What is conversion therapy? UK ban to protect transgender people

Transgender people will be protected under the Government’s new conversion therapy ban bill   (PA Archive)
Transgender people will be protected under the Government’s new conversion therapy ban bill (PA Archive)

A new law that will ban conversion therapy in the UK will also protect transgender people, the government has announced.

Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan said in a statement that the bill would “protect everyone, including those targeted on the basis of their sexuality, or being transgender.”

The decision comes soon after the government blocked Scotland’s Gender Recognition bill that would have allowed transgender people to obtain a gender recognition certificate without a medical diagnosis.

Donelan’s statement on conversion therapy also said that the legislation must not “harm the growing number of children and young adults experiencing gender-related distress, through inadvertently criminalising or chilling legitimate conversations parents or clinicians may have with their children.”

But what is the practice, how many people have experienced it, and what is its future in the UK?

What is conversion therapy?

Conversion therapy is the use of methods, such as aversive stimulation or religious counselling, to change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation.

It is also used in an attempt to persuade trans people to alter their gender identity to correspond with the sex they had at birth.

The practice has been described by NHS England as “unethical and potentially harmful”, and condemned by mental-wellbeing charity Mind as something which has “a terrible impact on a person’s mental health”.

Will it be banned in the UK?

The Government pledged to end conversion therapy in 2018, under Theresa May.

But in March 2021, three advisers quit the Government’s LGBT advisory panel over worries it was acting too slowly on the ban.

One of the advisers, Jayne Ozanne, accused ministers of creating a “hostile environment” for LGBT people.

In March 2022, a leaked Downing Street briefing paper seen by ITV News showed that Mr Johnson had dropped plans for the ban.

But just hours later – following outrage from LGBT campaigners and health charities – Number 10 U-turned again, with a senior Government source quoted as saying the ban would feature in the next Queen’s Speech.

However, it was reported that the legislation would cover “only gay conversion therapy, not trans”.

Writing in the i for the 50th anniversary of the UK’s first Pride, Mrs May said: “Few people, reading of accounts from trans people, would disagree that they still face indignities and prejudice, when they deserve understanding and respect.

“We need to strive for greater understanding on both sides of the debate. Just because an issue is controversial, that doesn’t mean we can avoid addressing it.

“To that end, the Government must keep to its commitment to consider the issue of transgender conversion therapy. If it is not to be in the upcoming Bill, then the matter must not be allowed to slide.”

On January 17, 2023, Ms Donelan announced that the Government will publish “a draft Bill which will set out a proposed approach to ban conversion practices,” that will apply to England and Wales.

Her statement said: “We recognise the strength of feeling on the issue of harmful conversion practices and remain committed to protecting people from these practices and making sure they can live their lives free from the threat of harm or abuse.”

The bill will protect people who are targeted based on their sexuality or for being transgender.

How many people in the UK have experienced conversion therapy?

The exact number is not known, but a National LGBT Survey undertaken by the Government in 2017 suggested that five per cent of LGBT people have been offered conversion, and two per cent have undergone the therapy.

These figures were higher among trans people, with eight per cent saying they had been offered the therapy, and four per cent reporting having undergone it.

Where has conversion therapy been banned so far?

In 1999, Brazil became the first country to ban conversion therapy relating to sexual orientation, according to Stonewall.

Many countries have followed suit by imposing a full or partial ban since, including Samoa, Canada, Germany, Mexico, and parts of Australia.

Dozens of US states have also banned the practice, with the exception of religious organisations.