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The government faces pressure for its conversion therapy double U-turn

Q Cummins explores the government's history on LGBT+ policy and how their double U-turn over banning conversion therapy has been received

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In a move viewed by many as controversial the government has recently announced its intention to end the practice of conversion therapy for lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) individuals but not the transgender community. This U-turn has come in the wake of a previous decision to end a prior campaign to abolish all conversion therapy, with the government initially claiming that both transgender and gay conversion therapy would remain legal within the UK.

The current discussion regarding conversion therapy in the UK can be traced back to 2018, when Penny Mordaunt who was the minister for Women and Equalities at the time, stated a commitment to “banning the abhorrent practice of conversion therapy” during a launch event for the Government LGBT action plan. Though it is notable that the issue has been a topic of discussion for many years prior with groups such as Stonewall petitioning for it to be banned for several years before.

Conversion therapy is widely viewed as a pseudoscience, with a history rooted in methods such as hypnosis, electroshock therapy and even lobotomies being used to achieve desired results in patients. Though this is no longer the case, modern day conversion therapy is still considered to be unethical and potentially dangerous by healthcare professionals including the NHS, with some individuals being subject to methods such as “corrective rape” and starvation. Yet some religious groups claim a legal ban on the practice would be an infringement on their religious freedom to consider LGBT+ lifestyles as sinful and requiring such treatments.

Though after the 20th century the practice of conversion therapy has decreased, government data from 2017 showed that 2,000 LGBT people had undergone the treatment with 5,400 offered it out of sample of 108,000. Transgender people were also found to be twice as likely to have been offered the practice than those who identified as gay and bisexual.

After the 2018 Conservative party pledge to eradicate conversion therapy little was done about the issue until December 2020, where government funding was used to support a conference for leaders of multiple faiths to call an end to the practice. The government then proposed a bill to ban the practice in 2021.

This bill was then contradicted by a government spokesperson in March 2022, who stated that the government was no longer thinking of banning the practice but instead using pre-existing laws to prevent the practice. This news was met with significant outcry both from the public and Conservative backbenchers, three hours later it was amended by another government spokesperson stating that the government would be banning the practice after all, but only in regard to LGB individuals.

Conservative politicians stated that this opposition to a legal ban on transgender conversion therapy is because it may be potentially harmful to parents attempting to support gender questioning children. The issue of how best to aid transgender or gender questioning children is one that has raised much more divisive controversy in recent years. Last year an appeal case ruled against the previous high court decision that children under the age of 16 were too young to use puberty blockers, a decision seen by many as a step in the right direction for the rights of transgender individuals. Yet in the same year that this milestone was reached for the transgender community, the government also rejected a proposition to legally recognise non-binary identities. These contradictory outcomes highlight the conflicted status of transgender rights within relation to the UK legal and political system which may have contributed to such a U-turn.

The government has had to cancel their 2022 LGBT+ “Safe to Be Me” conference, due to over 100 LGBT+ and HIV centric groups pulling out of the event in protest to the amended conversion therapy policy. This swiftly following the resignation of the government’s LGBT+ business champion Iain Anderson, who alleged that by failing to ban transgender conversion therapy the government were attempting to “drive a wedge” between trans people and the rest of the LGBT community. In a resignation interview with ITV News Anderson stated, “I was LGBT business champion not LGB or T, and that’s why I’m walking away.”

This sentiment was echoed on 10 April by wider members of the LGBT+ community outside Downing Street. An estimated over three thousand gathered in London to protest the ban, chanting “LGB with the T '' and “Keep trans in the ban” among many other slogans. Another protest was carried out at the same time in Belfast, highlighting how widespread criticism of the government’s standpoint has been within the community.

It is unknown as of yet whether this response from the LGBT+ community will influence the government to take another U-turn regarding transgender conversion therapy. Currently the Welsh Deputy Minister has stated that the Welsh Government plan to ban transgender conversion therapy of their own accord, calling the government’s decision a “partial U-turn” that “abandon[s]” those they had made a “very direct promise” to protect.

As of the time of this article conversion therapy is illegal in Brazil; Ecuador, Germany, Malta, Albania, Argentina and Switzerland (in a medical professional setting), Canada, Chile, Fiji, France, Germany, India, Israel, Nauru, New Zealand, Samoa, Taiwan, China (on a case-by-case basis), Uruguay and many individual regions within Australia, Spain and the United States.

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