By Lianne Kolirin
Pressure is growing on Boris Johnson to bring forward a ban on conversion therapy after the Northern Ireland Assembly passed a motion calling for it to be outlawed “in all its forms”.
Though non-binding, the move has been welcomed by advocates who hope it will bring about legal changes.
Conversion therapy is already outlawed in Germany and parts of Australia, Canada and the US. But controversy has been mounting in Britain as the prime minister has been accused of dragging his heels over a commitment that he made to follow suit.
In 2018 Theresa May’s government promised to end conversion therapy and in July 2020 Johnson pledged to stamp out “these abhorrent practices”.
But earlier this month the government’s LGBT advisory panel was disbanded after three advisers quit in March over the government’s inertia.
So what exactly is conversion therapy and how prevalent is it? According to the United Nations’ independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity, “conversion therapy is an umbrella term used to describe interventions of a wide-ranging nature, all of which have in common the belief that a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity can and should be changed”.
Interventions come in different guises across various settings — many religious in nature.
In 2018 the government’s national LGBT survey revealed that 7 per cent of the 108,000 respondents had undergone or been offered conversion therapy, rising to 13 per cent for transexual respondents. More than half (51 per cent) said their experience was carried out by faith groups.
Jayne Ozanne is a gay evangelical Christian, and the first of the advisory panellists to quit. She told the Religion Media Centre: “The vast majority of LGBT+ people in the religious world will go through three phases. The first is the silent phase, which some people never get out of, where they know they are different but never tell a soul.”
Religious people will often “go through their own private hell … pleading with God to change”. Ms Ozanne said: “Either they tend to be outed or they get to a point of breakdown. The second is talking to trusted religious leaders or prayer leaders about the fact they are struggling with this ‘sin’.”
She speaks from experience. She came out in her forties after years of conversion therapy. “Most religious folk conducting this will truly believe there’s a reason why you become gay and so they will seek to pray into that. The belief, especially in evangelical churches, is that God can heal you of this.
“Prayer sessions can take hours. The problem is that over the months you keep failing and you therefore feel ashamed that nothing is working. You end up feeling that it’s all your fault and that you haven’t had enough faith.” Then comes the third phase.
“Typically, you start looking for more extreme forms and you will find people who specialise in spiritual guidance and deliverance or exorcism.”
There are other more extreme forms of conversion therapy, with victims reporting beatings, stabbings, and being burnt with cigarettes. “The worst form is corrective rape. We know these things are happening in London right now,” Ms Ozanne said.
She spent much time and money on conversion therapy. “Realising it hadn’t worked and being told I had to be single and celibate for life led to a major breakdown. I was going to take my life. There seemed no way out.”
The 2018 National Faith and Sexuality Survey, commissioned by the Ozanne Foundation, revealed that more than half of those who attempted to change their sexual orientation reported mental health issues. Of them, nearly a third had attempted suicide while over two-thirds experienced suicidal thoughts.
“The level of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] is huge. It’s a form of abuse, where scripture and scriptural reasoning is used to cause harm,” Ms Ozanne said.
“They genuinely believe they’re doing the right thing and that they’re doing it in love, with a smile on their face. Even those who beat you up do it to get the devil out of you and they believe their god is telling them to do that. What we need is a law that protects young people before they’re raped and beaten up.”
Augustine Ihm, 31, grew up in Chicago but came to Britain in 2001 to work in a church. “I came here to get my foot in the door doing an internship,” he told the RMC.
He was a gay man “with a very conservative viewpoint”, meaning he planned to live a single celibate life. “When I applied for a church, I told them and they said ‘it’s fine, we have a group that helps people’.”
Ihm was unaware the church practised conversion therapy. “We would go to meetings and we would pray. They would say ‘focus on the person rather than the genitals’, ‘tell yourself you are heterosexual and not homosexual.”
When he offered an alternative viewpoint, it did not go well. “They never directly said ‘you need to leave’, just ‘maybe God’s leading you home’.”
Ihm flew home but returned to London in 2015 where he became an intern for the Church of England. But the experience soon turned sour. “I met a man who believed you can change your sexual orientation through prayer and he was quite abusive. Both experiences were incredibly emotionally scarring.”
Joe Hyman came across JONAH, or Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality, at 17. “It felt like a saviour,” he said of the online counselling sessions, reported on the Ban Conversion Therapy website.
“My therapy sessions put the shame and self-hatred I felt as a teenager into overdrive. My mental health was up and down the whole time — I’d go through cycles of being OK and then breaking down.”
He adds: “This is not a thing of the past — conversion therapy continues to thrive in our communities, and will do so until we have a legislative ban in place.”
The Rev Jide Macaulay is the founder of House of Rainbow, “a safe space for black LGBTQ+ people”. “The issue is often seen as demonic and people being told they’re going to eternal damnation,” Macaulay told the RMC. “For many people we have had to support, it often feels like a trap they just fall into.”
Relatives or church leaders are often enlisted to “deliver healing”. “The LGBT person is desperate for something to happen but when it doesn’t the blame is on them. It has very harmful consequences and we see how it has pushed people to breaking point.”
Such attitudes are pervasive across many immigrant communities from African and Caribbean countries, according to Macaulay. “Families actually support the conversion therapy and that’s why many LGBT people have severe ructions with them.”
He said: “When I lost my brother, I was not allowed to attend the tribute because of my sexuality and that’s coming from a Christian family.” Leaving the faith, however, was not an option.
“When people tell me they’re no longer a Christian it breaks my heart. I hope church communities will awaken and be prepared to learn more but I believe legislation is the first step. If we educate parents to love their LGBT children unconditionally and treat everyone the same, maybe the law will help us.”
It takes bravery to share such experiences. On the Ban Conversion Therapy website, a man known only as Ibrahim recalls being sent to a Muslim psychiatrist as a student. Hours of “invasive” questioning left Ibrahim feeling “violated and afraid”.
“He was adamant that my sexuality was something that could — and should — be changed,” he recalled. “It felt like the prolonged session had been an effort to break me down. It was a constant interrogation about the most private details of my life.”
Now, years later, he adds: “I was in such a vulnerable headspace that I didn’t realise anything inappropriate had happened. It was only when I was training to become a doctor that I understood how far the therapist had strayed from an appropriate conversation style for a doctor-patient relationship.
“Only if we have a meaningful ban on conversion therapy in the UK can we ensure that all LGBT people are protected from these demeaning treatments, and supported to be themselves.”