“On reflection, it was something he cared passionately about.” This was the absurd explanation from a Downing Street spokesperson of the prime minister’s partial U-turn on scrapping a ban on conversion practices. The outcry at dropping the promised legislation prompted him to restore it, but it will now be limited to sexual orientation. Transgender conversion practices will not be included.
Boris Johnson’s convictions have always been largely a matter of convenience. But the abhorrence most people feel towards conversion practices is deeply rooted. And it is most; in a YouGov poll, more than 62% of voters wanted the banning of these practices targeting both sexuality and gender identity. People recognise that conversion “therapy” is no such thing: this is about shaming and suppression. Sometimes families force it upon individuals. In other cases, they may seek it out under pressure, or because they have been made to feel that there is something “wrong” with them.
At the extreme, these practices may extend to verbal and physical abuse. More often, government research finds, they mean attempting to “pray the gay away”, or talking therapies. Either way, they seek to extinguish a person’s understanding of who they are, and increase stigma. The research notes growing evidence that such practices are statistically associated with poor mental health outcomes, including suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts.
Canada, France, Brazil, New Zealand and Argentina have already banned conversion practices for transgender people. The government says that “the complexity of issues and need for further careful thought” means “separate work” is necessary. Some gender-critical feminists say that including transgender people will prevent those with gender dysphoria from exploring their identity and risks criminalising parents and therapists for anything other than a gender-affirming approach. They, along with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, believe that the Cass review of NHS England’s gender identity service for children and young people should be completed first.
But conversion practices can be distinguished by the fact that those who carry them out see only one acceptable outcome. The British government’s consultation stressed that legislation would be symmetrical, covering therapies that aim to change a person “to or from being transgender”, and that the aim was to ensure that young people were “supported in exploring their identity without being encouraged towards one particular path”. Health, counselling and psychotherapy organisations including the British Medical Association, NHS England, Scotland and Wales, and the Royal College of General Practitioners have stated that a ban would not rule out appropriate clinical interventions for transgender people or those questioning their gender.
Not only is it possible to specify that exploratory work can continue – other countries have done so. Canada’s law notes that its ban “does not include a practice, treatment or service that relates to the exploration or development of an integrated personal identity … and that is not based on an assumption that a particular sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression is to be preferred over another”.
Such assurances could set some minds at rest. They are unlikely to sway the prime minister, because his concerns lie elsewhere. Government sources have reportedly said that they see the issue as a trap for Labour; transgender rights now appear to be part of No 10’s “war on woke”. But a wedge issue is meant to split support for one’s opponents. Mr Johnson’s decision is out of step with even his own party. Conservative MPs have been outspoken in their condemnation, and about 50 could back a move to make the ban comprehensive, while 58% of Tory voters think all forms of “conversion therapy” should be outlawed. They believe that transgender people too need and deserve protection from these practices. They are right.