In the last few years, the discussion surrounding transgender rights has increased. Some may argue that this is positive; more discussion means more awareness. However, alongside an increase in awareness, there has also been a rise in transphobic rhetoric and, what some have named, anti-trans hysteria. Around the world, issues of access to the correct toilets, the right to participate in sports and much more have become subjects of intense debate.
Recently, the harmful practice of conversion therapy has become a key topic of discussion. Stonewall provides a concise definition of conversion therapy, saying:
“Conversion therapy (or ‘cure’ therapy or reparative therapy) refers to any form of treatment or psychotherapy which aims to change a person’s sexual orientation or to suppress a person’s gender identity. It is based on an assumption that being lesbian, gay, bi or trans is a mental illness that can be ‘cured’.”1
In 2020, a petition started to ban LGBT+ conversion therapy in the UK. This petition received over 250,000 signatures and in the Queen’s speech in May 2021, the UK government expressed their commitment to making conversion therapy illegal.2 The proposed ban included a concerning addition that someone over the age of 18 could consent to non-harmful conversion therapy and, in this situation, it would not be illegal. This has been highly criticised by many, namely NHS England, who stated that all forms of conversion therapy are harmful.
After months of consultations the government announced their decision to drop the ban on conversion therapy, notably announced on the 31st of March, trans visibility day.3 In response to large backlash, the government then reaffirmed their plans to make conversion therapy illegal, however, this new plan did not extend to cover transgender conversion therapy. Once again, a petition was created asking the government to extend the ban which has so far received over 147,000 signatures.
In response to this, the government has provided three main reasons for not including transgender people in these protections. Each one of these arguments lacks grounding and logic and fails to consider the humanity of the situation; a UK survey in 2018 found that transgender people are two times more likely to have suffered conversion therapy.4 By exploring the government’s main three arguments, we can see that a non-inclusive ban on conversion therapy is not only inhumane but illogical and impractical.
1. An inclusive ban would lead to healthcare professionals being convicted
This concept that an inclusive ban would lead to the conviction of healthcare professionals surfaced after the publication of the Cass Report, a report on the state of children’s gender identity services.5 It concluded that there was a need to rethink these services as they are currently so limited that many children do not have adequate access or support through their transition. This report noted that many clinicians feel that they must take an affirmative only approach to gender therapy, meaning that they must immediately affirm the new gender of a patient without having time to explore the gender dysphoria and other underlying issues. These concerns were raised in tandem with concerns of a lack of clinical consensus and a lack of adequate psychological services for gender-questioning children.
In summary, the Cass Report argued that gender-questioning children deserved the same level of paediatric and psychological care as any other children and therefore more facilities and training are required across the NHS. However, this has been taken by certain politicians to signify that, under an inclusive ban, health professionals will feel forced to immediately affirm a new gender to questioning children for fear of being charged with conversion therapy if they attempt to explore these feelings.
This point was the main focus of the parliamentary debate held on the 8th of June 2022. During this debate a key distinction was raised; the distinction between licensed professionals and ‘quackery.’ Conversion therapy is forceful and leaves no room for exploration. In conversion therapy there is a ‘right answer’; to not transition and to rid oneself of any feelings of transitioning. This is largely undertaken by bodies or individuals who have no training and are unregulated in their practice (‘quackery’). This is oppressive and damaging. In contrast, the work undertaken by licensed professionals, who are regulated experts, is explorative. There is no ‘right answer,’ simply an exploration of any underlying feelings and thoughts while presenting different options before allowing the individual to decide.
This fundamental distinction ensures that medical professionals would not be convicted for doing their jobs, provided they are offering explorative therapy and options. Furthermore, an inclusive ban has been supported by many medical bodies such as the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Psychiatrists. We must ask ourselves, if this ban will truly lead to the conviction of medical professionals, then why is it supported by medical bodies?
Overall, the argument that an inclusive ban would cause convictions for medical professionals fails to consider the distinction between explorative and conversion therapies. A clarification of definitions and licensed procedures would easily ensure the protection of medical professionals.
2. An inclusive ban would be 'too complicated'
The government has also argued that a trans-inclusive ban on conversion therapy would be ‘too complicated’ to write and implement. This argument is simply illogical. We legislate on complicated issues all the time, and some would even argue that good legislation can be written to encompass particularly complicated issues into one area. This argument on the government’s behalf raises questions of whether this matter is truly viewed as ‘too complicated’ to encompass in one ban or if it is ‘too complicated’ and therefore not worth the effort. Complicated legislation and legislation on complicated issues is not unusual or a rarity and the government’s claim that an inclusive ban is overly complicated reflects that trans rights are not a priority for them. It suggests that they would rather save time than write complex legislation that would provide rights and protections for all. Especially considering that a trans-inclusive ban would not be a novelty. Many other countries have successfully made conversion therapy illegal for all members of the LGBT+ community, raising the question: why can’t we?
3. The government plans on introducing separate legislation for trans people
Perhaps resulting from the backlash to their ‘too complicated’ arguments, the government announced that they were planning to create separate legislation banning conversion therapy for transgender people. This raises a series of issues and questions that must be explored.
Firstly, there are practical and legal implications of moving trans conversion therapy into a separate issue. Conversion therapy is not practiced in consideration of the nuances between each type of gender identity and sexuality in the LGBT+ community. By proposing separate legislation to protect trans people, the government is ignoring the reality that trans conversion therapy is not practiced separately to LGB conversion therapy, and that homophobia and transphobia are intrinsically linked. Furthermore, many transgender people also identify as LGB and therefore a clear distinction cannot be made. By excluding trans people from the protections in this bill, there is a risk of leaving a hole in the law which could be exploited by those who perform conversion therapy and could damage all members of the LGBT+ community. As said by Luke Pollard MP during the parliamentary debate of this petition, this exclusion “would not be a backdoor; it would be a trapdoor.”6
Secondly, the plan to introduce separate legislation seems illogical when this bill has not yet been drafted. There have been criticisms of the parliamentary debate which took place in June with some calling it premature as the bill banning conversion therapy has yet to be drafted. This, however, further demonstrates why it would be illogical to provide a separate piece of legislation for trans conversion therapy. If the bill is not yet written it can still be amended to include protections for trans people and then debated through the normal legislative process, instead of deciding from the beginning not to include trans people.
This raises the final question; if it is more practical to include trans people in the current bill then why is the government pushing for a separate piece of legislation? As demonstrated, if the separate legislation for trans conversion therapy would have the same protections as the current proposed ban for LGB conversion therapy, then it would be impractical and even dangerous to create unnecessary divisions in law. This suggests, therefore, that the proposed second piece of legislation covering transgender conversion therapy may be substantially different. While it must be acknowledged that gender identity is a complex subject, unnecessary separation from the rest of the LGBT+ community would mean that trans people may not receive the same levels of protection or may be subject to some form of legal discrimination. The only practical reason the government would want to introduce separate legislation for trans conversion therapy is that they plan on giving different (read less) protections. Therefore, any new legislation must be critically analysed in order to ensure continued rights for the transgender community.
Written by Emily Wanstall