The way the ‘discussion’ about conversion therapy has proceeded, and the seriousness with which the government is taking it, might suggest that this is an urgent issue, with thousands of LGBT+ people being coerced into therapies they are resistant to and will be harmed by. Reality would indicate something different.
The often helpful Transgender Trend have conducted a thorough review of the evidence for conversion therapy and conclude that,
Our analysis shows that any anecdotal evidence of gender identity conversion therapy is likely to be historical and dependent on the definition of ‘conversion therapy.’ In answer to the question we posed at the start of this post: we have found no evidence that gender identity conversion therapy exists today in the UK, or has ever existed in healthcare settings. Our conclusion? Any draft legislation must exclude healthcare and allow for open, neutral therapeutic exploration of gender identity, in line with normal professional practice and duty of care.
Legislation already exists that protects people against abusive therapies and as the Transgender Trend post makes clear there is “no evidence that gender identity conversion therapy exists today in the UK” – so why the push to legislate?
We need to understand that the demand for legislation in this area is much less to do with actual practices and much more to do with symbolism. The LGBT+ movement has been highly effective in manipulating and capturing important symbols – this is what is going on with the ubiquity of the Pride colours, and the opprobrium that accompanies any reluctance to display them. It is also what was going on with legalisation of same-sex ‘marriage’. This was much more to do with symbolism than substance as civil partnerships already conferred all the legal benefits and rights of marriage; and it is not as if most gay people have rushed to get married since the law was changed. It was more about what was represented than the substance of the thing itself.
So with the proposed conversion therapy ban: something that doesn’t happen, and for which existing legislation could be employed if it did, is going to be banned in order to further underscore the claim of the immutability of gender and sexual orientation. It’s about the symbolism.
What’s the problem with this? Well, apart from clogging up the statute books with further unnecessary legislation there are any number of potential hostages to fortune. As the Transgender Trend post identifies in its conclusion, the proposed legislation could have the pernicious effect of making it criminal for healthcare professionals to act in the best interests of their patients if they are effectively prevented from exploring questions of gender identity. Thankfully the briefing paper released alongside the Queen’s Speech suggests the government is aware of this problem:
People should be free to be themselves in the UK. The ban will eliminate coercive practices which cause mental and physical harm to individuals. We will ensure the action we take to stop this practice is proportionate and effective, and does not have unintended consequences. We will ensure medical professionals, religious leaders, teachers and parents can continue to be able to have open and honest conversations with people.
These caveats are important and we should engage with MPs and policy makers to ensure they are carried forward. The government has said that it will undertake a public consultation before bringing forward legislation and it would be good for those with concerns about the proposed Bill to engage with this process.
A considerable irony in all this is that those groups, like Stonewall, who most support the proposed ban also support gender reassignment surgery – or what we might call gender ‘conversion’ surgery. It certainly doesn’t make any logical sense that it would be considered appropriate to carry out surgery on someone in order to change their objective sexual reality, while making it illegal to talk with someone about their subjective gender identity. But then this isn’t about logic: it’s about the symbols.