In its current form, the conversion therapy bill risks harming our children
The conversion therapy bill has laudable objectives, but could have unintended consequences for the very people it’s meant to protect: gay, lesbian and bisexual children and young people.
Along with two others I co-founded the Bayswater Support Group, which supports 400 families navigate the tricky waters of parenting a trans-identified adolescent or young adult.
Our children tend to have complex, pre-existing mental health histories, and over 50 per cent had come out as lesbian or gay prior to hearing about trans. The majority have backgrounds of trauma, homophobic bullying or social rejection due to neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism and ADHD.
Of Bayswater members, approximately 75 per cent are parents to girls, most of whom first announced a trans identity around puberty. This reflects tendencies globally, and is a reversal of historical trends before 2010.
Gender identity is different from sexual orientation
As a group, we agree that there is no evidence that any sexual orientation can be changed, nor is it ethical to attempt to change this by physical or coercive means.
However, gender identity is not the same as sexual orientation, nor is it necessarily innate.
Unlike sexual orientation, gender identity concerns can lead to invasive, permanent medicalisation for which there is a very low evidence base, according to NICE.
Schools across the UK are teaching gender identity as a scientifically established fact, on par with – or even superseding – biological sex. This is often the first time our children have heard of this concept, which is then echoed across social media.
They are then directed to online communities and lobby groups, which promise an array of tempting outcomes from ‘gender euphoria’ to finding one’s ‘authentic self’ via surgery and hormones.
Unpicking these issues is exceptionally challenging. As parents, we obviously favour the route of least harm.
Ethical therapists could be criminalised
Parents therefore seek an exploratory perspective that looks at all of these factors underlying the desire to transition.
Ethical therapists tend to provide a safe and non-judgemental space to question assumptions and beliefs, and encourage children to consider a range of options. This is especially important, given the one-sided perspective that dominates in education, social media and popular culture.
To a non-conforming, same-sex attracted teen desperately trying to fit in with peers, a trans identity can appear to solve many problems of adolescence. It can also offer an illusory route to social acceptance by peers, or temporarily alleviate the distress caused by internalised homophobia.
The Stonewall-endorsed 2017 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), mandates a ‘gender affirming’ approach by regulatory bodies such as the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), British Psychological Society (BPS) and UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP).
This MOU was written without the consensus of the therapeutic community, in a process that lacked transparency. Subsequent attempts to engage with the MOU committee have been systematically “blocked”, prompting questions about whether the guidelines are based on ideology or therapeutic best practices.
Affirmation means taking a child’s new opposite sex or non-binary identity at face value, and immediately using their chosen names and pronouns. It also directly instructs therapists to condone/recommend/discuss medical ‘affirmation’ if so desired by the child vs. exploring alternative routes to alleviate distress..
This bill would enshrine this approach in law. We worry that any deviation from the affirmative approach could result in children or authorities reporting parents, therapists or teachers to the police.
Under the affirmative model, exploration of the etiology of the trans identity, especially same-sex attraction, would be considered a form of conversion therapy.
There is a strong chance that a ban could lead to children with gender identity issues not being able to receive any therapy at all. This is already the case in Victoria, Australia, where a similar conversion therapy ban has become law.
Whose lead should we follow?
The countries that are most enthusiastically embracing the idea of medical transition, and enshrining into law, include Iran, Argentina and Malta. These are also known for their chequered human rights records.
In contrast, Sweden, which is known as a socially compassionate democracy, has taken a step back from paediatric transition after examining emerging evidence on poor mental and physical health outcomes.
Listening to detransitioners
There is no clear, objective definition for gender identity, and no clarity about the ever-expanding range of terms associated with trans and gender.
The growing numbers of detransitioners (those who regret having transitioned and come to reject the idea that they are ‘trans’) demonstrate that feelings around ‘gender’ can evolve along with age and maturity.
Keira Bell, after winning her initial High Court victory in 2020, called for better mental health support – and safeguards – for trans-identified children. Banning therapy that explores underlying issues would be the opposite of this.
There is increasing evidence that the affirmation-only approach can lead to tragic outcomes, as experts question the data on how many over-18s have truly benefited from early transition.
Adding gender identity to any bill to ban conversion therapy is likely to result in more harm to children, not less.
We are asking politicians to engage with a broad range of parents, consider a wider set of evidence and think about longer-term impacts on children.
The most pragmatic action would be to remove ‘gender identity’ from any bill, pending evidence informed by the Cass independent review into UK-wide child gender identity services.