Cllr Daniel Gilbert is a councillor in Milton Keynes and former Special Adviser in the Department for Business.
I was surprised to read a contribution in Conservative Home a week ago describing the proposed conversion therapy ban as “homophobic”. If this is homophobia, then I must need a new pair of glasses.
As far as I could make out, the piece by Gary Powell considers the Government’s proposals to be anti-gay because they protect transgender identity in opposition to lesbian and gay identities. Apparently, the Bill risks tempting gay people into a life of “bogus heterosexuality” by removing the option of therapy and thereby leading them down a path to gender reassignment. As he puts it, “I’m not gay: I’m a girl in a boy’s body”. It’s as if Powell foresees an army of pro-gay conversion therapists encouraging young men and women to come out the closet rather than assert a different gender. As if this contorted logic wasn’t ridiculous enough, he then compares a young person questioning their gender as being tantamount to a young person suffering from the disease of anorexia.
I’m not interested in cancel culture. Have your say by all means. But let’s subject these claims to challenge.
I would be interested to see any research on the number of young people incorrectly forced to change gender versus the number of gay people exposed to actual or attempted conversion therapy. I doubt the numbers stack up. In any event, it is a bizarre divide-and-conquer tactic to deploy gay rights against trans rights. Then we get the dog-whistle: the fears about scores of children being prescribed “puberty blockers” as a reason to oppose the ban. This is just intended to divert attention from the real problem the Government is seeking to address.
Here’s a reality check: the Bill is not about the treatment of gender dysphoria on the NHS. It’s about the regulation of potentially abusive power by those in authority operating behind closed doors.
Powell then goes on to describe a Conversion Therapy Bill as “completely unnecessary” because “adequate laws to protect lesbian and gay young people from homophobic abuse and discrimination already exist”. This is an entirely separate point. The case made forcefully by Liz Truss, the Bill’s sponsor minister, is that so-called conversion therapy is a separate and distinct activity that is not captured by current legislation and so ought to be outlawed.
By its very nature, conversion therapy is a covert activity, and so it is hard to determine its prevalence. The Government consultation cites the National LGBT Survey 2017, which found that five per cent of respondents had been offered conversion or reparative therapy “in an attempt to cure them of being LGBT”, and a further two per cent said they had undergone it. Even if the incidence is relatively low, this should not be a reason to overlook the crime.
The phrase conversion “therapy” lends a clinical feel to what is an otherwise abusive process. Men and women are sent to secretive bible seminars, preached at, cut off from opposing arguments, shamed into believing they are broken, deceived into believing they can be fixed. They are threatened implicitly or explicitly with exclusion from the religious community. Some may be encouraged to marry a person of the opposite sex and have a family, with the inevitable emotional consequences this causes down the road.
I am proud to live in a progressive and accepting country. But the ideals of a liberal and tolerant Britain should be open to everyone. For the avoidance of doubt, this abuse does not take place in some exotic faraway location but in British towns and cities, carried by people that you might otherwise consider to be educated fellow citizens. This is not therapy, it’s abuse. It’s not pro-family, it’s anti-family. We can ban it just as we can ban incitement to religious hatred.
That said, I do see weaknesses in the proposals. The Bill will require careful scrutiny. There is a difficult balance to strike between protecting individuals from abuse and protecting freedom of speech. As the consultation says, “We do not intend to ban adults from seeking such counselling freely, but consent requirements will be robust and stringent.” How robust and stringent these requirements are remains to be seen, given the secretive way in which such counselling operates. Many a victim may yet fall through a loophole.
While the Government’s proposals can’t undo the damage of Section 28, the ban and its associated measures will go a long way to cementing our party’s reputation as the standard-bearers for individual liberty, building on the equal marriage legislation during the Cameron years. As a party that believes in personal freedom, takes pride in the blessings of Western liberal democracy, and believes in protecting the freedom of the individual against the totalitarian group-think of these closed-off communities, then surely this ban is right.