The controversial practice of so-called conversion therapy made headlines on Thursday evening after Prime Minister Boris Johnson U-turned on a pledge to ban it – before later backtracking following a furious reaction.
But what is the practice, how many people have experienced it, and what is its future in the UK? Here’s what you need to know.
What is conversion therapy?
Conversion therapy is the use of methods, such as aversive stimulation or religious counselling, to change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation. It is also used in an attempt to persuade trans people to alter their gender identity to correspond with the sex they had at birth.
The practice has been described by NHS England as “unethical and potentially harmful”, and condemned by mental wellbeing charity Mind as something which has “a terrible impact on a person’s mental health”.
The exact number of people in the UK who have experienced conversion therapy is not known, but a National LGBT Survey done by the Government in 2017 suggested that 5% of LGBT people have been offered conversion, and 2% have undergone the therapy. These figures were higher among trans people, with 8% saying they had been offered the therapy, and 4% reporting having undergone it.
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Conversion therapy ban in the UK
The Government pledged to end conversion therapy in England and Wales in 2018, under Theresa May, but in March 2021, three advisers quit the Government’s LGBT advisory panel over worries it was acting too slowly on the ban. One of the advisers, Jayne Ozanne, accused ministers of creating a “hostile environment” for LGBT people.
On Thursday evening, a leaked Downing Street briefing paper seen by ITV News showed that Mr Johnson had dropped plans for the ban.
But just hours later – following outrage from LGBT campaigners and health charities – Number 10 U-turned again, with a senior Government source quoted as saying the ban would feature in the next Queen’s Speech. However, it was reported that the legislation would cover “only gay conversion therapy, not trans”. This is despite the figures showing that trans people are at a greater risk of undergoing conversion therapy. The Prime Minister was said to have “changed his mind” after seeing the reaction to the earlier announcement.
The “U-turn on the U-turn” came just a day after Equalities Minister Mike Freer had assured MPs that the Government was “wholly committed” to legislation.
Jayne Ozanne, a former government LGBT adviser who survived 20 years of conversion therapy, said vulnerable people were being “thrown under the bus.”
“This is the Prime Minister’s decision and the Prime Minister has shown his true colors with regard to the LGBT community,” she told the PA news agency. “I think he thought he could get away with it, but this will horrify, I am sure, people right across the country who have believed frankly for years that this should have been banned.”
Conversion therapy in Scotland
The proposed ban would only affect England and Wales, not Scotland, but there is an action underway to set up a similar ban in Scotland. In August 2020, a petition to ban conversion therapy was lodged, calling on the Scottish Parliament to “ban the provision or promotion of LGBT+ conversion therapy in Scotland”.
Where has conversion therapy been banned so far?
In 1999, Brazil became the first country to ban conversion therapy relating to sexual orientation, according to Stonewall.
Many countries have followed suit by imposing a full or partial ban since, including Samoa, Canada, Germany, Mexico and parts of Australia.
Dozens of US states have also banned the practice, with the exception of religious organisations.
Additional reporting by PA.