New study directly links ‘conversion therapy’ to reports of suicide, self-harm and eating disorders

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The Ozanne Foundation, headed by the leading gay evangelical Jayne Ozanne and chaired by the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, the Bishop of Liverpool, has released the results of its 2018 National Faith and Sexuality Survey.

In July 2018 the Government released its National LGBT Survey. It examined a wide range of issues. Some people were surprised that as many as 5% of respondents had been offered a form of so called “conversion therapy” and a further 2% of respondents had tried it. ‘Conversion therapy’ attempts to change an individual’s sexual orientation through psychological or spiritual interventions.

The Ozanne Foundation survey sought to find out what motivated individuals to take part in such practices, including whether they were encouraged to do so by parents, other family members, religious leaders, or secular friends. The Ozanne Foundation also wanted an indication as to what these types of attempts entailed, what the consequences were for those who underwent the treatment, as well as the age at which they were first offered it.

In recent years we have seen an increased awareness of ‘conversion therapy’ within the LGBTQ community and society generally. How it is conducted varies massively between individual churches, Christian denominations and faiths. It has long been a problem for LGBTQ Christians and it is great that the debate around this important issue has now moved into the mainstream.

For too long ‘conversion therapy’ has been perceived as a problem best dealt with by working with the medical profession. This survey confirms that it is primarily an issue for religious organisations to address. The Government announced that they are looking to end the practice of ‘conversion therapy’ in their LGBT Action Plan, which was partly based on the findings of the National LGBT Survey. These findings clearly show that to do this the Government will have to engage directly with religious leaders and ensure that the harmful practice is stopped.

There has recently been a flurry of film and TV portrayals of ‘conversion therapy’. Last year Chloë Grace Mortez starred in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, where Mortez’s character undergoes ‘conversion therapy’ after a romantic encounter with the prom queen. In Boy Erased, starring Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe, a 19-year-old is forced to take part in ‘conversion therapy’. Crowe plays a Baptist preacher and neither Kidman nor Crowe’s characters understand their son’s sexuality. In Netflix’s Riverdale, a number of the LGBTQ characters face the risk of being sent to The Sisters of Quiet Mercy, a religious organisation which also practices ‘conversion therapy’.

Jayne Ozanne and Vicky Beeching, the Christian rock star, both released memoirs last year which detailed how they battled for years with their sexuality. In Just Love and Undivided, both Ozanne and Beeching describe how the hierarchies within faith organisations encouraged them to engage in various forms of ‘conversion therapy’, with devastating psychological consequences.

I have been moved by powerful individual stories of ‘conversion therapy’, but it is clear from the Ozanne Foundation survey that these experiences are by no means isolated. Furthermore, rather than exaggerating the practices and consequences, the Hollywood portrayals actually fail to touch on the darkest aspects of ‘conversion therapy’.

Image: Philip Baldwin

The results of the Ozanne Foundation survey are startling. The survey took place in December 2018, attracting over 4600 respondents. Of these 458 (10%) revealed that they had some experience of trying to change their sexual orientation. Over a half of those who had tried to attempt these changes consequentially experienced mental health problems. This includes 193 people reporting that they had contemplated taking their own life, with 91 stating that they had actually gone on to attempt suicide. Two-in-five of those who had attempted ‘conversion therapy’ subsequently self-harmed and a quarter developed eating disorders.

More than half of those who attempted to change their sexual orientation first did so at the age of 18 or younger. ‘Conversion therapy’ is clearly a threat to young LGBTQ people, not just adults. The survey found that the impetus to engage in ‘conversion therapy’ came primarily from faith leaders, rather than parents. Faith leaders are abusing their positions of power and telling impressionable young LGBTQ people that their sexuality is at odds with their faith.

Most shockingly of all, 22 people were forced to undergo sexual intercourse with someone of the opposite gender. That some people have been subjected to corrective rape, in the UK, in this pseudo-religious context absolutely disgusts me.

The Ozanne Foundation survey confirms that the Church of England, other Christian denominations and faiths, as well as the Government, cannot delay in ensuring that so called ‘conversion therapy’ is stamped out once and for all in the UK.

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