The UK must ban ‘conversion therapy’ – even for adults who claim to want it | Jayne Ozanne

In allowing over-18s to give ‘informed consent’ to this abusive practice, the government is pandering to rightwing evangelicals

Last week the government finally published its proposals on how it intends to ban the degrading practice of so-called “conversion therapy”. It has taken years of lobbying, several high-profile resignations, as well as various statements from senior religious leaders and indeed whole denominations – such as the Church of England and the Methodist church – to get us to this point. Was it worth the wait?

In truth there is much in the proposals that can and should be welcomed. The government has shown willing to listen to the senior human rights lawyers behind the Cooper report, which I convened, and has accepted our proposal of a two-pronged approach involving both criminal and civil remedies. This means that as well as clear criminal sanctions against perpetrators, who now face sentence of up to five years and a hefty fine, it will also introduce new protection orders that will work to safeguard young vulnerable LGBT+ people from harm.

That is, if you are under 18 or have been found to have been forced or coerced into conversion therapy. But this restriction, focusing purely on the under-18s, is woefully inadequate and leaves thousands still open to abuse, particularly in religious settings – which the government’s own research has shown accounts for the majority of conversion practices. The new law would still allow adults to freely seek out such therapies. However, we know that it is young adults (aged 18-24) who are vulnerable to significant risk when they leave home and find themselves wooed by fundamentalist religious groups.

So why has the government left this major loophole? I think, sadly, it is for the same reason that it has taken so many years to formulate this legislation: it does not want to offend a small minority of rightwing evangelicals within its party who want to be able to continue these barbaric practices of “praying the gay (and trans) away”.

As someone who underwent nearly 20 years of conversion therapy, which resulted in me being hospitalised twice, I find this utterly unforgivable.

The current proposals to allow adults to give “informed consent” would not have protected me, nor indeed the thousands of others like me who willingly undertook conversion therapy because we believed it was the right thing to do. Indeed, everyone we knew believed it was the right thing to do. To not go through it would have meant being ostracised by all those around us whom we loved and respected. I believed my desires to be sinful and was told that they must have arisen as a result of some deep trauma or unhealthy relationship with one of my family members.

As a result, I put myself through years of “healing prayer” ministry, sharing some of my most intimate moments and relationships with strangers in the hope that we might “find the key” as to why I was attracted to women. I was constantly told that my prayers were unanswered because of my lack of faith, or that I obviously was not walking a godly enough path. Part of the trauma of these abusive practices is that you, the victim, are always left with the burden of being told it is your fault that you are not healed.

I went on to seek other forms of spiritual counselling, including many exorcisms – paying thousands of pounds in the process. Years of shame, guilt and loneliness were then added to an increasing belief that God had deserted me. It was a living hell. I am a relatively strong person, and it nearly broke me – sadly many others are not so lucky, and tragically come to a point of believing that the only way out is to take their lives.

That’s why conversion practices need to be banned outright, with no exceptions.

That’s also why these rightwing evangelicals need to be held accountable for the trauma they cause. The government has sadly prioritised listening to their voices over those of survivors and has been oblivious to the mounting evidence of the harm that these religious practices inflict.

The government needs to think again. First, it must learn from the experiences of survivors and prioritise their concerns, for we are the true experts. We know better than anyone what needs to be banned, and how best to do this. Two short meetings with the ministers for equalities – the sum total of their direct engagement with survivors – will never get to the bottom of this; nor will trying to “balance” our views with those who have caused us such harm, and who want to continue doing so. There is no middle road here: one needs to either protect people from harm or leave the door open to abuse. We cannot have another consultation that seeks to legitimise the concerns of those who are determined to continue with these degrading practices.

Second, the government needs to listen to the senior human rights lawyers who have set out in the Cooper report why religious freedoms can and must be limited when significant harm is being caused. It should follow their recommendations on how best to do this: by focusing on practices that have the “predetermined purpose” of trying to change, “cure” or suppress a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. It must also take on board their arguments about why “informed consent” for adults cannot be a defence in law when so many people’s health, wellbeing and indeed their very lives are at risk. That is why we do not allow for consent to female genital mutilation or forced marriage, or even such everyday matters as wearing a seatbelt.

Finally, it must listen to the religious leaders from around the world who have also come together to ask their governments to ban this abhorrent practice. This will also enable those leaders to work within their organisations to ensure that it is ultimately stamped out.

The government cannot afford to get this wrong – too many lives are quite literally at stake. My hope and prayer is that it will, finally, listen and recognise that outlawing conversion therapy can never have get-out clauses. Anything else is a ban in name only.

  • Jayne Ozanne is director of Ozanne Foundation and the founder of the Ban Conversion Therapy coalition


Jayne Ozanne

The GuardianTramp

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