The conversion therapy debate: abuse or ‘gentle’ persuasion?

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A transgender priest said she let out “a minor scream” of despair when she heard that the government was intending to ban conversion therapy for all except transgender people.

The Rev Canon Sarah Jones told a Religion Media Centre online briefing that if the government acknowledged conversion therapy was dangerous enough to legislate, it could not then say that it was OK for trans people. And this, she said, was dangerous.

She was concerned that there had been a backlash against trans people in recent years when they had been accused of making it into an ideology or political movement. If there was transphobia, it was in the minds of the people in power at the moment, she suggested.

She was commenting on the government’s double U-turn, at first announcing no ban and then a partial ban.

The LGBTQ+ campaigner Jayne Ozanne told the briefing that the U-turns were based on a desire to cut back on the legislative agenda and a belief that a conversion therapy ban would be contentious. But it had become clear that it was more contentious to withdraw the ban than to proceed with that legislation. 

‘Conversion therapy’ describes the process when a person is persuaded to deny their sexual identity on grounds of religion through prayer, counselling or sometimes violence. The arguments over banning it were given urgency after research pointed to its harmful effects. read more on our factsheet here >>

The campaign against a ban came largely from conservative evangelical Christians, concerned that it would criminalise pastors as they counselled people conflicted over their sexual identity.  The briefing heard that there were influential conservative evangelicals around 10 Downing Street.

The Rev Dr Matthew Roberts, minister of the Presbyterian Trinity Church in York, was behind a letter from 2,500 Christians concerned at the prospect of a ban.

He told the briefing that the letter did not ask the government not to ban conversion therapy. They had no interest in defending anything that was coercive.

Their concern was that any ban would criminalise pastors who were teaching orthodox Christian doctrine that people were not automatically good and needed redemption and that sex was restricted to marriage between a man and woman.

He gave the example of counselling a married man attracted to another man, to whom he would say “say no to your attractions and stay faithful to your wife”; and to a young person conflicted over sexual feelings whatever their orientation, he would say that the worst thing you can do is to give free rein to your feelings and think that they’re to be indulged.

There are different views of orthodoxy. Canon Jones said there was a diversity of Christian opinion on sexuality and gender and she believed her own views to be orthodox.  

And the Rev Jarel Robinson-Brown, vice-chairman of OneBodyOneFaith campaign group said all LGBTQ+ people are made in the image and likeness of God.

There are also disagreements about whether conversion therapy is abuse.

Simon Calvert, deputy director of the Christian Institute, said conversations between pastors and people seeking advice on sexual orientation had been wrongly characterised as abuse.  

“The orthodox Christian teaching may not be fashionable, but it’s not abuse. And you can’t outlaw it”, he said. He was concerned that the ban would deny freedom of speech.

But Ruth Wilde, national co-ordinator for Inclusive Church, said that conversion therapy was abuse, telling the story of her own wife who was so harmed by the “cult-like” atmosphere in her church that she had to go through therapy to get over it.

Jayne Ozanne said many LGBTQ+ people had gone through abuse in religious settings and the harmful effects of conversion therapy had been well documented.  

There was also a discussion about whether a gentle conversation with a pastor could be classed as coercive.

Mr Calvert said Christians should try to be gentle. “We should be trying to understand where people are coming from. And we accept that people have different views. But there are differences of opinion and people have to be allowed to express their side of a discussion without fear that somebody else is going to come along and say that that should be made a criminal offence.”

Ms Wilde said she had gone through “gentle” conversations about sexuality and it was definitely coercive.

The panellists were asked where a ban would leave a parent, wanting to have conversations with their children about changing sexual identity or gender.  Canon Jones said no one would seriously criminalise an honest professional investigation with someone seeking advice.

There was a world of difference between an open conversation and one where someone had “a cast-iron view of about what God would think, or what God wouldn’t think, or possibly even if you’re going to not get into heaven”.

The partial ban on conversion therapy is likely to be in the Queen’s Speech in May, but Jarel Robinson-Brown said OneBodyOneFaith would continue to campaign for transgender people to be included.   He also warned about words used as people continued to argued their case, particularly the use of the word “persecution”. The argument should be: “You do not have the right to cause harm and abuse people in the name of God with the name of the church. That’s not persecution.”

Conversion therapy has been the subject of several reports considered by lawyers.

The Rev Dr Helen Hall, associate professor at Nottingham Law School, Nottingham Trent University, said there was no law that dealt with conversion practices, which meant there was nothing to stop anybody choosing to offer a practice intending to suppress either their sexuality or their gender identity.

She said law can define coercion from the context and the pressures exerted on the person involved. The word “gentle” was subjective. The ban would seek to make harmful practices unlawful, whatever the motivation and the ban would need to be clearly drafted and be about the practice.

“The point is, there is an absolute need to protect people from this harm, and the motivation for inflicting the harm is a secondary thing. Emotive language around the motivation is not helpful,” she said.

Watch the entire briefing recorded on 5th April 2022 via YouTube:

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