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  • Millie Lord

We need a ban on conversion therapy now

As a child, did you ever have someone sit you down and tell you that an intrinsic part of you was wrong and sinful, and that you would have to spend the rest of your life trying to suppress it? I would hope, for the majority of people, the answer to this question would be no. However, in Scotland, this inhumane practice, also known as conversion therapy, is something that still happens to young queer people, causing significant trauma, and stoking homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.

Conversion theory is often seen as a relic from the past, but it is more common in the UK than many realise. This August, the Scottish Catholic church was castigated when it was discovered that its groups across Scotland were promoting conversion therapy. Community, school, and university priests were found to be advocates for Courage International, a Catholic organisation that claims to offer “pastoral support” to LGBT+ Catholics, but in fact provides conversion therapy under a façade of support. The Courage International handbook claims that heterosexual marriage is the only way God allows love to be expressed sexually, demonstrating that it is not an organisation aiming to support the queer community. The Catholic Church in Scotland has strong links to conversion therapy, with the Diocese of Paisley's online services having included resources developed by advocates for gay ‘cure’ therapy as late as 2018. However this is not just a problem of religion. Conversion therapy is still technically legal in Scotland, with a petition calling for it to be banned lodged in the Scottish Parliament in August, and currently passing through the Equalities and Human Rights Committee (EHRC).

We are often under the illusion that, as a liberal Western democracy, we are beyond homophobia and archaic attempts to force young people to be straight. However a 2009 survey of of over 1,300 mental health professionals found that more than 200 had offered some form of conversion therapy, 40% of which were within NHS facilities. Research by Stonewall has found that 5% of LGBTQ+ people, whilst accessing healthcare, had been pressured to access services that would question their sexuality. This is unacceptable.

The idea of queerness as a curable pathology does not belong in the 21st century. The very thought that being queer can be “fixed” is intrinsically homophobic, seeing queerness as a choice, and a problem. Conversion therapy is not only homophobic, transphobic, and marginalising, it has visibly traumatising effects on survivors. 58.8% of conversion therapy survivors suffer from mental health issues caused by the experience. The harm caused by conversion therapy is an undeniable fact. The UK Council of Psychotherapy, NHS England and Scotland, and the Royal College of GPs, have all signed a Memorandum of Understanding stating that conversion therapy for gender identity and sexual orientation is “unethical, potentially harmful and not supported by evidence”. I would hope that most people would understand why telling queer people that we are intrinsically “wrong” is a violation of our rights, and inherently homophobic. But if that weren’t enough, the statistics demonstrate that conversion therapy is a form of mental torture, with lasting effects on those who survive it. Even if we remove the multitudinous ethical and moral issues of conversion therapy, it is simply ineffective. Sexualiy and gender identity are not characteristics that can be changed through shaming and coercion, this simply forces these feelings under the surface.

To understand more about modern day conversion therapy, I spoke to Blair Anderson, a law student at Glasgow University who is also running for City Council for the Scottish Greens. Blair is a survivor of conversion therapy in the familial, rather than institutional, context, and uses his experience to help campaign for an end to the practce in Scotland. He was kind enough to share his traumatising experience with me in order to demonstrate why it is imperative that conversion therapy truly becomes a thing of the past, as well as to further promote understanding of what it constitutes.

Blair grew up in a strongly religious family, so from a young age was presented with the idea, in his words, that being gay was “a terrible thing”, and “not an option”. Therefore, when he realised that he was gay, he tried to pray it away, he hid it, he stifled the attraction, and he came to the realisation that he could never act on his desires: that he was going to have to live a straight life. This realisation was exacerbated when he came out to his mother, who told him that this was to be a shameful secret kept only between the two of them, and that he would have to suppress this attraction for the rest of his life. Looking back on his thoughts at the time, he says it was just a cycle of “I am gay, but I can never be gay… all I can do is survive”.

The suffering Blair experienced over the following years may not have been orchestrated by a therapist or church, but undeniably fits the definiton of conversion therapy. His mother told him that being gay was not an option, and that he would have to choose between being her son or being gay: an impossible choice. His mother controlled where he went and who with, tried to prevent him from accessing mental health resources that could have affirmed his identity, and had utter disregard for his privacy. Until he escaped to university, every aspect of his life centred around the forced suppression of his sexuality, and the mental torture of being told that an unchangeable part of him was wrong.

This may appear an anomalous horror story, but is more common than one would imagine. Blair works with other students estranged from their family at the university, and argues it is a common narrative, with many forced to cut contact due to familial attempts at making them “straight”. This is a significant problem amonst young members of the LGBTQ+ community, shown by the fact that the homeless population is disproportionately queer. There is no way of knowing how widespread this abuse is, because, as Anderson explains “by definition, it is secret”.

Sometimes, however, conversion therapy hides in plain sight. Courage International, and related groups, often try to defend their methods by arguing that they are not against same-sex attraction, but simply try to supress members from acting on this attraction. As Blair argues, this is equally damaging, and inherently discriminatory: proposing that only gay people must lead a chaste life is clearly prejudiced. As for the difference between attraction and action, to Blair this is irrelevant. Exploring sexuality and sex, he argues is “normal, important and fulfilling”, and asking young people to not act on their natural feelings is asking them to deny a core aspect of their humanity. Whether it is a family member or your faith asking you to do this, it is inhumane. As Blair explains, “you cannot expect people to deny one of the core aspects of what it is to be human” without expecting severe psychological effects.

However, this is where the issue becomes complex - practically, how could a ban on conversion therapy be enforced, especially now that it is understood as happening beyond the institutional context? The government cannot pry into how parents raise their children, but they can legislate a ban targeted at people in positions of authority, be it priests, teachers, or parents, a ban on trying to influence a young person's sexuality or gender identity. Some interference in preventing institutional abuse of power is essential, as Blair argues, especially in healthcare contexts; he would “much rather see parents lose the right to be homophobic and transphobic, then to force children to go through very traumatic childhoods.” A legal ban, with a nuanced definition of conversion therapy, will also have a significant symbolic impact, just as the Church condemning conversion therapy would. Alongside this, if they wish to be true allies, the government must increase funding specifically for queer mental health, and improve accessibility.

So, what can we do to help? Firstly, sign the petition against Courage International to send a message to the Church that their embrace of conversion therapy is unacceptable. Secondly, you can write to the MSPs on the EHRC, asking that they recommend the petition be moved on to the legislative stage. You can also email your MSP or party leader asking that they commit to a mandate to end conversion therapy for both sexuality and gender identity - transphobic conversion therapy is often normalised, but must be fought against with equal strength. Finally, if you have the resources, donate to organisations such as LGBT Youth Scotland, who help to provide support to young people enduring the horrors of conversion therapy, and spread the word.

We have become complacent about homophobia and transphobia in Scotland, and it is time to take action. Scotland and Holyrood often like to present themselves as a more socially liberal and empathetic alternative to the Westminster government, which has failed to ban conversion therapy despite plegding to over two years ago. If the Scottish government want to prove their different outlook, it is imperative that they approve the petition and ban conversion therapy immediately - it is not an exaggeration to say that the health, happiness, and lives of many young people are riding on this decision. It is certainly a complex topic, and simply banning it will not end all prejudice, but it is a long overdue start.

Helpful links

Courage Petition:

LGBT Youth Scotland:

Stand Alone - a charity supporting young people estranged from their families:

Cover image via pxfuel

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