The history of conversion therapy, otherwise known as reparative therapy, stems way back to the late 19th Century. In 1889, German Psychiatrist Baron Albert von Schrenck-Notzing claimed that he had “cured” a homosexual man from his sexuality. At the first International Congress of Hypnotism conference, the psychiatrist stated all that was required for this transformation was 45 hypnosis sessions over the period of four months. By 1892, Schrenck-Notzing, made further claims that he had either entirely “cured” or “significantly improved” 70 patients.
From these revelations, the therapy snowballed in popularity, and became widely practiced throughout the 20th Century as homosexuality was pathologised. The premise of the therapy was based on a number of unsubstantiated claims.This included the belief that homosexuality was a psychological disorder deriving from childhood trauma and that it stemmed from a biological issue with the testicles.
As a result, methods for “curing” homosexuality through conversion therapy, have included everything from ice-pick lobotomies, surgical correction and aversive conditioning, to orgasmic reconditioning, “corrective rape”; and satiation therapy, among others. The effects of which are dangerous and psychologically devastating.
Perhaps most shocking is that this therapy is not outlawed in the UK. This is despite continuous pledges by the UK’s Conservative government, and a wealth of evidence that not only shows that these practices are extremely harmful but also completely ineffective.
Numerous civil rights activists continue to campaign to end conversion therapy in the UK and momentum has been gained across the world. At present, Brazil, Malta, Albania and Ecuador, have national bans on the “therapy”. It is also outlawed in Switzerland, parts of Australia, Canada and the US. While Germany, most recently passed a law banning minors from partaking in conversion therapy.
Equality for LGBT+ people has gradually progressed over the years. It’s been 53 years since homosexuality was decriminalised and 17 years since Section 28 was repealed. In 2004, civil partnerships were legalised, and ten years later, same-sex marriage. However, when it comes to conversion therapy, and its legality, it’s easy to think that little progress has been made. While it peaked in popularity in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, despite its outdated beliefs and practices, it still exists in the UK today.
In 2015, LGBT+ charity Stonewall, published a report called “Unhealthy Attitudes,” which explored the treatment of LGBT+ people within health and social care services. The report uncovered that one in ten health and social care workers have witnessed colleagues in the workplace expressing the belief that someone can be ‘cured’ of same-sex attraction.
The effects of enduring this “therapy,” are extremely damaging. Studies have shown that individuals who undergo the “therapy,” experience everything from feelings of “suppression, disconnection, and a sense of inauthenticity” to “poor self-esteem and depression, social withdrawal, and sexual dysfunction”. Survivors of the abuse, have described it as “psychological torture”. Others have explained that it led to feelings of self-loathing and depression.
Shockingly, as recent as 2009, a study was conducted which found that out of 1,300 accredited mental health professionals, 200 of them had offered some kind of conversion therapy.
Two years ago, the then Prime Minister Theresa May vowed to rid the UK of “abhorrent” conversion therapy. Promising to insil “real and lasting change,” the government created an “Action Plan,” to improve the lives of LGBT+ people. The plan was formed after a national survey of 108,000 LGBT+ people, found that 2% of respondents had undergone conversion therapy, and 5% had been offered the discredited “treatment”.
However, in 2020, no movement has been made to eradicate the practice. This is despite the government stating that it was a priority, and releasing a report in 2019 that promised a formal consultation was being brought forward. Back-pedalling on their promises, according to Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch, ministers deemed it “a very complex issue” and as a result, they had not found a way to proceed.
Reflecting on this, on Monday 18 May, the Minister said in a written response to a question concerning future plans for legislation: “There are a wide range of practices which may fall within its scope and we want to ensure we have a thorough understanding of the situation in the UK to inform an effective approach. Before any decision is made on proposals for ending conversion therapy we must understand the problem, the range of options available and the impact they would have.” She added: “We will work to deepen our understanding and consider all options for ending the practice of conversion therapy”.
Back in December, Pink News asked PM Boris Johnson why the Conservative Party remained the only party not to include a pledge to ban the practice in its election manifesto. He responded with some spiel about continued commitment to the LGBT+ Action Plan. Yet a spokesperson for the Government Equalities Office told The Independent, that rather than ending the practice with a national legal ban, “research had been commissioned to inform different approaches”.
In 2017, an updated Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) against conversion therapy was launched and signed by all major counselling and psychotherapy bodies in the UK. It declared that the therapy was both unethical and harmful. Signatories, which included NHS England and Scotland, UKCP, The British Psychological Society, and BABCP pledged to “ending the practice of conversion therapy”.
Other groups and political parties continue to rally for a legislated ban. This includes Humanists UK, Stonewall and the Green Party. Speaking about the importance of eradicating the practice, Green Party Co-Leader Siân Berry said: “The biggest act of solidarity the Conservative government can do for IDAHOBIT is publish a legislative timetable for banning conversion therapy. Just this month we saw Germany bring in a ban, and we risk falling behind the rest of Europe on this important human rights issue. No young person should be forced into harm’s way, and no adult should be conned into pursuing this pseudo therapy”.
Meanwhile, some have expressed concerns that such practices would be difficult to regulate, due to much of it happening in private, behind closed doors. On top of this, it has been suggested that an outright ban, without more “substantial support for potential victims,” could force the practice further into the shadows. While this is a valid point, avoiding a legislated ban is counterproductive. Much more must be done to ensure that such practices are made a criminal offence with consequences. After all, it has been proven that these kinds of “treatments” have damaging long-term psychological effects on LGBT+ individuals, sometimes even leading to suicide.
Unfortunately, Theresa May’s “real and lasting change,” is yet to be delivered, and with a bigoted PM who compared same-sex marriage to marrying a dog and called gay men “tank-topped bumboys,” many are not hopeful it will be delivered any time soon.