One recurring claim in discussions about the Government’s upcoming ban on conversion therapy has confused me. It’s the claim that things that have hugely blessed me – such as clear teaching of the historic Christian sexual ethic and loving pastoral care – are actually acts of torture. This has confused me because it couldn’t be further from how I have experienced those things.
This claim is being made by several of the groups and individuals campaigning for a ban that would go beyond efforts to change sexual orientation and would include anything that helps or encourages people to suppress their orientation or change their behaviour. When the claim is made, statements from international organisations are often cited in support.
For example, in an open letter to Liz Truss, the Ban Conversion Therapy group wrote: ‘The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims has said that conversion therapy is torture. The U.N. has called for the end to conversion therapy globally.’1 And in a recent Telegraph article, Jayne Ozanne of the Ozanne Foundation is quoted as saying: ‘Conversion therapy has been declared torture by the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims. Those who seek to claim they have a right to cause harm are woefully mistaken.’2
They do highlight that I have a right to forms of support that will help me to live out my sexuality in line with my personal convictions.
Confused by these claims, I thought it would be a good idea to look into them. And when I did, I found that despite what some are claiming, the UN and other international bodies don’t actually think I’ve been subjected to torture. But they do highlight that I have a right to forms of support that will help me to live out my sexuality in line with my personal convictions. Let me show you two examples.
The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims
One organisation often cited when people claim that I’ve been tortured is the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT). The IRCT is an independent organisation that works towards the prevention of torture and for the rehabilitation of torture victims. They released an expert statement on conversion therapy in 2020.3
The statement concludes that conversion therapy ‘may amount to torture depending on the circumstances, namely the severity of physical and mental pain and suffering inflicted.’4 So, conversion therapy is sometimes torture.
But it is also important to look at their definition of conversion therapy. This is set out in the very first sentence of the statement: ‘Conversion therapy is a set of practices that aim to change or alter an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity.’5 This definition carefully restricts the term ‘conversion therapy’ to attempts that seek to actually change sexual orientation or gender identity.6
This clarification is important. It means I haven’t been subjected to torture. I have never been encouraged to or even invited to engage with a practice that was aimed at changing my sexual orientation. It also means that we here at Living Out are not engaging in torture: we don’t believe that seeking change in one’s orientation is part of the Bible’s teaching for gay people.
So, on closer examination, the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims doesn’t think I have been the victim of torture.
United Nations Independent Expert report
The United Nations has released several statements that mention conversion therapy. The most recent is a report submitted to the Human Rights Council by the Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.7 The report concludes that actions to subject people to conversion therapy ‘create a significant risk of torture’.8
But what constitutes conversion therapy in this report? It’s actually a little unclear. In its initial definition, the report talks about practices based on the belief that sexual orientation and gender identity ‘can and should be changed or suppressed’.9 Would this suppression include, for example, pastoral support to help someone live out their sexuality in line with their Christian convictions? From what follows, I think not.
A couple of sentences later, the definition is further clarified: ‘Such practices are therefore consistently aimed at effecting a change from non-heterosexual to heterosexual and from trans or gender diverse to cisgender.’10 This and the fact that almost the entirety of the remainder of the report focusses on orientation change efforts suggest that the forms of conversion therapy that produce a ‘risk of torture’ are actually practices designed to bring about change in sexual orientation, as in the IRCT definition.11 This is not what I have experienced in the context of church teaching and pastoral care, and it is not what we at Living Out advocate for.
But this report does raise another important point. It observes that individuals ‘may wish to align their behaviour and expression’ to their personal convictions, and states that ‘self-determination’ creates the space for this.12 The report also notes that ‘individuals may choose to avail themselves of mechanisms of support and counselling, some of which may be based on psychological, medical or religious approaches related to the exploration, free development and/or affirmation of one’s identity’, so long as, it clarifies, ‘conversion’ isn’t the claimed outcome.13
This is an important point. Many of us have benefited from, and continue to benefit from, various forms of support that help us to live out our sexuality in line with our religious convictions. These forms of support are nothing to do with ‘converting’ our sexuality; they’re just the sort of support that everyone in society should be able to access as they seek to live in line with their personal convictions.
Not a victim of torture but a potential victim of discrimination
I admit that reading the reports was sobering. The accounts of truly abhorrent abusive practices being conducted on people like me around the world have challenged me in my relative naivety about the situation of LGBT people in other countries. We should support moves to end such practices globally.
But it seems that, despite what I’m hearing from some, international bodies like the UN don’t think that I have been subjected to torture, and neither do they think that we at Living Out or churches that hold to the historic Christian sexual ethic are subjecting people to torture through preaching, prayer and pastoral support.
What the UN does note though, is that I have a right to access various forms of support and counselling to help me live out my sexuality without any need to try and convert it. That’s why we need a targeted ban that stops coercive and abusive practices which claim to change someone’s sexuality, but we also need to retain the freedom for gay people like me to access the support we need. I’m glad that the UN is on my side.
- ‘An Open Letter to the RT Hon Liz Truss’, Ban Conversion Therapy. Accessed 15 April 2021.
- Tim Wyatt, ‘Conversion therapy ban “would criminalise Christian parents stopping children seeking transgender treatment”’, The Telegraph. Accessed 15 April 2021.
- 'Statement on Conversion Therapy’, International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims. The IRCT also released a news article and a global research report on the topic.
- 'Statement on Conversion Therapy’, p.8. Accessed 12 April 2021.
- 'Statement on Conversion Therapy’, p.1. Accessed 12 April 2021.
- In fact, the statement later makes it clear that its definition consciously doesn’t include talk of suppressing or diverting sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. 'Statement on Conversion Therapy’, p.2. Accessed 12 April 2021.
- Victor Madrigal-Borloz, ‘‘Practices of so-called “conversion therapy”’, Human Rights Council.
- ‘Practices of so-called “conversion therapy”’, p.21. Accessed 12 April 2021.
- ‘Practices of so-called “conversion therapy”’, p.4. Accessed 12 April 2021.
- ‘Practices of so-called “conversion therapy”’, p.4. Accessed 12 April 2021.
- I say ‘almost the entirety’ because they do briefly discuss contexts in which ‘homosexuals are directed not to engage in same-sex sexual activities’. I don’t think I have been ‘directed not to engage in same-sex sexual activities’. I have been shown what the Bible teaches about sex and marriage so that I can make my own choices about how I am going to follow Jesus. Also, importantly, we should note that the previous sentence opens the paragraph by stating, ‘Celibacy is sometimes presented as a way of obtaining redemption’. (‘Practices of so-called “conversion therapy”’, p.13. Accessed 12 April 2021.) This is certainly not what we at Living Out teach. We believe the goal for all Christians is holiness, not heterosexuality. See the section ‘Godliness is not heterosexuality’ in ‘Does Living Out Support “Gay Cure” or “Reparative Therapy”?’.
- ‘Practices of so-called “conversion therapy”, pp.16-17. Accessed 12 April 2021.
- ‘Practices of so-called “conversion therapy”’, p.17. Accessed 12 April 2021.