Banning conversion therapy

Humanists UK has campaigned for a ban on so-called ‘conversion therapy’ or ‘gay cure’ therapy for many decades. Conversion therapy is a discredited and harmful practice, usually rooted in false and often pseudoscientific religious beliefs about what causes people to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or trans.

It often happens in secret in closed-off religious communities, but 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.

Despite this, outside of medical settings, conversion therapy remains legal in every part of the UK and in all of the Crown Dependencies. Humanists UK campaigns to change this, and in 2018 that campaign met with partial success when the UK Government originally announced that it will change the law to introduce such a ban in the UK. This was followed by years of inaction until it finally announced, in January 2023, that a draft Bill will be published shortly. However, as of summer 2023, we are yet to see the draft Bill.

In depth

A 2015 survey by the LGBT charity Stonewall found that 10% of health and social care staff in the UK have witnessed a colleague express the belief that homosexuality can be cured; this figure rises to 22% in London specifically. 

And while professional mental healthcare bodies such as the British Psychological Society have repeatedly stated that conversion therapies have the potential to cause harm, a 2009 study showed that more than 200 therapists have engaged in trying to cure people of their homosexuality. The full extent of the problem is obscured by the fact that most organisations which practice conversion therapy do so in relative secrecy, often in closed-off religious communities.

Groups such as the Core Issues Trust operate in the UK freely. It is a Northern Ireland registered charity, which entitles it to certain tax exemptions.

What we’re doing

  • In June 2023, we raised our concerns at the UN Human Rights Council with interventions about religious harms caused to LGBT people, including conversion therapy, and the use of forced marriage as a means of conversion. These were the latest of several intervention we have delivered to the Human Rights Council on conversion therapy, calling on the UK and other states where conversion therapy is legal to ban the practice in 2018, 2019, 2021 and 2022.
  • In 2022, LGBT Humanists called for the UK Government to strengthen proposals to ban conversion therapy in England and Wales in response to a consultation by the Government Equalities Office.
  • In 2020, we supported efforts in the House of Keys (the Isle of Man’s parliament) to ban conversion therapy on the Isle of Man. The self-governing island is set to become the first British territory to ban the practice.
  • In 2018, following our campaigning, the Government announced it will change the law to introduce a ban on conversion therapy in the UK. In 2019, we met with the Government Equalities Office to discuss how this ban could be implemented.
  • In 2018, we advised and worked with the Ozanne Foundation to produce the Faith and Sexuality Survey investigating the harms of conversion therapy for young people in religious settings. 
  • In February 2018, we identified an upcoming propaganda film from the Core Issues Trust that would be airing at Vue in Leicester Square, a major UK commercial cinema. We briefed journalists on the event and used the ensuing media furore to promote our message that the practice deserves to be banned outright in UK criminal law.
  • In October 2017, many of the UK’s leading health bodies, including NHS England, NHS Scotland, and the British College of GPs, announced a memorandum of understanding that commits them to ending ‘conversion therapy’ in the UK. All organisations involved became committed to an action plan towards the elimination of these procedures within their ranks, including through guidelines and updated professional standards requirements that prohibit the practice. However, the document was not legally binding and did not address the gap in the law which lets religious organisations, independent therapists, and others practice ‘gay exorcisms’ and other forms of conversion therapy.
  • In October 2017, an investigation by the Liverpool Echo into conversion therapy by the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministry, which has 90 branches across Liverpool and Manchester, found harrowing case studies of individuals who had been attempted to ‘starvation’ and other measures to cure their sexuality. We responded by calling on the UK and devolved governments to bring new legislation to make these so-called therapies a criminal offence. The Home Office at the time referred to conversion therapy as ‘homophobic hate crimes’, but declined to bring forward new legislation.
  • In March 2017, one of our supporters, an ex-Muslim man who ran his university’s Humanist Students society, received extensive media coverage for the stories of conversion therapy he had been subjected to.
  • In 2016, we spotlighted issues with conversion therapy in British schools through our Faith Schoolers Anonymous whistleblowing platform. The blog post highlighted ‘gay exorcisms’ associated with a private Accelerated Christian Education school, emphasising shortcomings in relation to children’s rights and child protection standards in British schools.

As early as 2005, Humanists UK (through its section LGBT Humanists) campaigned to bring greater awareness of the issue and others by organising the UK’s first ever celebration of the International Day Against Homophobia (now the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia), which celebrates the WHO declassification of homosexuality as an illness. This has since grown into a significant event in the UK each year.

Throughout this time, we’ve also used social media to build awareness of the issue and to highlight both stories of conversion therapy, the psychological harm it inflicts on victims, and news of other jurisdictions where it has been banned. We have worked closely with media outlets to exert maximum pressure on the UK Government, in the hopes it will bring forward legislation.

Support we offer

If you’re the victim of conversion therapy, or if your sexuality or non-religious views have caused you to become cut off from your community or to experience shunning, abuse, or ostracism, our support service Faith to Faithless can provide different forms of peer support, sign-posting, and other resources to help you navigate your situation.

We also suggest looking at Time to Change’s list of services for those experiencing mental health difficulties, and Faith to Faithless for those who might face honour-based violence or other forms of violence.