The United Kingdom moves towards a ban on “conversion therapy”

The United Kingdom moves towards a ban on “conversion therapy”

Author: Jade MacEwan
Photo source Unsplash

In the Opening of Parliament on 11 May 2021, Queen Elizabeth II promised that a ban on so-called “conversion therapy”, which aims to change a person’s sexuality or gender identity, would be brought forward in the United Kingdom. LGBT+ activists are concerned, however, as the Government Equalities Office confirmed that the ban would only take place following a consultation with the public, in order to “ensure that the ban can address the practice while protecting the medical profession; defending freedom of speech; and upholding religious freedom” (Pink News, 2021).

Although pleased that the British government has committed to ban on “conversion therapy”, LGBT+ rights activist Peter Tatchell has condemned the government as they have been promising the ban for three years now and have still not given a precise timeline for the passing the legislation or full details of the proposed ban. He is concerned in particular that exemptions may be made on religious grounds. LGBT+ activists have also voiced concerns about the public consultation, and the CEO of Stonewall, Nancy Kelley states that such a consultation “will be hard for our communities to hear” (Pink News, 2021).

The concerns that the ban may contain exemptions on religious grounds are not unfounded, as some religious groups are worried that the new legislation may criminalise faith leaders who aim to change a person’s sexuality or gender through prayer. British prime minister Boris Johnson has told the conservative Christian group Evangelical Alliance that he did “not want to see clergy and church members criminalised for normal non-coercive activity”. The United Nations has responded to the debate surrounding the proposed ban by stating that religious authorities must ensure that religion is not used for the purpose of discrimination against LGBT+ people, and that anti-LGBT+ rhetoric by religious leaders must be stopped as it leads to discrimination and amounts to hate speech (Thomson Reuters Foundation, 2021).

A full ban on so-called “conversion therapy” does not, however, mean limiting freedom of religion. The government in Victoria, Australia, introduced a bill last year banning conversion therapy, penalising those breaking this law with fines of up to $10,000 or up to 10 years in jail. The Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020 was introduced in November 2020, and passed into law in February 2021. Queensland, Australia, passed a similar bill in August 2020, but the Victorian bill goes further, as it covers anyone who attempts to “convert” another person, while the Queensland legislation only covers health care providers (The Guardian, 2020, ABC News, 2021).

The Victorian bill has raised concerns among some religious communities, as they view it as potentially causing threats to their religious freedoms, due to the fact that religious practices will be banned from aiming to change a person’s sexuality or gender under the new legislation. However, the bill protects both religious freedoms and LGBT+ rights, and complies with Victorian human rights laws. While it bans the misuse of spiritual activities which seek to change a person’s sexuality or gender identity, it does not ban general prayer, preaching or pastoral support on gender and sexuality issues (The Age, 2020).

According to the 2018 report “Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice”, up to 10 per cent of LGBT+ Australians are vulnerable to “conversion therapy”, and a 2015 survey of young Australians found that 7 per cent had been exposed to “conversion ideology”, in which they were taught at school that “gay people should become straight”. While Australian mental health professionals are held to account by a national code of ethics which prevents them from claiming that a person’s sexuality or gender can be changed, religious leaders and pastoral care workers are not, meaning that the Victorian bill is essential if LGBT+ people living in this region are to be protected from such harmful “therapies”. Now that the Victorian bill has passed, the rest of Australia may also be expected to introduce similar legislation. While conservative religious groups have tried to instil fear in religious people that they will be prosecuted for praying with LGBT+ people or offering advice to them, such fears are clearly unfounded. Many survivors of so-called “conversion therapy” continue to practice religion themselves, pray and seek pastoral advice (News Line Australia, 2020).

In fact, 370 religious leaders around the world have called for a ban on the practice of “conversion therapy”. The leaders, who include the South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and the former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, David Rosen, represent all the world’s major faiths. (BBC News, 2020).

It is, therefore, possible for the British government to put forward legislation for a complete ban on “conversion therapy” while also protecting freedom of religion. A poll conducted by YouGov showed that 64% of British people are in favour of a ban on “conversion therapy”. The president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Dr Adrian James, also stated “conversion therapy” was “unacceptable and harmful” and that the college fully supported a ban on this practice (The Guardian, 2021).


Links to Resources:

ABC News. (February 4, 2021). Victorian bill banning gay conversion therapy passes Upper House as amendments fail. ABC News. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-02-05/victorias-gay-conversion-bill-passes-upper-house/13122058

Admin. (December 18, 2020). Victoria’s conversion bill is world-leading legislation. News Line Australia. https://www.newsline.com.au/2020/12/08/victorias-conversion-bill-is-world-leading-legislation/

Farley, H. (December 16, 2020). Gay conversion therapy: Hundreds of religious leaders call for ban. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-55326461

Greenhalgh, H. (May 14, 2021). Faith leaders urged to stamp out anti-LGBT+ rhetoric. Thomson Reuters Foundation. https://news.trust.org/item/20210514131117-rblew/

Jones, T. (December 15, 2020). Churches’ fears for conversion bill are unfounded. The Age. https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/churches-fears-for-conversion-bill-are-unfounded-20201215-p56no3.html

Kelleher, P. (May 11, 2021). Boris Johnson told ‘get on with’ conversion therapy ban after announcing plans for public consultation. Pink News. https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2021/05/11/conversion-therapy-ban-uk-public-consultation/

Sherwood, H. (May 11, 2021). LGBT+ campaigners fear more delay to UK conversion therapy ban. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/may/11/lgbt-campaigners-fear-more-delay-uk-gay-conversion-therapy-ban

Taylor, J. (November 24, 2020). Victoria to ban ‘abhorrent’ practice of gay or gender conversion ‘therapy’. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/nov/24/victoria-to-ban-abhorrent-practice-of-gay-or-gender-conversion-therapy