A private members bill to ban conversion therapy has passed its second reading in the House of Lords. Put forward by Baroness Burt of Solihull (Liberal Democrat), the Bill aims to put an end to harmful practices that have a ‘predetermined purpose of changing or suppressing a person’s expression of their sexual orientation or gender identity’. LGBT Humanists – a volunteer-led section of Humanists UK – has a long history of campaigning for a ban on conversion therapy.
Conversion “therapy” is a discredited and harmful practice, usually rooted in false and often pseudoscientific or religious beliefs about what causes people to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. The UK Government Equalities Office defines so-called ‘conversion therapies’ as ‘techniques intended to change someone’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity’. Often happening in secret in closed-off religious communities, evidence shows that it leads to lasting damage for the people subjected to these ‘treatments’. It can result in lasting mental scars, self-harm, and even suicide. Victims are often young and vulnerable, and are more likely to face abuse from their families or communities because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Opening the debate, Baroness Burt said:
‘There are many people—particularly young people—who may be wondering about themselves. It is not always straightforward to understand your sexuality or gender identity, and grappling with these topics can be confusing and even distressing. What these people need is not a cure, but space—and support—to work things out. This may take the form of speaking with a trusted adult, like a mentor or counsellor, to explore their own feelings in a non-judgmental way.
‘However, the difference between that and conversion therapy is that the latter has a predetermined goal to change that person. I want to make it clear: my Bill will not criminalise these sorts of open conversations in any way, nor will it tell people what to think or what to say. Freedom of speech and religious freedom are important cornerstones of any liberal society.’
Lord Herbert of South Downs, the Prime Minister’s special envoy on LGBT rights, gave his support to the Bill. He emphasised the need for a ban to close existing gaps in the law:
‘To try to change, cure or suppress someone’s innate sexual orientation is harmful and cruel. While in a medical setting conversion therapies are now declared unethical, they continue in the private sphere. If they reach the current legal threshold of physical or sexual violence, they may already be criminal, but some systematic attempts to convert gay people fall below that threshold, so damaging practices cannot be prevented.’
Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (Green Party) said she supported the intention and direction of the Bill, stating that:
‘[C]onversion therapy is about the abuse and misuse of power. It is nearly always conducted by someone in a position of authority, power or respect over the victim. It also often relies on secrecy, control and shame, so it is difficult for victims and survivors to come forward or seek help. It is therefore useful to consider conversion therapy to be a similar experience to domestic abuse in the form of coercive control.’
Lord Paddick (non-affiliated) gave powerful personal testimony to the impact of conversion therapy:
‘My parents told me that homosexuality was abhorrent, so I felt I could not even discuss it with them. I was bullied at school because of it. My police colleagues targeted people like me, and my church told me it was sinful. Being constantly told that you are not good enough, that there is something wrong with you, that yes, God made you a loving, caring, sensual individual but you cannot love the person whom you truly love because they are of the same sex damages you. Conversion therapy is an intense version of the same thing.’
Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws (Labour) reminded the Chamber that conversion practices remain a current problem for young LGBT people today. She said:
‘The mental health consequences are very real. I could give you case after case of research projects conducted on young people, and their suicidal thoughts, their attempts at suicide and self-harming, and how it is a much greater problem than it is for ordinary children in our communities, who already show higher signs of it in these days of social media.’
Baroness Butler-Sloss (crossbench) highlighted the need to address forced marriage as a current and ongoing conversion practice. She said:
‘Some families arrange a marriage with a person of the opposite sex without consent; that is a forced marriage. Another method is conversion therapy. A family member is subjected to efforts to require him or her to accept that a sexual orientation outside the so-called normal heterosexual relationship is deviant and not acceptable, thereby requiring a change in his or her sexual orientation or the suppression of their sexual orientation.’
The Lord Bishop of Bristol highlighted her concerns about conversion practices within religious settings:
‘I have been aware for many years in pastoral ministry of some horrific practices, from physical punishment, counselling and prayer techniques akin to interrogation to, at worst, supposedly curative rape. Such practices are used against those in faith communities who are regarded as deviating from the communities’ norms for sexuality and gender identity.’
In 2018, the UK Government first announced that it will change the law to introduce such a ban on conversion practices. This was followed by nearly five years of inaction until it was finally announced, in January 2023, that a draft Bill will be published ‘shortly’. However, after months of dithering and no draft Bill in sight, a re-commitment to ban conversion practices was conspicuously absent from the King’s Speech in November 2023.
Speaking from the Labour Frontbench, Lord Collins of Highbury reaffirmed Labour’s commitment to ban conversion practices, and highlighted that a second Private Member’s Bill to ban conversion practices that is making its way through Parliament with cross party support. He also asked the Government for an update on the status of its long-awaited draft Bill.
Baroness Barran, speaking for the Government, opposed this Bill but supported its aim ‘to protect vulnerable people from harm’. She said that it remained the Government’s ‘intention to publish a draft Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny’. However, she did not offer a timescale as to when the publication of a draft Bill might be expected.
Responding to the debate, LGBT Humanists Coordinator Nick Baldwin commented:
‘We would like to thank Baroness Burt and all the Peers who spoke in favour of a conversion therapy ban – and that included Liberal Democrats, Labour, Green, Conservative, crossbenchers and the non-affiliated. They have demonstrated once again that the harms caused to LGBT people by these abhorrent practices are recognised and they require urgent action.
‘We note that the Government say they remain committed to bringing forward a draft Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny. However, with the general election expected within the year, we question whether a Government Bill could be enacted in this Parliamentary session.’
The UK Government’s 2018 National LGBT Survey showed that 7% of LGBT people had undergone or been offered conversion therapy. Of those who had undergone it, 51% reported that it had been conducted by a religious group or in a religious setting. Such activities can include exorcisms and forced prayer. Humanists UK is strongly committed to freedom of religion or belief, but that freedom should be limited where it causes harm, and conversion therapy is harmful. Humanists UK believes that when people are experiencing such extreme distress over their sexual orientation or gender identity, they should be met with person-centred, therapeutically well-grounded support. They should not face coercive, medically worthless practices that seek to push them in a particular direction.
For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Kathy Riddick at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 07534 248 596.
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