A recently released survey report claims to have found evidence that many conversion therapy practices experienced by gender diverse people are harmful. It also calls for a blanket ban on these practices. However, a careful reading of the report shows that a ban of the type proposed would risk further harm to and discrimination against gender diverse people.
A ban of the type proposed would risk further harm to and discrimination against gender diverse people.
The ‘2020 “Conversion Therapy” & Gender Identity Survey’ seeks to explore key questions about the practice of gender identity conversion therapy (GICT) in the UK. It found that such practices do occur and are harmful to gender diverse people. The report highlights in particular the culpability of religion and religious leaders in GICT. Based on the findings, the report authors call for a legislative ban on all conversion therapy practices, regardless of whether individuals consent to them, and with the specific inclusion of religious practices.
Good questions, bad answers
The questions these charities are seeking to answer are good ones, and important ones. If there is the potential that harmful, coercive and abusive practices are taking place, it is important that we learn about and respond to these. Christians should be the first to recognise the importance of protecting all people from any such practices.
Unfortunately, however, the research offered in this report is of such a poor quality that it is unable to offer any helpful answers to these questions.
The survey draws on responses from only 87 people who have been offered GICT, 51 of whom have actually gone through it. These respondents volunteered to complete the survey when it was advertised on the social media channels of the commissioning LGBT+ charities. In reality, the data can tell us no more than what has happened to this small number of people, many of whom are likely to hold similar views because they are followers of the LGBT+ charities.
A key claim of the research is that gender identity conversion therapy is harmful to gender diverse people, but it is hard to see how the results prove this conclusion. When asked about the result of the conversion therapy, 19% said ‘it worked completely’. Another 19% said ‘it seemed to work for a while, but it then wore off’. (Perhaps further therapy would have allowed this group to experience longer term change.) In total then, these practices proved to be at least partially effective for 40% of respondents who had undergone them.
The report also notes that people who had undergone such therapies were more likely to report severe mental health problems. This is true, but the study can tell us nothing about why this is, and no attempt is made to highlight that there are many possible explanations for this fact. This would include the possibility that those struggling with pre-existing mental health conditions were more eager to accept forms of help that were offered to them.
Another problem is the extremely broad definition of conversion therapy used in the survey. It covers interventions designed to change or suppress both gender identity (a person’s internal sense of gender) and gender expression (a person’s external presentation of their gender). This means that it could include anything from a parent making their child dress in a certain way through to corrective rape or physical abuse. If such a definition was used for a legal ban, it would become illegal for a medical professional to help someone explore the potential roots of their sense of gender, or to consider avenues that might help them to feel more comfortable living with their body without requiring invasive hormonal or surgical treatments. Perhaps most telling here is the survey’s identification of individual private prayer as a potential form of GICT. This is actually the second most common form of ‘conversion therapy’ reported among the respondents. Under the survey’s definition, 21 people had conducted conversion therapy on themselves.
We must also acknowledge, however, the sobering reality that the survey has identified cases of abusive practice. For example, nine people reported experiencing beatings, three corrective rape, and three forced feeding or food deprivation. Whilst this data can do nothing to tell us how common these practices are, the very fact that they have happened to even one person is heartbreaking and unacceptable, and it demands a response. We must grieve with the victims. We must ensure that suitable support is readily available to all survivors of abuse. And we must make sure that the relevant laws and safeguarding practices – all of which are already in place – are robust enough that gender diverse people, and indeed all people, are protected from abuse.
The right response
The sort of ban being proposed in this report would harm those it seeks to protect.
A response is necessary, but the response proposed by this report would not be helpful. The sort of ban being proposed in this report would harm those it seeks to protect. It would limit their freedom to gain the support of medical professionals to explore factors that may be contributing to a distressing experience or support to seek to feel more comfortable living with their body. It would also limit their freedom to gain the spiritual support that should be available to all people in society. Such a ban would leave many Christians and churches so fearful of transgressing the law that they would feel unable to engage with gender diverse people.
It is right for us to seek to protect a group of people who have often been harmed and discriminated against, but we must make sure that in seeking to do so we don’t actually subject them to further harm and discrimination.
Andrew has also written a more thorough review of the ‘2020 “Conversion Therapy” & Gender Identity Survey’ which is available on the Christian Medical Fellowship blog.