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I was offered anti-LGBT conversion therapy in Sheffield – twice

A government consultation asking whether conversion therapy should be banned closes in a few days. My experiences tell me we must resist calls for religious exemptions and also ensure any ban protects trans people.

Rainbow graffiti behind Niche, Sidney Street, Sheffield
KylaBorg

Many people associate the words “conversion therapy” with the electric shocks and forced vomiting of the past. Thankfully, those techniques have mostly disappeared but the continuing existence of other forms of conversion therapy remains damaging, humiliating and stigmatising for all LGBT+ people.

Stonewall research suggests that 1 in 20 LGBT+ people have been “pressured to access services to question or change their sexual orientation when accessing healthcare services.” This number rises to 9% of LGBT people aged 18-24, 9% of Black, Asian and minority ethnic LGBT people and 8% of LGBT disabled people. According to the charity, one in five trans people “have been pressured to access services to suppress their gender identity when accessing healthcare services.” This often takes the form of some kind of counselling or therapy.

And that’s only looking at healthcare services. Even more conversion therapy is carried out within religious communities, where it can take the form of exorcisms and being prayed over. Galop reports that it can go as far as “being threatened with or experiencing a forced marriage or sexual assault to ‘correct’ you.”

A rainbow flag outside Endcliffe Park cafe
Philippa Willitts

Conversion therapy is inherently damaging to those who receive it. I can say this with some authority, having been offered it twice. I didn’t even take the offers up, thankfully, but the potential of what could have happened still haunts me many years later. The first person to offer it to me was a psychiatrist. The second was a church leader in Sheffield.

The psychiatrist was keen to add “same-sex attraction” to his diagnosis list, even though the World Health Organisation had declassified homosexuality as a mental illness in 1992. He wanted me to delve into what had led to me fancying women and what it meant to me, psychologically, with a view to “addressing” it. I was 19, very newly out, very vulnerable and unwell, and barely able to stand up for myself. I somehow refused that line of enquiry and asked if I could leave. He looked offended.

The church leader was a few years later. I was new to her church and had a meeting with her, a ‘getting to know you’ session. When I mentioned my girlfriend, she asked if I would come back for weekly meetings with her to discuss my sexuality and talk about what God wanted for my romantic life. She asked if I would refrain from sexual activity during that time. And she asked, of course, if we could pray together about it.

It was compelling. I wanted to be a good person and I appreciated her attention. But mercifully, circumstances got in the way and I was hospitalised for something unrelated. By the time I was back home, determination to stop denying my true self had set in and I never went back to that church.

I’ve been out as a lesbian for a really long time and I am so grateful that I escaped both of those attempts to tell my deepest self that she was inherently wrong.

Knowing that people – who I thought knew more than I did – believed that I should be different was painful because I also knew, without doubt, that my gayness was not only not going to change, but that there was nothing wrong with it.

A photograph of the Hubs in Sheffield with a rainbow in the sky
commons.wikimedia.org

But growing up in a homophobic, transphobic and queerphobic society makes people vulnerable to this. It’s why we sometimes say yes when we are offered these toxic ‘therapies’. It’s why we might go back to the church or mosque that hurt us. It’s why we still associate with people who believe we are living a sinful life. Because when society tells you you are wrong, dirty, dangerous or sinful, you absorb that to some degree or another.

When the UK government launched a consultation on banning LGBT+ conversion therapy, I was encouraged. Conversion therapy has absolutely no place in a modern, equal society. And my experiences – and those of many others I have listened to – tell me that the proposed exception for religious groups must be refused, point blank.

But a new development in this discussion is even more chilling: the Equality and Human Rights Commission released a statement that is less than firm on the idea that transphobic conversion therapy should be banned on the same terms as anti-gay conversion therapy. In a response to the government consultation, the EHRC says

The Government should make clear that psychological, medical and healthcare staff can continue to provide support to people experiencing gender dysphoria; this should include support to reduce distress and reconcile a person to their biological sex where clinically indicated, including for children and young people aged under 18 if this is in their best interests.

To suggest that it could be in any trans person’s best interests to “reconcile” them to their biological sex speaks right to conversion therapy’s very harmful core.

It’s never in our best interests to be turned into people we are not. For the national body that claims to be “here to stand up for freedom, compassion and justice in our changing times” to make this argument suggests the EHRC is long past its useful life and should be replaced with something that actually fights for marginalised people’s equality and human rights – as its name suggests it should.

There are only a few days left to contribute to the government consultation. I urge you to take part, have your say and fight for LGBTQI people’s right to be who they are in every area of their lives.

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