to have changed a man’s preference from men to women through hypnosis and trips to brothels. The idea that male same-sex desire was rooted in the testicles led to some having their “gay” testicles removed and replaced with supposedly heterosexual ones.

Later, electroconvulsive treatment, lobotomies, hormone therapy and aversion therapy – where LGBT+ people were given emetics to make them vomit on seeing pictures of attractive people – were the preferred methods. Popularity peaked in the 1970s. Today, GPs and mental health professionals are less likely to refer patients for these pseudoscientific methods, though talking therapies may be recommended. Religious attempts at conversion, however, still clearly take place.

The harms of conversion therapy

Given deep-seated transphobia and homophobia in society, it’s difficult to be certain of how many people are affected by conversion therapy. Fear of rejection from their family and community and shame about their identity as a result of the procedures are among the many reasons people don’t come forward about their experiences. However, a 2018 UK government survey on the experiences of LGBT+ people shows that 5% of the 108,000 respondents had been offered some form of conversion therapy, while over 2,000 had undergone it.

Particularly concerning, given that the government often ignores the voice of trans people , is that trans respondents to the government’s 2018 survey on LGBT+ experiences were 13% more likely than cisgender people (7%) to have undergone or been offered conversion therapy.

Conversion therapies tend to legitimise abuse and may also include abduction or forced marriage where people may be forcibly taken from their homes and either forced to undergo conversion treatment or marry a member of the opposite sex.

The harrowing dramatisation of author Jeanette Winterson’s real-life encounters in her 1985 semi-autobiographical novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, serves as a shocking reminder of what these exercises look like in practice. Modelled on her experience of coming out as a lesbian when she was a teenager, the exorcism that the protagonist is forced to endure in the novel serves as a reminder of the power faith leaders have in the lives of many LGBT+ people. Though conversion therapies are unsuccessful, they can result in degradation, trauma and suicide.

Religion and sexuality

Several religions have long had troubled relationships with sex and sexuality. Most condemn male same-sex relationships. Female same-sex relationships, on the other hand, are often less debated largely due to historical fears that “publicity” or a specific focus in criminal law would prompt more women to have lesbian relationships. Many religions also view sex solely as a means of procreation within heterosexual marriage.

Protesters opposed to gay conversion therapy hold up signs saying 'gay and Christian' and 'Jesus loves gays'
Protest against gay conversion therapy in London, 2015. Zefrog/Alamy

Such deep-set prejudices, while not explicitly outlined in key religious texts, are ingrained in these institutions. A rise in religious fundamentalism globally (Christian, Hindu, Islamic and Judaic) in the 21st century has seen a strengthening of these beliefs, putting a significant number of people at risk of damaging behaviour, all in the name of kindness.

Not all religions advocate conversion therapy, however. In 2017, the Church of England called for a ban on the grounds that conversion therapy was unethical and the church didn’t view homosexuality as a crime. In 2020, David Rosen, chief rabbi of Ireland, was also among hundreds of religious leaders to sign a declaration to end the practice where religion has been “misused to cause deep pain”. In it, they “ask for forgiveness from those whose lives have been damaged and destroyed on the pretext of religious teaching”.

While often couched as self-help, conversion therapy is a destructive act of repression with lasting consequences. LGBT+ people need to be celebrated not merely tolerated - and certainly not tarnished with shame and stigma. Allowing religion to be exempt from any ban sends a clear message that there are still places where pernicious attitudes and practices are condoned.

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