Introducing the Conversion Therapy Debate
A debate is currently ongoing in the UK about the Government’s commitment to ban conversion therapy. The debate is important because it’s ultimately about how best to protect people, and the stakes are high because it could place serious limitations on the ways that Christians (and others) are able to support LGBT people. Many Christians seem to be becoming aware of the debate but are not quite sure what’s going on or what to think about it. Here’s my attempt at an overview of how things stand at the moment.
What’s the background?
In 2018 the UK Government released its LGBT Action Plan. Within the plan, the Government said they would ‘bring forward proposals to end the practice of conversion therapy in the UK’. They specified that they would explore both legislative and non-legislative options and their intent would be to protect people from harm or violence. They also specified that this commitment did not mean they would be ‘trying to prevent LGBT people from seeking legitimate medical support or spiritual support from their faith leader in the exploration of their sexual orientation or gender identity.’1
Since then, various groups and individuals have publicly called on the Government to follow through on this commitment. A petition in support of a legislative ban gained over 255,000 signatures and was debated in Parliament on 8th March this year. In response, the Government Equalities Office (GEO) reaffirmed its commitment to the pledges made in the 2018 LGBT Action Plan.2 Around the same time, Liz Truss, Equalities Minister, said that plans will be released ‘shortly’.3 Nothing has been released yet.
Where’s the controversy?
Many of us won’t see much of a problem in the Government’s commitments. Few people today support interventions designed to change someone’s sexual orientation and we can all recognise the importance of both medical and spiritual support being available to all people.
However, a couple of complex and controversial factors have given rise to considerable debate.
One is the issue of defining conversion therapy and specifying what should actually be banned. Historically, conversion therapy has referred to deliberate practices that are specifically aimed at changing someone’s sexual orientation, sometimes against their will. Examples often cited are corrective rape, electroconvulsive therapy, and pseudoscientific psychological interventions. There is broad agreement that all coercive and abusive interventions aimed at changing sexual orientation should be banned.
However, many calling for the ban want a much broader definition which would include not only efforts to change, but also efforts to repress sexual orientation and, in some cases, efforts to change behaviour.4 Some of the proposed definitions state explicitly that even practices to which individuals consent should be included.5
The use of such a broad definition is much more controversial. Among other things, it would make it illegal to teach the historic Christian sexual ethic or to pray with a same-sex attracted Christian who requested prayer for strength to resist sexual temptation.
A second area of debate is the inclusion of gender identity and gender expression in the ban. While some are adamant that these must be included, others object to the parallel treatment of sexual orientation and gender identity noting that they are very different elements of human experience and may require different responses.
A ban including gender would impact the forms of treatment and support that could be offered to those who are diagnosed with gender dysphoria or who express discomfort with their gender or bodily sex. It could become illegal for medical professionals to help patients access forms of support that may help them to live more comfortably with their bodies rather than undergoing invasive medical interventions. It could also become illegal for parents to insist that their child wears the clothes of their biological sex or uses their given name.
How should we assess the debate?
How should Christians who want to be faithful to the Bible and want to love people assess the current debate?
First, we should be in full support of legislation that seeks to protect people from things that are coercive and abusive. It is sadly true that some LGBT people have been subjected to abusive practices which they were told would change their sexual orientation. Even more sadly, Christians have sometimes been guilty of conducting or encouraging people towards these practices. This is something that all Christians must own, repent of and grieve over. We must work to care for those who have been subjected to such treatment and work to ensure that it does not continue to occur. In reality, coercive and abusive practices should already be covered by existing legislation and we should support the full and thorough implementation of such legislation. But if there are any gaps in existing legislation, we should support a targeted ban on such conversion therapy practices.
However, we should oppose the sort of broad ban for which some are campaigning.
The key reason why we should do this is that we love and care about LGBT people. A ban using the very broad definitions some are proposing would introduce discrimination against and potential harm to LGBT people. LGBT Christians who hold to the historic Christian sexual ethic and who wish to receive support to live in light of their deeply held religious beliefs would be denied access to important spiritual support such as prayer, pastoral care, and biblical teaching. This is clear discrimination and would be harmful to people like me.5 And such a ban could possibly also lead to discrimination against any LGBT person who sought spiritual support. This is because the legislation would be likely to create a culture of fear in which many churches and people of other faiths would be too afraid to engage with LGBT people. The result would be easy access to spiritual support for straight people, but only limited access for LGBT people. This would be discriminatory and potentially harmful.
A broad ban that included gender identity and gender expression would risk bringing harm to those who are uncomfortable with or who are questioning their gender. A particular concern is that a ban in relation to gender identity could deny people access to support that might help them to feel more comfortable living with their bodies and in so doing avoid highly invasive medical interventions and their accompanying life-long impacts (such as infertility).6 There are also concerns that quick affirmation of gender identity among same-sex attracted teenagers may itself be acting as a form of sexual orientation conversion therapy. Transitioning becomes a way of converting from same-sex attracted to opposite-sex attracted. It therefore seems important that those supporting young people have the freedom to help them to properly explore what they are experiencing.7
Using a very broad definition of conversion therapy for the ban would also be likely to infringe on key human rights. In a formal legal opinion sent to government ministers, a leading QC has warned that such a ban would constitute ‘an unlawful interference’ with several of the rights outlined in the European Convention of Human Rights.8
How should we respond?
At the moment, we’re really in a period of waiting. Until the GEO releases some proposals there is nothing concrete to respond to, but there are still some things we can be doing.
There are several things we can be praying for:
- Pray for legislation that protects people from coercive and abusive practices and that ensures LGBT people have free access to spiritual and other forms of support that they may wish to receive.
- Pray for those who have been the victims of such practices, that they would find peace and healing from any negative impacts of what they have experienced.
- Pray for those working on the proposals in the GEO and for those who are seeking to have a positive influence on the formation of the proposals.
- Pray for those who are engaging publicly in the debate.
For church leaders, especially, it’s important that we are aware of what is going on, where the points of debate are, and how we should assess them. Hopefully this post is a helpful starting point; the recommended reading below may also be useful.
I also think this is a time when it is vitally important for all church leaders to make sure they are confident in the Bible’s teaching on marriage and sexuality and how to communicate it in clear and winsome ways. The debate is likely to become more prominent as the proposals go through Parliament and this means that the people in our churches will be hearing significant criticism of the historic Christian sexual ethic.
Those of us who are seeking to disciple Christians to trust in and follow God’s good plan for sexuality already compete with a culture that is loudly and daily preaching a very different view. We may well soon find that we are also competing with voices online and in the media that are loudly declaring the teaching of the Bible to be not only untrue but also harmful and abusive. We must be ready to respond to this, honestly acknowledging the Church’s historic failings in this area but confidently presenting the goodness of God’s plan.
If you want to read more on the debate, here are some starting points.
What should Christians think about conversion therapy? Start with this article from Living Out: ‘Does Living Out Support “Gay Cure” or “Reparative Therapy”?’
Christian voices raising concern with current proposals:
Ed Shaw, ‘What would a conversion therapy ban mean for gay Christians like me?’, The Spectator.
Anne Witton, ‘Freedom to be Me’, Living Out.
Andrew Bunt, ‘Ban Conversion Therapy, But Don’t Ban Support’, Living Out.
Ed Shaw, ‘My New Interest in Human Rights’, Living Out.
Andrew Bunt, ‘Protecting Gender Diverse People’, Living Out.
‘Ending Conversion therapy?’, Evangelical Alliance.
Secular voices raising concern with current proposals:
‘Conversion therapy briefing’, Transgender Trend.
‘#EndConversionTherapy’, LGB Alliance.
Douglas Murray, ‘We don’t need a new law against “conversion therapy”’, The Spectator.
- 1 ‘LGBT Action Plan’, Government Equalities Office, 2018, p.15
- 2 ‘Make LGBT conversion therapy illegal in the UK’, UK Government and Parliament Petitions.
- 3 ‘Liz Truss promises ban on gay conversion therapy’, BBC News, 12 March 2021.
- 4 Two examples:
- 5 For example, Ban Conversion Therapy call for a full legislative ban ‘protecting children and adults, and those who have been coerced as well as consented’.
- 6 I’ve reflected on how such a ban would affect me, and, in particular, how it would have harmed me in my teenage years in ‘Ban Conversion Therapy, But Don’t Ban Support’, Living Out.
- 7 Transgender Trend, a secular organisation, have raised this concern well: ‘Conversion therapy briefing’, Transgender Trend.
- 8 LGB Alliance, another secular group, make this point well: ‘#End Conversion Therapy’, LGB Alliance.
- 9 Tim Wyatt, ‘Conversion therapy ban “would criminalise Christian parents stopping children seeking transgender treatment”’, The Telegraph.
‘[A]ny intervention intended to change, suppress, convert or cancel sexual orientation, gender identity and/or gender expression, whether in public and private spheres, healthcare, religious and cultural/traditional interventions settings.’ (from the Ban Conversion Therapy group).
‘Medical, therapeutic, holistic or psychotherapy treatments or interventions to change, repress or eliminate a person’s sexual orientation or manifestation of that sexual orientation or desired gender identity and expression.’ (From Alicia Kearns MP.)