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6 April 2022

Conversion therapy mistakes being trans for a mental health issue

It is no wonder the government scrapped its LGBT conference after fumbling the issue so badly.

By Ben Howlett

Would you sit around the family dinner table talking about someone’s genitals? How about asking someone whether they’ve lived as a woman for two years in front of their children? What about whether they received an invite for a smear test now that they are living as a man?

Dehumanising isn’t it? But this is what life is like for most trans people in the UK today. The ongoing arguments are toxic on both sides, often riddled with mistruths and remind me of the hearts vs minds debates that ripped the country apart following the EU referendum. 

The arguments thrown around on transgender issues often miss the point. There is no doubt that trans people are suffering. In the UK a study found that 34.4 per cent of trans people had attempted suicide at least once, while a study from the Netherlands found that trans suicide rates were at 40 people per 100,000 (the general population rate was 11 people per 100,000). Imagine the uproar if heterosexual people were trying to kill themselves at this volume.

It is no wonder that so many organisations — more than 100 — pulled out of the government’s LGBT conference following the government’s decision to exclude transgender people from its proposed ban on conversion therapy, breaking a key manifesto pledge. It looks even worse for the government that it will now cancel the event, Safe to Be Me: A Global Equality Conference, altogether.

The supposed reason for leaving trans people out of the ban was that including them could mean criminalising medical professionals who want to help people to identify any other reasons behind their desire to change gender. But this rationale is incorrect. To say that being transgender is a mental health issue is simply a misreporting of facts. Since 2019 the global standards for disease classifications released by the World Health Organisation has not classified “gender incongruence” as a mental health condition. As such, all relevant regulatory bodies in the UK — the British Psychological Society, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy — agree that you cannot counsel for gender identity. As a result, a trans person or someone with gender incongruence should only be seeing a mental health practitioner for some other condition — anxiety, OCD, etc.

It is for this reason that a legislative ban on trans conversion therapy is so important. If the government pursues the “alternative options” for preventing such therapy that it has described, counselling will inevitably fall to the regulatory bodies that have already said that you cannot counsel on gender identity. Without a legislative ban there is a risk that unregulated practitioners will continue to be able to act with impunity and the rights of those who wish to practice conversion therapy will be prioritised over its victims. There are groups of unregulated mental health practitioners (typically called “counsellors” because this is not a protected term) who will continue to operate without a ban, and the consequences of that could be extremely detrimental.

Since the UK enthusiastically signed up to the UN Sustainable Development Goals pledge to “leave no one behind” this country has gone backwards. In the words of the former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, the UK “will only realise this vision if we reach all people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity”. It is therefore imperative that we rally behind everyone’s right to access universal services, no matter how they define themselves. Human history is littered with mistakes based on poor judgement and limited evidence; today’s relationship with trans people feels shamefully similar. Trans people are human beings too. Let’s treat them with respect. Let’s not repeat the mistakes of yesterday.

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