UK government’s conversion therapy mess embarrasses us all
You could pick pretty much any area of legislative and political responsibility and a generous reading of the UK government’s handling of it would be incompetence.
From the Covid-19 pandemic, to Brexit, to rising energy costs, to the cost-of-living crisis, to humanitarian aid to refugees from Ukraine – it’s a mess. If it’s not incompetence, then you would be inclined to allege corruption and wilful mismanagement.
But let’s focus on the question of banning so-called Conversion Therapy.
What is Conversion Therapy?
What we’re talking about are attempts to try and change someone’s sexuality.
While pseudo-scientific attempts of conversion therapy have been documented from as early as the 19th century, it’s been comprehensively established that it’s not possible to change a person’s sexuality. Any process that purports to be able to change someone’s sexuality from one thing to another is emotional and psychological abuse dressed up in the language of therapy, counselling, and religion. Any attempt at ‘conversion’ of sexuality is particularly damaging for young people.
Why is banning Conversion Therapy on the agenda?
As the LGBTQ community has made equality gains in the UK, a ban on conversion therapy is one of the biggest priorities remaining – protecting young queer kids from damaging pseudo-medical interventions.
A number of countries around the world have already banned Conversion Therapy – around 14 at last count.
The UK government has been talking about banning Conversion Therapy for a number of years – a public commitment was made in 2018.
Since then, things have moved slowly. There’s been a number of consultations, there’s been petitions, and there’s been public statements of intent from relevant ministers and the current Prime Minister – all confirming that the government is committed to banning Conversion Therapy.
But so far, it’s been all talk and no action. The necessary legislation hasn’t been introduced to the parliament. The only barrier to preparing and presenting the legislation – which clearly has cross-party support and would be approved – is the government’s own inaction, its lack of will.
The latest twist
Which brings us to the latest twist. There’s two schools of thought on this – it’s either incompetence or it’s manipulative game-playing. I guess it could be both of those things.
Late on Thursday 31 March – Trans Day of Visibility, which seems to be a cruel irony – it was leaked to media outlets that the government had decided to drop plans to ban Conversion Therapy. This was confirmed by a government spokesperson, who said that existing laws and non-legislative measures would be sufficient.
Predictably, there was a public outcry. Within a matter of hours, there were new leaks and statements, indicating that the Prime Minister had changed his mind, and that the ban would now be going ahead and it would be included in the legislative agenda that would be presented as part of the Queen’s Speech on 10 May.
However, the ban that will now be introduced will exclude conversion therapy relating to Trans people.
Divide and conquer
We haven’t seen the legislation yet, it probably hasn’t even been written, but in the midst of this chaotic and unnecessary policy head-fuck, there seems to be a clear statement of intent.
The queer community can get what it wants, if we accept that Trans people will continue to be subjected to conversion therapy.
Divisions within the LGBTQ community
We’re already starting to see the lines of reasoning emerge from the government and allied media outlets.
The ‘reason’ that they want to exclude Trans people from a ban on Conversion Therapy is that it’s “complicated”, that attempting to change someone’s gender identity is different to trying to change someone’s sexuality, that they’re acting in the best interests of children who may be experiencing gender identity issues. Ah yes, please – think of the children.
Then, there’s the TERFs.
The emergence of TERFs – Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists – and the Gender Critical movement is fairly hard to wrap your head around. Small in number, but quite skilled at online harassment, TERFs are essentially an anti-Trans movement – they don’t accept that Trans women are women.
In the UK, there’s a group called the LGB Alliance. Again, very small in number but quite skilled at amplifying their share-of-voice, the LGB Alliance is a group of lesbians and gay men who don’t accept that the queer community includes Trans people.
I don’t have the head-space to try and unpick the absurdities of TERFs and the LGB Alliance – or the increasing and deliberate conflation being made between gay men and pedophiles – but there’s no question that the overwhelming number of cis women support Trans equality, and the overwhelming number of queer people accept that Trans people are an essential part of our community and that we all need to stand together on issues such as Conversion Therapy.
However, if you were the UK government and you were spiralling in a policy head-fuck, it wouldn’t be difficult to pull together a number of social media posts and newspaper columns and conclude – look, even the LGBTQ community is divided about this issue.
An electoral vote winner?
Another thing to throw into the mix is that discussions around gender identity and things such Trans people in competitive sport all feeds into a culture war narrative.
With an eye on the next election, the Conservatives see that culture war beefs are something that connect with their base and allied media outlets, and also causes some discomfort to the Labour Party.
It’s entirely plausible that the government has decided to separate Trans people out of the planned ban on Conversion Therapy because it could be useful for generating some culture war headlines in the months ahead.
Incompetence, opportunism, and cruelty
There are clearly a range of factors at play here – a general incompetence across government, and an opportunism that fuelling a debate about Trans people could be a vote-winner. But there’s also cruelty.
The UK’s National Health Service has said that all forms of conversion therapy are unethical and potentially harmful. The UN’s Independent Expert on sexual orientation and gender identity described Conversion Therapy as cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and may amount to torture. The government’s own consultation report on the subject described it as an “abhorrent practice”.
But it seems as if the government sees no difficulty in continuing to allow Trans people to continue to be subjected to this abhorrent practice – to continue to be subjected to Conversion Therapy.
The callousness is breathtaking.
Where to from here?
One of the really frustrating things about this whole mess is that it’s really hard to see what practical steps we – the LGBTQ community – can take to have a positive impact on any of this.
The government has a majority in the parliament – it can introduce legislation and get it passed without too much interference. We can’t rely on opposition parties having some legislative impact that will shape the outcome.
Public pressure seems to be the only option, but it has to be more than just a few angry tweets. One of the difficulties with this government is that they don’t seem to have any shame or moral compass – their primary motivator is doing whatever it takes to stay in power.
We somehow need to put pressure on the government’s members of parliament to try and get them to shape this legislation so that it’s a comprehensive ban on Conversion Therapy – a ban that protects the entire queer community, including Trans people.
Unfortunately, we’ve got limited leverage with the government’s members of parliament – they know that we don’t vote for them. What self-respecting queer would.
It’s another policy head-fuck from an incompetent, opportunistic, and cruel government. They’ve made a mess of this country, but it’s almost as if that’s what they intended to do.
What’s life like for LGBTQ people in the UK?
What’s life like for LGBTQ people in the UK? Let’s take a look at some of the key equality indicators.
Is homosexuality legal in the UK?
Yes. Same-sex sexual activity was decriminalised in 1967.
The age of consent is 16, regardless of sexuality.
Are there anti-discrimination protections in place for LGBTQ people in the UK?
Yes. Comprehensive anti-discrimination protections were implemented in 2010.
Is there Marriage Equality in the UK?
Yes, Marriage Equality was adopted in 2014.
What’s life like for LGBTQ people in the UK?
Recent decades have seen some real progress in terms of equality for LGBTQ people in the UK.
Landmarks include decriminalisation in 1967, the equalisation of the age of consent in 2001, the removal of Section 28 in 2003, and the introduction of Marriage Equality in 2014.
There are still challenges, but overall the UK is a pretty good place for LGBTQ people to live their lives.
There is a vibrant and visible LGBTQ community throughout the UK.
How has the UK shaped the experience of LGBTQ people around the world?
While the UK is now seen as one of the best parts of the world in terms of LGBTQ equality, the history of the UK – and its aggressive colonisation of other countries – has had a profoundly negative impact on millions of LGBTQ people and continues to play a powerful role in shaping the LGBTQ experience around the world.
English law first listed anal sex as a crime in 1533. The Buggery Act proscribed that anal sex – buggery – was punishable with the death sentence. Anyone convicted of buggery would be hanged.
This was during the rule of Henry VIII. Prior to 1533, it was the ecclesiastical courts that dealt with same-sex sexual activity, but Henry VIII wanted to end the dominance of the Catholic Church in England and so there was an increased focus on codifying England’s laws.
The Buggery Act was used to prosecute and execute countless gay men. James Pratt and John Smith were the last two men to be executed for sodomy – they were executed in 1835.
In 1861, the death penalty was formally removed from the offence of buggery, but same-sex sexual activity remained a crime – punishable by imprisonment – until 1967.
The British Empire
From the late 16th century, Britain look a leading role in the creating of trade routes around the world and the colonisation of other countries. At the height of its power, the British Empire controlled 23% of the world’s population – including large parts of Africa, Asia, and the Americas.
In order to establish administrative control over the areas that it conquered, Britain would impose its legal system onto any territory that controlled and colonies that it established. Crucially, this included the provisions of the Buggery Act of 1533.
While the British Empire no longer exists, the countries that have since sought independence from British control have retained the British legal system. In numerous cases, the prohibition against same-sex sexual activity has been deliberately retained – even though it is a law that no longer exists in Britain.
British colonialism created systemic homophobia across the world – homophobia and persecution that wasn’t dismantled after the fall of the British Empire.
Queer war history
We don’t often hear about LGBTQ people as war heroes, but the reality is that throughout history there have been queer people present and playing their part.
Contributing to the lack of visibility of LGBTQ people during wartime has been the criminalisation of homosexuality.
Homosexuality wasn’t decriminalised in the UK until 1967 – 22 years after the end of WWII.
Consequently, many gay men enlisted or conscripted during wartime would have tried to keep their sexuality hidden – for fear of being ostracised or reported to their superiors for ‘indecency’.
Records show that during WWII at least 230 men from the British armed forces were charged and sent to prison because they were gay.
But life in the military was liberating in many ways for gay men – a homocentric world in which intimacy between men was commonplace.
This phenomenon wasn’t limited to the UK. Ports such as San Francisco became hubs for gay men as sailors who completed their service at the end of World War II adopted it as their home and embraced the freedom and sexual liberation of a fresh start in a new city.
Let’s take a look at some of the queer wartime heroes that we can all be proud of.
Alan Turing is one of the UK’s most notable heroes of WWII.
Turing was a mathematician and code-breaker at Bletchley during WWII. He was described by Winston Churchill as the ‘biggest contribution to the victory against the Nazis’.
What was Turing’s reward? A prison sentence for ‘gross indecency’ and chemical castration. State-sanctioned homophobic persecution drove him to suicide at the age of 41.
Ian Gleed joined the UK’s Royal Air Force at the age of twenty, qualifying as a pilot in 1936.
A gay man whose sexuality was widely known among his friends, Gleed had to be discrete in order to avoid being court-martialled by the military.
Gleed flew for the RAF throughout WWII, receiving numerous honours.
In 1943, while on patrol over Tunisia, Gleed was shot down and killed.
Conscripted in 1941, aged 20, Dudley Cave was a gay man who joined the UK army as a driver.
During the fall of Singapore in 1942, Cave was captured by the Japanese. As a prisoner-of-war, he was put to work building railway in Thailand and then held in prison until the end of the war.
Teaching LGBTQ history in schools
It’s essential that young LGBTQ people are taught about the contribution that queer people have made to the world throughout history.
We are not some subversive minority out to upset the status quo, we are essential members of any community and we have every right to be proud of our past and confident about our future.