BBC Radio Ulster’s Stephen Nolan Show is facing stinging criticism from the LGBT+ community after it invited two straight cis men and an LGB Alliance representative to debate conversion therapy.
Former DUP politician Jim Wells was joined by the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP)’s John Stewart to debate the merits of the pseudoscientific practice on Friday morning’s show.
The politicians were joined by Bev Jackson of the LGB Alliance, a group that campaigns against advancements to trans rights, to discuss comments made by DUP MP Sammy Wilson in an email to a constituent.
In the email, Wilson said practitioners of conversion therapy should be allowed to continue operating – despite the fact that it has been repeatedly denounced by almost every mainstream psychiatric body.
Kicking off the debate on the Stephen Nolan Show, John Stewart said conversion therapy can only exist when there is a “fundamental belief that it’s unethical to be homosexual and that there’s a cure needed”.
However, Jim Wells was quickly introduced to the debate to argue that we live in a “free society” and that there are “many members of the LGBT community who are not comfortable with their sexuality who want to explore opportunities to make changes in their lives”.
Wells went on to suggest that there have been “very high-profile cases of people who have claimed that they have turned their lives around and they have adopted a different sexuality.”
He also said he doesn’t believe it is possible to be both a “practicing homosexual” and a Christian at the same time.
The debate continued with contributions from Bev Jackson, founder of the LGB Alliance, who argued against conversion therapy for lesbian, gay and bisexual people before moving on to trans people.
She said conversion therapy has become “mixed up with gender identity”.
“If you’ve got, say, a 13-year-old girl who is confused for all sorts of reasons and she comes in and says, ‘I’m attracted to other girls so I must be a boy,’ what would you expect the therapist to say?
“You’d expect the therapist to ask questions, say, ‘Why do you think that, how did this happen?’ Ask questions about the family and maybe other medical history. That’s what you would want the therapist to do. That is not, of course, conversion therapy.”
‘Distressing’ comments made in BBC conversion therapy debate
Eóin Tennyson, an Alliance Party councillor who campaigns on LGBT+ issues, criticised the Stephen Nolan Show for its approach to the topic.
“It was disappointing to see a debate of such weight and fundamental importance to LGBT+ people conducted in this way, with only two straight men and a representative of the trans-exclusive LGB Alliance taking part,” Tennyson told PinkNews.
“There is no ‘LGBT+’ without the ‘T’. Our trans brothers and sisters are an intrinsic part of the community and cannot be siloed off, or written out of the debate. The LGB Alliance certainly does not, in my view, represent the LGBT community or the prevailing views within it.”
Tennyson continued: “The comments made by Jim Wells were particularly distressing and harmful. Of course there is no room for discussion around how so-called conversion therapy should be defined and how best to balance freedom to – and freedom from – religion.”
To be clear, being gay is not an illness. We don’t need to be cured. But unfortunately homophobia is, and Jim Wells does.
He described Wells’ comments about conversion therapy as “grossly offensive and deeply damaging” and said such views have “no basis in reality or scientific fact.”
“His participation did not amount to balance, but the propagation of blatant falsehoods.”
Tennyson added: “To be clear, being gay is not an illness. We don’t need to be cured. But unfortunately homophobia is, and Jim Wells does.”
Many LGBT+ people have criticised the Stephen Nolan Show and BBC Radio Ulster on social media for the debate, with many questioning the decision to invite Jim Wells and Bev Jackson on air.
When questioned by PinkNews on the tone and content of the debate, a BBC spokesperson said: “This discussion reflected a range of views and involved appropriate challenge from the presenter throughout.”
PinkNews has contacted Jim Wells and the LGB Alliance for comment.
Backlash is mounting against DUP MP Sammy Wilson
The controversy comes after DUP MP Sammy Wilson faced strident backlash when he told constituents by email that conversion therapy practitioners “should be allowed” to continue working with vulnerable LGBT+ people.
He went on to say he does not know of any conversion therapy practitioners who “force their views” on others.
Wilson added: “I certainly would not support such a practice, but where those who feel they need some help and that help is available then I think they should be free to request it.”
The Rainbow Project, a Northern Irish LGBT+ organisation, criticised Wilson for his comments and noted that conversion therapy is widely recognised to be “unethical and harmful”.
“Mr Wilson’s response is in direct opposition to his own party policy and one that his party colleague Pam Cameron repeated at a recent education committee meeting, which was that the DUP oppose conversion therapy,” said John O’Doherty, director of the Rainbow Project.
“Conversion therapy, reparative therapy, and all other so-called sexual orientation change efforts are rightly condemned by reputable mental health, counselling and psychotherapy bodies around the world as unethical and harmful to the people who are subjected to these practices.
“His own party, the UK government, the UN General Assembly, and over 400 global religious leaders have all called for an end to this cruel, degrading and inhuman practice. Does Mr Wilson believe that he simply knows better?”
Meanwhile, the Department for Communities in Northern Ireland has confirmed that conversion therapy is a devolved matter for the territory, meaning it will bring forward its own legislation on the issue.
A spokesperson said the department is developing a sexual orientation strategy which will help establish what penalties should be introduced for those who try to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.