Westminster conversion therapy debate descends into scare-mongering about ‘transing away the gay’

Neale Hanvey

A parliamentary debate about banning conversion therapy practices has descended into transphobia and scare-mongering about gender-affirming care. 

On Wednesday (6 December), MPs considered government policy on how to outlaw conversion practices and what the legislation would entail. The debate followed a number of petitions on the topic and backbenchers filing a private members’ bill that aims to “prohibit practices [that seek to] change or suppress a person’s sexuality, or change or suppress a person to or from being transgender”. 

A ban on so-called conversion therapy was first promised by the Conservative government in 2018, under Theresa May’s premiership. However, since then, delays and a revolving door of prime ministers have seen the plans at one stage almost shelved, or dropped altogether, before a U-turn on any ban being trans-inclusive. 

Bury South MP Christian Wakeford, who crossed the floor from the government benches to Labour last year, moved the motion, saying his former colleagues had “betrayed” the LGBTQ+ community.

The issue is “not a debate – it should never be a debate”, he added.

“Banning all forms of so-called conversion therapy is the right and moral thing to do. A ban on conversion therapy is not woke, left wing or for snowflakes – or whatever other bizarre term certain people opposed to it want to offer up this week. It is not complicated, as some have made it out to be. 

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“There has been a failure of leadership. It is the right thing to do.” 

However, he faced opposition from Alba Party leader Neale Hanvey and Scottish National Party MP Joanna Cherry, both of whom have faced criticism for their gender-critical beliefs.

The debate then shifted away from conversion therapy to focus on anti-trans conspiracy theories about gender-affirming care. 

‘How this conversation keeps descending to an anti-trans position is wrong’

The proposals to ban conversion therapy rest on a “bed of dangerous lies”, which forms part of an “assault on the sex-based rights of women, lesbians, gay men and bisexual people”, said Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath MP Hanvey, in an eight-minute statement.

“Legislation is supposed to fix a problem, not create a new one, and where evidence of conversion practices exists, they will not be mitigated but exacerbated by such proposals,” he told the House.

“The true scandal that needs to be addressed is the medical and surgical conversion of young lesbians and gay males by affirming and transing away the gay.”

The notion of “transing away the gay” is increasingly being called “modern” conversion therapy by gender-critical and anti-trans groups, such as Sex Matters, and refers specifically to gender-affirming care offered to transgender youngsters.

LGBTQ+ organisations such as Stonewall “are erasing gay identities and are complicit in using the T to erase the LGB”, Hanvey went on to claim.

“There are three legislative conceits that form part of this movement: gender self-ID, amendments to hate crime and public order legislation, and so-called conversion therapy bans… Self-ID is not about equality but about promoting supremacy, hate crime legislation is about silencing the raising of valid safeguarding concerns, and preventing conversion therapy is promoting the very thing it aims to stop. 

“The planned bill is today’s modern conversion therapy scandal, and it is affecting vulnerable children and young people who may be gender-non-conforming or struggling with normal yet distressing pubertal body dysmorphia. 

“It would embed the lie that those young people have been born in the wrong body, that the normal development of puberty should be arrested with chemicals, something that can never be restarted or repaired, and that emotional distress can be fixed with hormones and irreversible radical surgical intervention.”

Wakeford responded by pointing out that the debate was not about trans rights, but about conversion therapy.

“How this conversation keeps descending to an anti-trans position is wrong,” he added. 

Hanvey hit back, saying as a young boy in the 1970s he had long hair and was “often confused for a girl”, and so could have been “converted” into a trans person. 

“It is not a ban on conversion therapy that the bill proposes. Rather,” he continued, “it is rocket fuel for radicalised ideologues, to trans away the gay, depriving a generation of young LGB people from becoming the fabulous, vibrant and unique, gender-non-conforming people they have every right to be.” 

Cherry, the MP for Edinburgh South West, echoed Hanvey’s sentiment, claiming that being trans is erasing gay identities and may be due to “internalising lesbophobia or misogyny”.

She went on to say: “Looking at the statistics, about 74 per cent of teenagers referred to the gender identity development service at the Tavistock Centre are girls. Only 8.5 per cent of those girls say that they are exclusively attracted to boys, almost 70 per cent of them say that they are attracted only to other girls, and 20 per cent are attracted to both sexes. 

“In other words, the vast majority of teenage girls being referred to the clinic are lesbian or bisexual.”

Like many other girls, she was a tomboy in her youth, Cherry said, but realised when she was older that she is a lesbian.

“It is really very common for young girls to want to be boys. Some of them grow up to be lesbians, some of them grow up to be trans, and some of them grow up to be straight. But they need time to grow up before they make irreversible decisions.” 

Wakeford questioned whether Cherry was implying that young people’s trans identities are a “trend or phase” which they will grow out of, to which she replied: “Many young girls are confused, have gender dysphoria, want to be a boy and find the onset of puberty deeply alarming. 

“There is a lot of internalised lesbophobia and internalised misogyny in our country at the moment, and I do not want the state to say that there must be an assumption that any girl who wants to be a boy should be told that she can become a boy. 

“She needs to be allowed to explore whether that feeling comes from internalised lesbophobia or misogyny.”

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