Conversion Therapy: Not Yet Out of the Woods

On 10th May 2022, the long-anticipated Queen’s Speech took place, setting out the government’s legislative agenda for the coming parliamentary session.

Ears were out on stalks to hear what would be said regarding the ban on ‘conversion therapy’, following a number of alleged U-turns on the part of the government as to whether ‘gender identity’ would be included as part of any ban.

Towards the end of the speech, the announcement was made that ‘legislation will also be introduced to ban conversion therapy’. This vague, ambiguous statement did not tell us anything we didn’t already know. Upon hearing this, many immediately feared the worst.

However, within minutes, the ‘Background Briefing Notes’ to the Speech were published on the government’s website. This is a document which goes into detail as to the specific proposals underlying each legislative announcement. Buried away on page 128, the document states that ‘the purpose of the Bill is to ban conversion therapy practices intended to change sexual orientation’.

Although it is clearly worded in an intentionally subtle manner and uses the art of ‘omission’, it begins to become clear that the government’s intention is not to include ‘gender identity’ within this legislation. 

Further down, this is confirmed when we are informed that ‘recognising the complexity of issues and need for further careful thought, we will carry out separate work to consider the issue of Transgender Conversion Therapy further.’

This is welcome news. It reflects the concerns that many within the therapeutic community have been speaking out about for some time regarding potential unintended consequences of such legislation. These concerns include:

Legislation Wording

Wording seen in other jurisdictions is vague and ambiguous and risks catching ethical, explorative therapy practices. For example, the term ‘suppress gender identity’ has been suggested. There are concerns this could include pausing for thought and reflection, exploring contributory factors, considering options, and even gently challenging a client. 

Detransitioners

The needs of this growing group are systematically ignored and poorly understood, with little research or even recognition by the government.

Focus on ‘Questioning’ Gender Identity

The government have previously suggested that those at greatest risk of harm are those who are insistent and certain about transitioning and their gender identity. However, we know that many children have spent hours online self-diagnosing and being affirmed by online groups. We are aware of many detransitioners who were certain at the time that they were trans and now have significant regrets. If anything, those absolutely certain of proceeding down a certain path deserve greater exploration to ensure it truly is the right path for them.

‘Conversion Therapy’ as a misnomer

Even the author of the government’s own conversion therapy report, Dr Adam Jowett, stated that ‘the term conversion therapy is often misleading because it’s often not therapy.’ It is almost always religious or family settings. To use the term ‘therapy’ significantly misleads the public, suggesting there are trained therapists up and down the country practising this. 

Lack of Adequate Data

The most frequently cited source is the Government Equalities Office (GEO) 2018 LGBT survey. This is a non-random, online self-report survey, which cannot be generalised to the wider LGBT population. Its methodology is flawed and its data on conversion therapy is based on only four questions in a much longer survey of LGBT experiences. No time frame is requested in the questionnaire, or provided in the data analysis. The government should not be rushing into legislation while the outcome of the Cass Review is still pending.  

Conflation of Sexual Orientation and Gender Dysphoria

These are two completely different things, with the latter being a mental health condition.

Chilling Effect on Therapists

We have already heard anecdotes from abroad, where similar legislation has been passed, of therapists refusing to work with clients with gender dysphoria, for fear of being wrongly accused of carrying out conversion therapy. My own ongoing case has demonstrated what happens to those working within therapy in the UK when they attempt to challenge gender ideology. 

Impact on LGB Community

There have been serious concerns raised by those within the LGB community that pushing transitioning may in of itself be a form of gay conversion therapy, especially when the majority of people with gender dysphoria will eventually come out at gay. Anecdotally, there are reports, both home and abroad, of certain cultures and families who would much rather their child was ‘trapped in the wrong body’, rather than being gay. 

Affirmation-Only as ‘Conversion’

We want to ensure that there is a prohibition on therapeutic organisations and charities who adopt an affirmation-only approach towards transitioning. As therapists, we should never enter into a relationship with a client with a pre-determined outcome.


However, even in light of the government’s positive announcement above, we are not out of the woods yet.

In many ways, it’s unsurprising that the government announced the fact that ‘gender identity’ would not be included in a very discrete manner. We have seen over recent months the uproar and vitriol that can come from proponents of gender ideology when their demands are not met. 

Within hours of the government’s announcement, various trans activist organisations were suggesting that the government was condoning the ‘torture’ of trans people – a statement that is both inflammatory and divisive. There were also a number of MPs content to pose with placards bearing slogans such as ‘trans rights are human rights’ – seemingly unwilling to engage in the nuance of what is an extremely complex and sensitive debate. 

Ed Miliband MP | Credit: Twitter

The government is clearly concerned about being on the receiving end of backlash, both from the public, as well as from its own MPs. There are also rumours that certain MPs are going to try and force ‘gender identity’ back into legislation as an amendment once a Bill finally reaches parliament.

It would be very easy for the government to capitulate and simply pander to virtue-signalling. However, as discussed above, the price for getting this legislation wrong is extremely high. The government must hold strong and continue to listen to the concerns of doctors, therapists, parents and detransitioners. Exploratory therapy for gender dysphoria is fundamental and must be protected at all costs.

James Esses is a regular writer for Genspect and a co-founder of Thoughtful Therapists.

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