Will a UK ban on gay conversion therapy work?

Campaigners hope the government will announce one in its LGBT action plan. 

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Late in 2017, an assistant pastor in Anfield, Liverpool recommended to a new member of the congregation that he fast for 24 hours to prepare for weekly prayer therapy sessions to correct his sexuality. This would be part of his “deliverance”, an activity used to cleanse a person of demons and evil spirits. To complement this, he would be expected to attend a secluded three-day course where he could only eat fruit from the church.

This prescription might never come to light if it wasn't for one thing - the new member was in fact journalist Josh Parry, who went undercover at the local Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministry. A spokesman for the church told his newspaper, the Liverpool Echo, that the pastor acted outside church guidance and denied the church discriminated against people based on their sexuality. Yet the “deliverance” reported by Parry is only one of the numerous cases that have raised concern over the fact gay conversion therapy is still legal in the UK.

In theory, medical bodies are opposed to such therapy. A signed formal agreement, a Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy, recognises the shared responsibiliity medical professionals have in opposing gay conversion therapy. Yet as the memorandum itself notes, a 2009 study found that one in six psychological therapists have engaged in efforts to help a client change their sexual orientation or reduce their sexual feelings. Nor does the memorandum cover other aspects of society where the practice can be found. According to a report by American Psychological Association, gay conversion therapy is thought to increase a person’s suicidal thoughts by almost nine times.

Books promoting conversion therapy can easily be bought on Amazon under many category headings, including parenting, self-help and mental health research. Religious groups often advertise therapy online using words such as “reparative therapy” or “homosexual deliverance”. Research by the LGBT rights charity Stonewall found that among a sample of roughly 3,000 health and social care staff, ten per cent had witnessed a colleagues say homesexuality can be “cured”.

This year Labour MP Ben Bradshaw told the House of Commons that a ban on such therapy is “long overdue”. A government LGBT action plan due this week is expected to include one. Another Labour MP, Sarah Champion, welcomed the news, telling Buzzfeed: “The concept behind conversion therapy, that a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity is something that needs to be cured, is highly offensive and incredibly damaging to those exposed to it.” A ban, in short, would mark a step forward in the eyes of many LGBT campaigners. But how would it work in practice?

Matthew Mahmood-Ogston’s partner of 13 years killed himself in 2014, two days after unwillingly coming out to his Muslim family. Naz’s family suggested he see a psychiatrist for a cure. He took his life instead. After starting the charity Naz and Matt Foundation, Mahmood-Ogston has campaigned for gay conversion therapy to be criminalised. He believes criminalising the act would send a clear message to those who suggest it as an option. 

Yet while politicians might be willing to listen at present, they are often unaware of the scale of the challenge. When he had a short meeting with the then-home secretary, Amber Rudd, about the therapy, Mahmood-Ogston says her response was to ask “why can't we just tell people not to do it?” 

One of the obstacles to preventing gay conversion therapy is that the treatment proposed can vary in ways that makes it hard to regulate. For example, electric shock therapy may be used to treat depression – or as a shock inflicted on a gay man, every time he is shown a pornographic image involving men. Although most cases in the UK tend not to be as harsh as this, with most documented cases today involving a psychiatrist, they are said to still have detrimental effects to the patient's health. In the US, several states have now banned gay conversion therapy, but most laws focus on banning therapy for minors. Some deliberately sidestep religious institutions, where much of the therapy may actually take place.

Some conversion therapy happens in private. Mahmood-Ogston recalls a case told to him by a paramedic in northern England, where a gay child was only let out once a week. His religious parents believed they could “convert” him through physical abuse and isolation. “That exorcism is their version of gay cure therapy,” Mahmood-Ogston says. The child eventually collapsed on the street.

Religious opponents of a ban argue that gay feelings can change, and that there is a difference between electric shock treatment and “talking therapy”. A spokesman for evangelical Christian group Core Issues Trust, Mike Davidson himself underwent this to maintain a “stable relationship” with his wife and family. He argues that it is the public that is not open-minded when it comes to the idea that gay feelings can change. The Core Issues Trust was set to show a documentary promoting the therapy at Vue cinema in early February, but the screening was dropped after over 600 people signed a petition for it to be cancelled.

This highlights one of the difficulties of simply imposing a top-down ban on gay conversion therapy. Although a ban may reduce the chances of it being offered and promoted, without more substantial support for potential victims, there is a risk that the industry will simply go underground, where it will not be open to challenge at all. When the boy who collapsed in northern England was asked why he had not reported his situation to the police, he explained that the police knew but he refused to press charges on his family, as he would lose everything. Those wishing to combat gay conversion therapy effectively may need to follow up a ban with practical ways to ensure it can actually be enforced.

As for the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministry’s Liverpool branch, it no longer has any mention of “homosexual deliverance” on its website, although its Virginia branch still offers “Healing & Deliverance Prayers For Gays and Lesbians”. 

Anyone affected by this article can call Switchboard, the LGBT+ helpline, on 0300 330 0630, or find out more about the Naz and Matt Foundation here.