Voices: Conversion therapy is essentially torture – why are trans people still at risk?

·5-min read
This is not the first time the government has failed trans people (Getty/iStock)
This is not the first time the government has failed trans people (Getty/iStock)

Cassie is a transgender woman. At the insistence of her family, she began “treatment” to “cure” her gender identity. Her “counsellor”, a member of her faith community, began with a talking therapy, encouraging her to unpick why she thought she was not the gender into which she’d been born.

The accusations soon began: she was mentally unwell, broken, she had likely been abused, and her parents had failed her. As the sessions continued, she was read holy scripture and denunciations of “the transgender lifestyle”.

The consequences were dire. Hating her body and believing herself to be demonically possessed, Cassie began to starve herself and self-harm.

Cassie is a survivor of conversion therapy – abuse levelled at people from across the LGBT+ community which encourages them to believe their sexuality or gender is unhealthy or morally wrong.

She is not alone. While the moral panic about trans people is often about safeguarding trans children accessing healthcare and support, there is little concern shown for the well-evidenced experience of those subjected to what is essentially torture.

Conversion therapy is not innocuous; it has nothing in common with the legitimate healthcare services provided by gender identity clinics, and has been rejected by an array of healthcare professionals. Like other forms of abuse, it’s always a harmful practice. While the act is itself the harm, forced marriage and physical and sexual violence are frequently part of it.

Recent research by LGBT+ anti-violence charity Galop found that 24 per cent of respondents who had suffered sexual violence were subjected to it with intent to “convert” them. It’s particularly acute for trans people – including 35 per cent of trans men and 32 per cent of non-binary people.

Although the government has signalled an intention to ban conversion therapy for gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, in a breathtaking act of discrimination, Ministers have ruled out the same for trans people – leaving those like Cassie to suffer with little recourse to justice.

Freedom from conversion therapy shouldn’t be dependent on your identity; the law should protect everyone.

While physical and sexual assault is already illegal, allowing conversion therapy to continue for one part of the LGBT+ community fails to shut down a space in which these forms of violence are prolific. A ban for all would make it far easier to safeguard not only against the abhorrent practice itself, but the violence that so frequently accompanies it.

This is not the first time the government has failed trans people. The 2020 review of the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) – which focused on the process of gaining a Gender Recognition Certificate and recognition in law – should have been a watershed moment for human rights.

But despite trans participants describing the process as dehumanising and humiliating, the government concluded that “the balance struck in this legislation is correct” and proposed only to lower the application fee and move it online.

Having reneged on GRA reform, the prime minister now makes jokes about trans people, suggesting there is something funny about the concept of being assigned a gender at birth.

Thousands, like Cassie, who experience gender dysphoria – and relentless abuse and systematic discrimination across public life – are not laughing. The same dehumanising treatment they likely experienced in the playground now blares from their TVs and radios, with interviewers asking puerile questions about what genitals you need to be a woman. The lurid debate debases all who take part in it, relying on historic tropes used against many marginalised groups to create a sensationalist “moral panic”.

The political and media-wide bullying has been accompanied by increased physical assaults, alongside attempts to roll back the gains on access to healthcare. For example, in a radical departure from the principle of Gillick competence – the same principle that allows under-16s access to prescribed contraception without parental consent – the court recently ruled that trans young people would require a court order to access puberty blocking drugs.

The Bell v Tavistock declaration claimed that it is impossible for someone under 16 to provide informed consent for such a life-changing decision. But what could be more life-changing than being trapped – until your death – in a body that is profoundly alien to you?

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Thankfully, the ruling was overturned in the Court of Appeal, with the judges concluding that it “implied factual findings that the Divisional Court was not equipped to make” and that it had relied on flawed expert evidence.

Now, ministers are adding to the headlines. We do need a thoroughgoing review of gender identity services that ensures young people are properly supported, but instead of waiting for the full findings of Hillary Cass’s inquiry, Sajid Javid is stoking the moral panic, announcing his own plans for review and attacking healthcare services as “ideological”.

It’s time to stand up for trans people. Rather than headline-grabbing, we need a serious discussion that seeks to remedy the discrimination this part of the LGBT+ community faces.

That means cracking down on the abuse committed by quack therapists; providing trans people with humane pathways for gaining legal recognition, and for accessing healthcare and other public services; and ending the toxic environment that has seen a shocking 84 per cent of trans young people self-harm, 89 per cent consider suicide, and 45 per cent attempt to end their lives.

This is not a “culture war” issue; it’s about affording human beings the dignity in life we all deserve and the right to make decisions about who we are and want to be – free from torture and abuse. That right should be fundamental – and one for which we all fight.

For the Galop conversion therapy helpline, call 0800 130 3335

Olivia Blake is the Labour MP for Sheffield Hallam

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