‘Anti-trans’ lawyer rebuked after calling transitioning ‘most savage conversion therapy ever’

Naomi Cunningham in a talk for the Labour Women's Declaration

A “gender critical” lawyer is facing criticism after after arguing against the proposed ban on trans conversion therapy, calling transitioning the “most savage conversion therapy ever”.

Naomi Cunningham, a barrister who specialises in employment and discrimination law, spoke at an event focused on conversion therapy hosted by the Middle Temple LGBTQ+ Forum on Tuesday evening (16 November). Stonewall CEO Nancy Kelley and campaigner Jayne Ozanne, who is a conversion therapy survivor, were also on the panel.

The Middle Temple LGBTQ+ Forum billed the event as “The fight to ban gay conversion therapy” in October. At that time, Kelley was scheduled to speak with contributions from Robin Allen QC and Kieran Aldred. However, the event was retitled “Banning Conversion Practices: The Path to Good Law” on 11 November and Cunningham was added to the line-up.

Jayne Ozanne spoke at the event about her personal experience of conversion therapy, while Stonewall CEO Nancy Kelley addressed the need for a comprehensive ban on the debunked practice.

In her speech, Cunningham said a “public debate” is needed on the topic. She said there is “strong pressure” for there to be “no debate” on trans issues, claiming that “gender critical” feminists have been “shouted down, no-platformed, compared to Nazis, and hounded out of their jobs.” 

Cunningham went on to claim that the evidence base for a ban on conversion therapy is “thin”. She criticised the UK government for relying on academic research from Coventry University on the topic and suggested that the 2017 LGBT Survey which found two per cent of respondents had undergone conversion therapy was not up to scratch because it did not define what the practice is.

“We don’t know how many of those two per cent were lesbians who were recording social pressure to accept trans-identifying males as potential sexual partners,” Cunningham said.

“We don’t know how many were teenagers whose parents or therapists counselled watchful waiting in place of treatment with puberty blockers.

“We don’t know how many were gender non-conforming children whose homophobic parents or peers had suggested to them that they must be trans.”

Cunningham added: “Gender non-conforming children often grow up to be gay adults. The bitter irony of this proposal is that it entrenches the idea that people can escape being gay by changing sex.”

She went on to describe transitioning as “the most savage conversion therapy ever invented”, and argued that the government’s consultation “failed entirely to identify a credibly-evidenced or even defined kind of harm” caused by conversion therapy.

Naomi Cunningham’s speech slammed as ‘very insensitive’ by conversion therapy survivor Jayne Ozanne

Jayne Ozanne told PinkNews that she wanted to “leave the chamber” during Cunningham’s speech, which she described as “very insensitive” and “transphobic”. Cunningham denies her words were transphobic.

Ozanne said she was also shocked by what she describes as Cunningham’s “vicious attack” on the trans community, which she said had “nothing to do with the matter at hand”.

“I speak as a lesbian feminist who passionately believes in the importance of uniting everyone to tackle patriarchal systems,” Ozanne said. “I am a huge advocate for the importance of people being able to be respected for who they are and be supported for who they are. I was really quite sad that an event which was meant to be a celebration of LGBT+ people became such a platform for such vitriol.”

A picture taken outside Middle Temple.

A picture taken outside Middle Temple. (Jayne Ozanne)

Ozanne was “pleased to be asked to speak” at the event, but she would have declined the invitation if she had known what was going to unfold. She described the incident as “triggering” for her as a conversion therapy survivor.

When approached for comment, Cunningham sent PinkNews a link to her full written speech, which she has since published on her blog.

“I’m happy for my published writing on this subject to stand for itself,” she said.

PinkNews has contacted Middle Temple and the Middle Temple LGBTQ+ Forum for comment.

Cunningham refers to trans women as ‘trans-identifying males’

Naomi Cunningham has faced criticism from LGBT+ activists in the past for her refusal to use trans people’s correct pronouns. In a blog post in October, she said she uses “masculine pronouns” to describe trans women because it is important that she writes “in a manner firmly grounded in reality”.

“These days, for the same reason, I don’t use the expressions ‘trans woman’ or transwoman’, but ‘trans-identifying male’ or ‘trans-identifying man'”, she wrote.

Cunningham’s participation has been a source of controversy for Middle Temple’s LGBTQ+ Forum since the scope of the event was changed.

On Tuesday, a Twitter account called LGBTQ Barristers expressed its “profound disappointment” with the LGBT+ forum’s decision to platform Cunningham in an open letter. The group said its letter represents more than 100 barristers, pupils and students – however, signatories were not named.

“Naomi Cunningham’s own statements about trans people speak for themselves,” the group wrote. They drew attention to a recent furore in which Cunningham misgendered Mridul Wadhwa, a trans woman of colour who has campaigned against sexual violence.

“Someone who uses demeaning and insulting language about trans women should have no place at a qualified session organised for Middle Temple students,” the group of LGBT+ barristers wrote.

“Naomi Cunningham’s inclusion in a discussion on conversion therapy is particularly troubling given the need for sensitivity when exploring the topic.”

They went on to suggest that Cunningham had been included on the panel because of “pressure to include someone with a ‘critical’ perspective on trans inclusion.”

The group of LGBT+ barristers called on Middle Temple LGBTQ+ Forum to postpone the event and to offer full refunds to those who no longer wanted to attend based on the change in line-up. Despite those pleas, the event went ahead as planned.

In its statement of values, the Middle Temple LGBTQ+ Forum insist that “discrimination of anyone on grounds of their sexuality or gender is wrong”. The group says its purpose is to “ensure that such prejudices are redressed, that the objectives of equality and inclusivity are advanced, and that the Inn’s support of LGBTQ+ members and employees is voiced clearly and with pride.”

When approached for comment a second time, Cunningham said: “I’ve nothing to add: my writing speaks for itself. I don’t think it’s transphobic, but Jayne Ozanne evidently takes a different view.” She did not give a response to the accusation her words were a “vicious attack” on the trans community.