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Conversion therapy - a threat to everyone

October 2023 Simon, PinkUk

Part one | Part two | Part three

Deep-dive: LGBTQ+ conversion therapies

converters crosshairs
created by Anggara, Flaticon

But some people are right in the converters’ crosshairs


What are conversion therapies? Why are they so controversial? Why is it taking so long to ban them in the UK? Who is most at risk? PinkUK Editor Simon Williams explains.

Update: 19 October 2023 - since this article was written the Conservative Government has since announced that a ban on conversion therapies will feature in the King's Speech

In 2018, now five years ago, then UK Prime Minister Theresa May pledged that what many consider to be a harmful practice known as ‘conversion therapy’, mainly targeted at people from the LGBTQ+ communities, would be outlawed in the UK.

At the time of writing, a ban on conversion therapies in the UK now seems like a speck on the horizon. If the proposed ban were a star in the night sky, we suggest you’d need a powerful intergalactic telescope to view the star’s journey, if it would be visible at all.

conversion therapy ban
Peter Tatchell Foundation submission to Government consultation

Like stars that briefly twinkle in the night, the proposal to ban conversion therapies comes and goes. In the UK sometimes the ban looks about to be made law, enjoying political support on all sides; yet, just when it looked like there would be the political will to put legislation to Parliament, these legal proposals fade into the night sky drowned by the government’s agenda.

To explain: in September 2023 there was the disappointing news that the UK government appears, again, to have kicked the can down the legislative road on banning these inhumane practices. Many observers consider conversion therapy to be persecution, an attack on the human rights of LGBTQ+ people everywhere.

It’s also a practice, if permitted, that may affect the human rights of other communities in Western societies, some who may not be directly related to the LGBTQ+ communities but who risk falling into the same predicament and may be ill-prepared to resist.

So what are conversion therapies?

Conversion therapies, sometimes known as ‘conversion cures’, ‘reparative therapy’ or ‘gay cure therapy’, are a means by which a person is usually compelled to undergo one or more practices to convert (or ‘to return’) them to what is considered to be their ‘natural’ sexual orientation or gender identity.

These practices are usually aimed at moving the person to a heterosexual orientation and a cisgender identity (the gender identity that corresponds with the sex that the person was identified as having at birth) often regardless of the decision or choice of the individual.

There’s a huge amount of medical, policy and human rights research and advice on the subject. Yet in the UK, politicians have dithered.

Critics and some studies suggest that these practices risk causing suffering to the individual, including psychological and physical harm, depending on the type of therapy involved. There is evidence to suggest a potential for these practices to open up suicidal thoughts and encourage feelings of low self-esteem in vulnerable individuals. Critics also point out that there is limited evidence that any therapy actually works, even if one were to hold the view that it is the right thing to do.

conversion therapy ban shelved
From Transgender Trend, Conversion therapy ban shelved

On the face of it, conversion therapy is a breach of human rights. It diminishes an individual's freedom to decide on their own identity and manipulates their ability to choose what gender and /or sexual orientation they wish to adopt, often before a person is ready to make such an important decision.

Many of these interventions target impressionable young adults who just wish to explore their identity and whether they fit with the LGBTQ+ communities. These practices can happen in ‘peer-pressure’ environments such as holiday camps, faith or family gatherings or school, work, sporting, university or social settings.

Some young adults who identify from the LGBTQ+ communities are already grappling with who they want to be, their sexual orientation and gender identity, among many other life challenges; they may not feel ready to make these life-changing choices at that point in their lives. Understandably, they might be unsure or fluid about these issues or just not that interested at that time. For many young LGBTQ+ identifying adults, exposure to conversion therapies risks distorting or preventing their ability to make independent choices on their futures at a pivotal time in their life journeys.

The legal outlook in the UK

As mentioned, according to The Guardian newspaper, last month the UK government ran out of time to publish draft legislation to include a ban for the new parliamentary session this November; with a general election looming in 2024, the reform is unlikely to reach lawmakers’ desks this coming year, breaking the government’s long-standing pledge to act. More below.

What do conversion therapies involve?

They come in different forms in Western countries. Here’s a back-of-an-envelope list:

Deceptively friendly approaches

Deceptively friendly

These are superficially inoffensive and subtle, but still could result in a potentially traumatic response for the individual involved. Techniques often appear as informal ‘advice’ and ‘counselling’, often from trusted people close to the person affected, such as family and friends or people who have a duty of care such as a teacher, a workplace boss or a representative from a faith, state agency or community organisation.

The motivation behind these approaches could be to persuade an individual of the need to reassess their sexual orientation or gender identity for their own welfare, regardless of the individual's feelings; this is not a neutral approach but may seem so initially to the targeted person. For this person, especially if they are young or have not had time to think through their own direction independently, it may cause confusion and, in some situations, a sense of emotional disorientation, including a feeling of isolation.

created by Freepik, Flaticon

Alternative ‘respected’ psychological approaches

There’s also a range of more socially accepted (not that they are necessarily effective) ‘alternative’ psychological approaches. These include hypnosis, meditation and psychotherapy. At first sight, they may appear less threatening or harmful; however, they could still cause confusion and appear disconcerting to an individual, especially if it’s not what they would initially choose or they are still unsure about their choice, if they had time to think it all through.


Ideological or cultural approaches

indoctrination approache
created by Freepik, Flaticon

So these are more formal spiritual, faith-based or political indoctrination approaches, often taking the format of group ‘discussions’, classes and similar educational techniques that moralise on sexual orientation using peer-pressure, with the aim of turning an individual against their affirmed or tentative identity through self-criticism and advocacy. One example is to make the individual feel guilty that they had a dysfunctional or disempowering relationship with a family member. These can also include exposure to fundamentalist faith or extremist political ideologies which can leave the targeted person feeling isolated and psychologically harmed if they do not embrace the ideological principles of the group in which they are participating.

This can also happen within more ‘neutral’ faith and other community group settings, even if no one involved envisaged this would be the experience of the person. Similar situations can arise in schools or workplaces; it can be traumatic psychologically if the individual is ill-equipped to articulate their view or they are uncertain as to what they should say to ‘fit in’ or how they should behave among superiors, peers and friends in these environments.

‘Quack cure’ approaches

quack cure

Another set of therapies is pseudo-psychological or ‘quack’ cures which offer the individual false hope. These are often faith-based initiatives and, today, include phone apps and other ways to persuade the individual they can convert - here’s an amusing critique, though not for the individuals who are targeted.


Extreme medical approaches

Extreme physical approache
created by Leremy, Flaticon

These include hormone replacement and pharmacological treatments such as chemical castration for gay men; this was a fate encountered by famous British wartime codebreaker Alan Turing in the 1950s who was presented with this choice or going to prison for having a homosexual relationship, illegal at the time. There are also surgical equivalents.

Other techniques involve creating unpleasant feelings in the patient through means such as nausea-inducing medication while being exposed to erotic content to foster a psychological aversion to homosexual thoughts. Other extreme techniques in the more recent post-war period, generally no longer used in the UK, include electro-convulsive or electric shock therapy (ECT), which some gay men in the UK and elsewhere are known to have suffered at the hands of psychiatrists in the late 1960s and 70s. At that time, although partially legalised in the UK and in many other Western countries, homosexuality was still designated as a mental disorder by the World Health Organization. Astonishingly, it remained on the WHO’s International Classification of Diseases list until 1992.

Criminal and violent approache
created by surang, Flaticon

Criminal and violent approaches

Sadly, criminal violence is another aspect. There have been cases of what is called ‘corrective rape’, where the perpetrator implies they seek to ‘return’ the victim to a socio-sexual norm through non-consensual sex. This is sadly not unheard of today, and a phenomon for which women (both CISgender and Trans) are apparently particularly at risk.

There may be more categories to suggest - please let us know if you have any suggestions.

Part one | Part two | Part three

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