Victoria Hewson is a solicitor and co-founder of Radical, a campaign for truth and freedom in the gender recognition debate. She and Rebecca Lowe, her co-founder, alternate authorship of this column on trans, sex and gender issues.
Last week saw a Westminster Hall debate and resignations from the Government’s LGBT advisory panel over the issue of ‘conversion therapy’. And yesterday on this site, Sue Pascoe and Crispin Blunt made an emotive case for the inclusion of ‘gender identity’ in the ban they are seeking.
The most striking thing about their piece was the failure to address what exactly they believe the term ‘conversion therapy’ encompasses, if it is to incorporate matters of ‘gender identity’, or to acknowledge the serious adverse implications of their preferred approach.
Campaigners are seeking to portray this as a straightforward campaign to protect vulnerable people from abuse. In reality an existing issue is being exploited by gender-identity activists to further entrench gender ideology in medical practice.
What is conversion therapy?
Sometimes called ‘gay conversion therapy’, the term used to be understood as ‘treatment’ for homosexual people to ‘cure’ them of attraction to members of the same sex. Often associated with religious communities, historically it typically involved medical or pseudo-medical interventions, including horrifying procedures like electric shock therapy. Such ‘therapies’ are often cruel and abusive, exploiting the trauma of sometimes troubled individuals, struggling to accept their sexual orientation, who may have already been stigmatised and abused in their families and communities.
The May government pledged in 2018 in its LGBT Action Plan to end ‘conversion therapy’. Recently, the Johnson government has affirmed its commitment to ending conversion therapy, but has been seeking evidence on its prevalence.
Given that in the UK today, all major UK therapy professional bodies and the NHS disagree with such practices on logical and ethical grounds, it seems sensible to identify where and by whom such practices are still being carried out, before embarking on law-making to counter it. If it is the case that these practices have already been effectively banned, by law and by professional standards regulation, then passing additional laws is unnecessary, and passing unnecessary laws always comes with the risk of unintended consequences.
The 2018 action plan did not define ‘conversion therapy’, however — and included the experiences of transgender people in its findings on the matter, which implies a broader understanding of ‘conversion therapy’ than the traditional understanding discussed above.
Indeed, the BBC now defines conversion therapy as ‘any form of treatment or psychotherapy which aims to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity’. And Stonewall, which has been campaigning strongly for a ban, define sit as including ‘any form of treatment or psychotherapy that aims to change a person’s sexual orientation or to suppress a person’s gender identity.’
On these more expansive definitions, the term becomes something different from its ‘traditional’ use as a shorthand for the widely understood term ‘gay conversion therapy’. This complicates things. It means that the seemingly simple matter of finding out whether something that is morally wrong — ‘gay conversion therapy’, as discussed above — is being practised under the name of ‘therapy’, now also involves seeking answers to questions about other kinds of unrelated practice.
Accordingly, trans rights activists and LGBT groups are calling — under this umbrella of ‘conversion therapy’ — for a ban on talking therapies aimed at trying to help people suffering from gender dysphoria to reconcile themselves to their biological sex, without embarking on pathway of drugs and surgery as part of a transition.
This is clearly a very different kind of practice from ‘therapies’ seeking to stifle people’s natural sexual orientation. It includes the kind of therapy that might be offered to a young girl who thinks she might be transgender, to try and help her accept her female body, perhaps by exploring other factors in her life such as autism (which is very common in trans-identifying girls).
Indeed, any course of formal action that does not involve accepting the assertion of a person that they are trans, and that they therefore need to be assisted towards becoming more like the opposite sex, could be caught by a ban on conversion therapy, if it incorporates the new expansive understanding of the term.
There is a further complication. Groups who wish to include gender identity ‘suppression’ within a ban on ‘conversion therapy’ should explain how transgender treatments like hormones and surgery do not themselves amount to gay conversion therapy. Why should we not consider it to be the case that children (who are unable to consent to such ‘treatments’) who have been set on these medicalised pathways by UK medical professionals have, therefore, been made subject to gay conversion therapy?
The vast majority of gender non-conforming children (a phrase which, in these gender obsessed times, is typically used to refer to girls and boys who simply do not confirm to sex-based stereotypes) do not transition. Rather, they accept their sex, and many of them grow up to be gay. So it is surely possible to frame the kind of ‘therapy’ and medical interventions that are carried out on such ‘trans children’ as a form of conversion therapy. Turning gay and lesbian young people into ‘straight’ transpeople, in this way, is sometimes called ‘transing the gay away’.
Influential groups like Mermaids have long favoured ‘affirmation-based’ approaches to ‘helping’ children who identify as the opposite sex — not only through social transition, but also through the administering of hormones, and ultimately surgery. These medical practices are finally beginning to be recognised as morally and legally wrong. The recent case of Keira Bell, and the CQC report into the Portman and Tavistock NHS Trust Gender Identity Development Service, have highlighted serious ethical and professional failings in the treatment of young people referred for gender identity related services.
It is essential to recognise, therefore, that a broadly defined ban on conversion therapy, which includes gender identity and expression, could make it a criminal offence to offer therapy aimed at avoiding such drastic and damaging interventions. In a field already crying out for an ethical overhaul — recognising the urgent need to redress ideological capture — such a ban could have catastrophic effects for practitioners wishing to avert intrusive treatments and help young people to feel at ease with their bodies.
As well as the serious risk of furthering gender ideology in this damaging way, a ban on ‘conversion therapy’ that is sufficiently expansive as to include non-medical contexts — such as religious counselling, and other practices that do not purport to be medical ‘therapies’ — would essentially be a form of prohibition of certain forms of speech.
This could affect gay and trans people who wish to live in accordance with certain religious values and principles, and the people they might turn to, such as priests, imams, and other religious leaders and scholars who teach traditional religious sexual and moral codes. Equalities minister Kemi Badenoch alluded to this in her remarks addressing why the government was proceeding with care on any interventions in respect of ‘conversion therapy’.
Most importantly, however, healthcare professions should be supported and encouraged in rooting out practices that are unethical and unsupported by evidence and clinical good practice. This self-evidently includes offering therapy that purports to ‘cure’ people of being gay. Abusive and violent actions by parents, religious figures, or anyone else, are already against the law, and such laws should be enforced.
It is notable that the Bell case revealed that gender treatment centres have been acting unlawfully for years in prescribing puberty blockers without proper consent. Addressing the illegal off-label use of such drugs on young people and children on an experimental basis should be made a priority of government action. Whereas, an expansively-understood ban on therapies and treatments in respect of gender identity would take us in the opposite direction to what is urgently required to protect vulnerable children and young people.