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‘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 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.

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. Furthermore, whilst professional mental healthcare bodies such as the British Psychological Society have 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 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 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.

In 2009, we raised awareness of the growing instances of ‘church exorcisms’ which aim to rid people of ‘demons’ that ‘cause’ homosexuality. We had hoped to see this practice outlawed in the Equality Act, which was moving through Parliament around this time, but an explicit ban was not considered within the scope of this Bill.

In 2011, we again sounded the alarm about ‘sexual orientation change efforts’ following the case of a psychotherapist being supported by the Christian Legal Centre over disciplinary matters relating to her practice of ‘conversion therapy’. We supported the British Association of Psychology and Counselling’s decision to bring disciplinary hearings, saying that these harmful practices should not be subsidised by public funds. In 2012, following the therapist’s suspension and failed appeal, we reminded officials that claims for the ability to cure homosexuality were ‘completely discredited’, and called for those who supported the therapist (including former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey and the group Christian Concern) to recant their public support.

Later in 2012, we denounced a touring conference from the Core Issues Trust to promote their ‘gay cure’ services.

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.

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 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 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 committed 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 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 June 2018, we raised the issue at the UN Human Rights Council, calling on the UK and other states where conversion therapy is legal to ban the practice at once.

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’s for those who might face honour-based violence or other forms of violence.

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