Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MP Sammy Wilson is facing criticism from Northern Ireland’s LGBT+ community after he appeared to express opposition to a ban on conversion therapy.
In an email to a constituent, shared on social media, Wilson suggested that practitioners of the harmful and pseudoscientific practice should be allowed to continue operating – despite the fact that it has been repeatedly denounced by almost every mainstream psychiatric body.
“I feel that those who wish to avail themselves of conversion therapy and those who wish to practice it should be allowed to do so,” Wilson wrote.
Wilson said he does not know of any conversion therapy practitioners who “force their views on anyone”.
“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,” Wilson wrote.
DUP’s Sammy Wilson condemned over conversion therapy comments
Eóin Tennyson, an Alliance Party councillor who campaigns on LGBT+ issues, lambasted Wilson for implying that it is possible for people to “consent to abuse”.
“So-called conversion therapy is predicated on the false and wholly unscientific belief that those of us who do not adhere to culturally prescribed norms are ill, and that our sexual orientation or gender identity can and should be changed,” Tennyson told PinkNews.
“This is not only degrading and grossly offensive, but can have a hugely damaging impact on the mental health and wellbeing of those subjected to the practice.
“It is for that reason that it has been denounced and discredited by institutions such as the UN Committee Against Torture, the European Parliament, the British Psychological Society and virtually every major medical and counselling body.
“In his letter to constituents, Sammy Wilson appears to suggest it is possible to consent to abuse. This is nonsense.
“More than that, it fails to recognise that conversion therapy and its proponents often prey upon feelings of fear and shame amongst those struggling with internalised homophobia, and that the practice is often inflicted upon young, vulnerable LGBT+ people.”
PinkNews has also seen a copy of an email sent by DUP MP Paul Girvan to a constituent in which he said the party “does not support” conversion therapy, but went on to argue that a ban could “constrain legitimate activities by religious organisations”.
“As a party we do not support ‘gay conversion therapy’ and are clear that no one should be forced into any treatment against their will,” Girvan wrote.
“Our approach to any legislation that may come forward will be in adherence to this principle. In equal measure, we believe there must be a balance between safeguarding against dangerous practices and any attempt, deliberate or otherwise, to restrict freedom of religious belief, speech and association.
“We retain a level of concern that the debate on this important issue has at times become conflated with efforts to restrict these freedoms and constrain legitimate activities by religious organisations or others which cannot reasonably be deemed to be conversion therapy.”
PinkNews has contacted the DUP, Wilson and Girvan for comment.
Northern Ireland has committed to outlawing the practice
The controversy comes just months after ministers in Northern Ireland committed to advancing legislation to outlaw conversion therapy.
The Department for Communities in Northern Ireland told PinkNews that legislation to ban the practice is a devolved matter for the territory, meaning it will advance its own law separately to the UK government.
The department is in the process of developing a sexual orientation strategy which will be the “appropriate mechanism to look at the various elements involved including penalties and law, health and wellbeing and equality and inclusion”, a spokesperson said.
Meanwhile, the UK government is facing strident backlash from MPs and the wider LGBT+ community after equalities minister Kemi Badenoch gave a “vague” speech on conversion therapy at a debate on Monday night (8 March).
Activist Jayne Ozanne has resigned from the government’s LGBT Advisory Panel in protest against the Conservative government’s “hostility” towards the LGBT+ community, with advisors James Morton and Ellen Murray quickly following suit.
It is now almost three years since the government pledged to outlaw conversion therapy in its 2018 LGBT Action Plan – however, no legislation has been advanced. The equalities office has not yet given a clear indication on when a law is likely to be brought forward to outlaw the practice in England, Scotland and Wales.