Labour MP Diana Johnson: It’s now time for Parliament to tackle the issue of gay conversion therapy

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

Labour MP Diana Johnson and Tom Stephens both write for on why ending gay-to-straight conversion therapy should be Parliament’s next priority.

On Tuesday 21 May, 366 MPs voted in favour of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill at third reading. For many, this marks the end of a long process of a lifetime’s campaigning for marriage equality. For David Cameron too, even despite his recent difficulties, it appears to close the final curtain on the Conservative Party’s chequered history on gay rights.

But as final as this extension of legal rights might seem, it won’t alter the shocking prevalence of homophobic bullying in our schools which affects half of the UK’s openly gay students, or the fact that 73% of trans people in Britain report having been publicly harassed. Nor will it stop intolerant parents throwing their children onto the streets when they come out – a tendency which means a disproportionately-high 25% of Britain’s homeless in urban areas are LGBT.

It also won’t stop those in Britain whose life experiences reflect statistics like the ones above from becoming convinced in desperation that it is themselves, rather than the world around them, which has to change. These are the people who end up undergoing gay-to-straight conversion therapy.

With marriage equality on its way, there’s now a need for Parliament to move beyond talking about rights which simply empower those already confident enough to be openly gay and look into the social forces which continue to pin down those who lack the self-assurance to be happy being themselves. Ending gay-to-straight conversion therapy – something which has virtually never been discussed in Parliament – is one way of tackling these underlying issues.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the removal of homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental illnesses (DSM). But you don’t have to look further than the website of the Core Issues Trust – those same people who appealed against Transport for London’s refusal to advertise their anti-gay messages on London buses – to realise that a form of therapy predicated on the assumption that homosexuality is an illness is still carried out.

Despite what Core Issues say, this is not at all a debate about the right of individuals to offer conversion therapy to those who “choose” it. First and foremost, this is about what, if you’re in a professional field and a gay person approaches you expressing uneasiness about their sexuality, you are obliged to do. If doctors, psychotherapists, psychoanalysts and psychiatrists decide to offer conversion therapy or forward their client onto conversion groups externally, all the evidence suggests that they’re potentially consigning their patients to a painful spiral of self-abuse, self-doubt and self-criticism, possibly ending in suicide.

But despite the fact that numerous professional organisations have condemned conversion therapy as ineffective and potentially harmful, there is not a clear dividing line between professionals and conversion therapists. A 2009 survey of 1300 British psychiatrists, therapists and psychoanalysts revealed over 200 had attempted to change at least one patient’s sexuality. In February 2010, Patrick Strudwick in the Independent pretended he wanted to change his sexuality to gain access to some British conversion therapists. His findings were troubling.

One of those who attempted to cure him, Lesley Pilkington, was then an accredited member of the British Association of Councillors and Psychotherapists (BACP), and claimed most of her clients were forwarded to her from her local GP’s surgery. Pilkington has since been struck off from the BACP, and various professional associations – including the two main psychotherapist organisations, the BACP and UKCP – have now made statements condemning conversion therapy. Whatever these groups say, however, doesn’t change the fact that anyone can practice as a psychotherapist, and carry out conversion therapy, without being a member of a professional organisation.

By focusing on the narrow issue of personal “choice”, Core Issues essentially sidestep this whole debate about professional obligations. Psychotherapists and others shouldn’t be allowed to practice conversion; the NHS should cultivate no links whatsoever with conversion organisations; and professionals should be properly trained in LGBT-friendly approaches to mental health which promote self-confidence in anxious LGBT people rather than tell them their sexuality is an illness. No-one should disagree with this.

More than this, though, Core Issues need to realise that the very existence of pro-conversion organisations like them – whether they operate in the professional field or not – has a wider negative effect on attitudes to homosexuality in our society. Jeremy Marks, an evangelical Christian, established an organisation much like Core Issues in 1988. But he eventually changed his mind on the whole issue of gay rights when he realised his group was only “sowing isolation, loss of faith, broken marriages, and even attempted suicides.” Now he operates a pro-gay Christian organisation.

Marks realised that the only reason people want to change their sexuality is because homophobia is still a real and present danger in society today. As long as gay conversion remains a practice, it lends credence to the school bully, the intolerant parent or the violent perpetrator of a gay hate crime. End conversion therapy in Britain and you send a message to LGBT people not just in Britain, but around the world: that there is an alternative to the daily torrent of abuse they suffer simply because others are unwilling to accept them for who they are.

Parliament, and the government, needs to give the issue of conversion therapy much more attention than it has thus far. There hasn’t been a single Select Committee investigation, House of Commons Library publication nor indeed any government statement whatsoever on conversion-related issues, save their responses to the questions we have tabled them in the House of Commons. Their answers to these questions have been less than satisfactory.

Despite saying the government “does not condone” conversion therapy, Health Minister Norman Lamb has also stated he “has no plans to introduce statutory regulation for psychotherapists” other than a purely voluntary registration scheme which would not prevent conversion therapists from practising in the sector. Questions on the NHS and gay conversion have been answered along the same lines. In the wake of Strudwick’s investigation, the British Medical Association passed a motion calling on the Department of Health to investigate whether public money through the NHS had been used to fund conversion therapy.

Although Norman Lamb has said: “I do not believe it would be appropriate to commission conversion therapy using public funds”, there doesn’t seem to have been any government response to the BMA’s requests to carry out an investigation into the very possibility that this might have happened.

This isn’t good enough. A local partnership between university students and the Hull city Labour Party, the Hull and East Riding Labour LGBT+ Network, has recently been circulating a parliamentary paper petition against conversion. We encourage everyone reading this to print off, sign and complete sheets to send back to the return address in time for its formal presentation in early July. Around the same time, a cross-party group of MPs will also be tabling an unprecedented Early Day Motion against conversion therapy and we encourage MPs to sign it when presented and make further representations to the government on the issue. Labour Students’ Conference has also unanimously endorsed the Hull University Labour Club’s motion against conversion therapy and we think it’s important the Labour Party take heed of this statement and seriously look into the issue.

It’s troubling to think that there may be people in Britain today who are suffering just as much as Samuel Brinton, the gay Iowan son of a Southern Baptist missionary who was told, in numerous painful conversion therapy sessions, that he literally was the only gay person left in the country. Later this year, when we all watch the first gay couples say their vows, we should spare a thought for those who are still the furthest they can possibly be from marriage equality. These are British equivalents of people like Samuel: those who are too isolated to even know that there are people in the world who are just like them.

This article was written by Diana Johnson MP and Tom Stephens.