When Alex came out as gay, the 15-year-old’s parents issued a stark ultimatum: undergo so-called ‘conversion therapy’ or clear out of the family home in the northern English city of Wakefield.
Alex chose option one and underwent multiple sessions with elders from the family’s Jehovah’s Witness congregation, seeking a ‘cure’ for homosexuality.
“It was a series of sessions based around how I was broken and needed fixing. How I was dirty and needed cleansing. I still feel the effects of it to this day, in my lowest moments,” Alex, who is non-binary and uses the pronouns they/them, told Openly by phone.
Alex – not their real name – is now 20, and one of hundreds of thousands of Britons to undergo ‘conversion therapy’, a process that can range from prayers to counselling.
In extreme cases, the therapy has stretched to physical abuse and even to so-called corrective rape, both of which are banned in Britain under other laws.
Yet while any ‘conversion therapy’ is condemned by medics as ineffective at best, harmful at worst, much of it remains legal five years after the Conservative government pledged to end it.
“‘Conversion therapy’ is an abhorrent practice and we need to do everything we can to stamp it out, wherever we see it,” Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told the House of Commons on Wednesday.
Under growing pressure to act, Sunak promised to keep MPs “updated on our progress” towards drafting a ban after repeated party u-turns on policy in recent years.
His pledge came two days after politicians, LGBTQ+ groups and activists called the delay a “moral failing with dire consequences”.
“Not only has the delay damaged the lives of countless vulnerable LGBT+ victims, it has also emboldened perpetrators to act with impunity,” the group said in an open letter to Sunak.
About one in five LGBTQ+ Britons has experienced ‘conversion therapy’, with transgender and non-binary people significantly more likely to be victims, according to a 2023 report from Galop, an LGBTQ+ anti-abuse charity.
A spokesperson for the government told Openly that it was “committed” to protecting people but could not say when the promised ban might be introduced.
Useless at best, harmful at worst
Government research has found no evidence that ‘conversion therapy’ can change sexual orientation or gender identity.
It can though do real damage, the research said, pointing to “consistent evidence of self-reported harms, such as negative mental health effects like depression and feeling suicidal”.
Given the slow going and repeated false starts, experts worry that any new law will carry loopholes, exposing adults to ‘conversion therapy’ through religion or if they consent. Children who do not identify with their birth gender also could win opt-outs, increasing parental power.
“From a medical standpoint it is very alarming, you cannot consent to abuse. The evidence shows it is not possible to change someone’s identity or sexuality,” said Jo Hartland, a health activist working with The Association of LGBTQ+ Doctors and Dentists (GLADD).
A government survey showed that more than half of Britons who had tried ‘conversion therapy’ were offered it through a religious group, almost 12% were signposted by a health care professional.
Jayne Ozanne, a gay evangelical in her 50s who chairs the UK’s Ban Conversion Therapy Coalition, sought treatment in her 20s and 30s, after falling in love with a woman.
The process led to hospital admission for a nervous breakdown.
“I consented. Most people I know consented because we all believed it was the right thing to do. In my case, it nearly killed me,” said Ozanne, who quit a government LGBT advisory panel in 2021 due to the go-slow on any ban.
Some campaigners oppose a blanket ban on all therapy for LGBTQ+ Britons, fearing it could propel children with identity issues into changing genders rather than trying to talk it out.
“Banning ‘conversion therapy’ for children suffering from gender dysphoria would give parents, therapists and other trusted adults no option other than to affirm the child’s gender identity,” said an online post by Our Duty, a support network for parents who say they want to protect children against transitioning.
The group did not respond to a request for comment.
The Ban Conversion Therapy Coalition wants any bill to ensure that trans children can explore their gender identity “where appropriate”, without being forced to change their mind.
“The key thing is anything with a pre-determined purpose,” Ozanne said.
“Of course you can have strong conversations with trans children, of course you must help a person come to a point of peace. But if that help is because you, the person in power, believe they cannot be trans…that is going to harm them.”
Reporting by Lucy Middleton.
GAY TIMES and Openly/Thomson Reuters Foundation are working together to deliver leading LGBTQ+ news to a global audience.