The new gay conversion therapy
The ignorance of politicians is putting gay people at risk.
One of the more maddening aspects of the culture war is that language has been rendered meaningless. Most of the disputes are destined to remain unresolved because there are few shared definitions among competing parties. We are left with armies of straw men thrashing about on an imaginary battlefield, while most of us look on in a state of bewilderment.
The recent debates over “conversion therapy” are a case in point. At a Labour Party event in parliament on 29 January, Keir Starmer pledged to “implement a full, trans-inclusive, ban on all forms of conversion therapy”. He is likely to find some support among the population. A YouGov poll last year revealed that 65 per cent of voters believe that “gay conversion therapy” ought to be banned and 62 per cent feel the same about “trans conversion therapy”. This would suggest that most voters do not recognise the difference between the two, a natural consequence of a climate in which discussion of sensitive issues is routinely stymied by both the browbeaters and the browbeaten.
Yet when we wade beyond the messy definitional quagmires, we find that the phrase “conversion therapy” is only coherent when applied to sexual orientation rather than gender identity. The consequence of this semantic ambiguity means that most people do not understand that in order to oppose gay conversion therapy, one must be opposed to a ban on “trans conversion therapy”.
This will require some explanation. When we hear the phrase “conversion therapy”, most of our minds leap to a variety of horrific practices. In America, Christian fundamentalists have established programmes to address the “problem” of homosexuality. This was satirised in an episode of South Park where Butters Stotch is mistakenly assumed to be gay by his parents and dispatched to “Camp New Grace” whose slogan is “Pray the Gay Away”. At one point, the boys attend a presentation by Pastor Phillips, who tells them that he “used to have unclean urges” but was healed through the power of prayer, all the while prancing around like Nathan Lane in The Birdcage.
The episode doesn’t shy away from the darker side of these kinds of retreats. Suicides are shown to be common among the boys, all of which the staff are happy to shrug off.
One might argue that “praying the gay away” is at least a step forward from the brain surgery, castration and electric shock treatment favoured by scientific practitioners in the twentieth century. One thinks of the American psychiatrist Dr Robert Galbraith Heath, whose team implanted electrodes into the brains of patients which were then stimulated while the victims were shown heterosexual pornography. Heath claimed to have successfully converted a gay man, and wrote a paper with his colleague Charles E. Moan called “Septal stimulation for the initiation of heterosexual behavior in a homosexual male”.
This was happening in England too. In 2014, I performed in a show called Outings at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, in which verbatim testimonies of coming-out stories were dramatised. One of the scenes had been submitted by a Liverpudlian man who, as a teenager in the 1960s, was referred by doctors to an institution where he was forced to look at pictures of naked men while drinking to excess and being injected with substances that caused him to vomit. These medical practitioners also applied electrodes to his penis. Needless to say, it didn’t work.
Another form of conversion therapy is the “corrective rape” of lesbians to “cure” them of homosexual tendencies. I recall a chilling account of one victim, Simphiwe Thandeka, who was interviewed by the New York Times in 2013 as part of a piece about the “epidemic of corrective rape” in South Africa. A tomboy in youth and a lesbian in adult life, Simphiwe was raped on three occasions by an uncle who then paid a friend to rape her multiple times and take her as a wife. She was left pregnant by this man and HIV positive from her uncle. Her mother and grandmother encouraged her to keep it a secret, saying that it was a “family matter” and “not to be spoken of again”.
Such practices are, of course, already illegal in the UK, so why are there so many calls for bans on “conversion therapy”, even from members of the Conservative Party? In the past we have seen Labour politicians holding placards calling for this “trans-inclusive ban”, and now Starmer has confirmed that this is the official Labour position. But what precisely does it mean?
In her book Time to Think, Hannah Barnes revealed that between 80 to 90 percent of adolescents who were referred to the Tavistock paediatric gender clinic were same-sex attracted. We have known for a long time that there is a strong correlation between gender nonconformity in youth and being gay in adult life. Members of the staff at the Tavistock itself joked that “soon there would be no gay people left” and whistleblowers revealed that homophobia was endemic. In other words, children who are likely to grow up gay are being “fixed” by medical practitioners to better conform with stereotypical heterosexual paradigms.
Starmer’s proposed “trans-inclusive ban” on conversion therapy is therefore based on a misunderstanding. It conflates the state-sanctioned torture of gay people in the past with the important work of paediatricians that support children who are struggling with their feelings. Moreover, Barnes’s research shows that the Tavistock clinic “ignored evidence that 97.5 per cent of children seeking sex changes had autism, depression or other problems that might have explained their unhappiness”. With only 2% of the country’s children suffering from an Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), why did 35% of referrals to the Tavistock fit into this category? In almost all instances, children who are prescribed puberty blockers go on to cross-sex hormones, which in some cases lead to irreversible surgery. We are dealing overwhelmingly here with gay and autistic children, fast-tracked onto a pathway to sterilisation.
The Scottish government has already charged down this regressive path via its consultation on “banning conversion practices”. As Dennis Kavanagh’s excellent overview shows, it seeks to introduce a “new criminal offence which imposes liability for practices that seek to change or suppress a person’s sexuality or gender identity”. This risks the criminalisation of medical practitioners who do not automatically take the “gender-affirmative” approach, and could see parents referred to social services if they fail to support the “social transitioning” of their children (the practice of allowing children to dress as the opposite sex and be referred to by different names and pronouns). Social transitioning has already been criticised as “not a neutral act” in the interim Cass Report (whose conclusions led to the decision to close the Tavistock), and could risk exacerbating feelings of gender dysphoria that in most cases will naturally resolve themselves. The proposed Scottish legislation can be read here, and the deadline for consultation responses is midnight on 2 April.
The “gender-affirmative” approach favoured by clinics across the western world has already been widely debunked, most notably in an open letter last July to the Wall Street Journal by twenty-one leading experts in paediatric gender treatment. They were writing to oppose the view that gender-affirming care is best for children, and pointed out that the common claim that puberty blockers reduce the risk of suicide is simply not backed up by the evidence. Unsurprisingly, this open letter went largely unreported.
As for puberty blockers, the interim Cass Report found that there is a lack of secure evidence for their safety. In June of 2023, the NHS announced that puberty blockers would be limited to children on clinical trials. Following similar reviews, Finland, Sweden and Norway have also implemented restrictions. The risks of sterility, depression, and lifelong regret are now clear. So why is there not a serious discussion taking place about banning puberty blockers altogether? Why are medical experts willing to experiment on the most vulnerable in society on the basis of intuition that flies in the face of the evidence? Studies show that in the vast majority of cases feelings of gender dysphoria in youth are resolved by puberty. Why are we blocking the cure?
Thankfully, more and more people are waking up to the scale of this problem. This week, there was a debate in the House of Lords in which many of these concerns were raised (the full transcript can be read here). The debate was on the new Conversion Therapy Prohibition (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) Bill being championed by the Liberal Democrats. Baroness Claire Fox was particularly strong on the point of “gender identity” and how the proposed legislation fails to define it.
“How would the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, define gender identity, before she tries to embed it in UK law for the first time? It is, at best, a contested concept. I appreciate that a precise, fixed definition might be tricky, when this particular identity can cover over 100 to 300 genders – transgender, gender-fluid, genderqueer, gender-variant, genderless and non-binary.”
Were it not for the inherent austerity of the House of Lords, she might well have added the identity category of “genderfuck”, defined on LGBTQIA+ Wiki as “a gender identity and/or gender expression where gendered expectations are deliberately played with to combine gender-specific signals”. Make of that what you will.
And also this week, the equalities minister Kemi Badenoch wrote to the Commons women and equalities select committee about her discussions with former clinicians at the Tavistock. The conclusion? So called “gender-affirmative care” amounts to “conversion therapy for gay kids”. Crucially, she cited a survey of detransitioners (those who are pressurised into transitioning and later regret it) in which 23% of respondents put their experiences down to experiences of homophobia. Badenoch quoted a gender clinic in Germany:
“It must be understood that early hormone therapy may interfere with the patient’s development as a homosexual. This may not be in the interest of patients who, as a result of hormone therapy, can no longer have the decisive experiences that enable them to establish a homosexual identity.”
It is profoundly disturbing that Starmer’s Labour party is now officially supporting gay conversion therapy in the form of a ban on “trans-inclusive conversion therapy”. A charitable interpretation is that Starmer simply does not understand the issues behind his dangerously anti-gay proposals. Homosexuality was removed from the World Health Organisation’s list of psychiatric disorders in 1993, and I am sure that our likely next Prime Minister does not sincerely believe that gay people require medical treatment. But if his policies are enacted, his good intentions will count for nothing. With all the information now freely available, ignorance is no longer an excuse.
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