‘Curing Homosexuality’ in 2013?

BCN 122 cover

This originally appeared in BCN issue 122, December 2013

Conversion therapy: the idea that a little time with a shrink can help you talk out your same-sex attractions and be won round to heterosexuality.  The rhetoric around the treatment is surely one of the most neatly polarised binary notions still current in talk about sexuality.

From one side: people are gay and are being ‘cured’ of their homosexuality into being straight, whether because they don’t like being gay or because there’s something inherently wrong with it. From the other side: people who are really gay are being pressured to delude themselves and given a placebo therapy after which they can imagine their same-sex attractions have gone away.  Sexual orientation can change but there’s no evidence that therapy triggers such changes, they just seem to happen unbidden.

Breaking the fixed binary model of sexual orientation breaks the idea underpinning the ‘cure’.  Treat enough people and there will be some whose sexuality happens to shift anyway at about the right time. If sexuality is in shades of grey rather than simple black and white, it makes more sense that it would work for a few people and not for others according to whether subjects had enough attraction to the opposite sex.
So it’s dodgy practice but should it be illegal?  As treatments go it seems to me that it is hokum underpinned by dubious moral judgements and people who take it are deluding themselves.  But if we used that as a basis for deciding what activities should be lawful, we would ban an awful lot of stuff out there.  How many diets would survive?  Hell, where would it leave the advertising industry?

In the UK nothing currently prevents conversion therapists from freely operating or practising in the psychotherapy sector, and there is some evidence of NHS patients being referred for such treatment despite it not being recognised by the Department of Health.

The whole subject came before Parliament in November as Sandra Osborne MP led a Westminster Hall debate – in the House of Commons but not the main chamber – on the topic of gay-to-straight conversion therapy.
She told BCN, “My aim in arranging this debate is to raise the profile of the surprisingly-prevalent problem of conversion therapy in Britain, and to force the government – who have so far only said they do ‘not condone’ conversion therapy – into making a bolder statement against this heinous practice.

“I am concerned about the links between professionals in the NHS and conversion therapists, particularly in the under-regulated psychotherapy sector. Like many MPs across the political spectrum, I think it’s about time that Parliament properly discusses this problem so that vulnerable LGBT people aren’t forced to undergo ‘cures’ that hurt and don’t work.”

Many other members chimed in to support a ban.  Julian Huppert MP said, “So-called psychotherapists who believe they can ‘cure’ lesbian, gay or bisexual people with therapy are not only harming individuals but our society as a whole. We need a change in the law to stop anybody setting themselves up as a psychotherapist and to stop ill-informed health professionals referring patients to these people.

“A person’s sexuality is part of what makes them an individual in the same way as the colour of their hair or their eyes. It’s a fundamental part of their character and should be celebrated as such.”
Answering for the government, Health Minister Norman Lamb said: “The Department of Health does not condone the concept of therapists offering ‘cures’ for homosexuality. There is no evidence that this sort of treatment is beneficial and indeed it may well cause significant harm, to some patients.

“If someone is suffering a mental health problem, clinicians will try to help patients with whatever is causing them distress. This could involve helping someone come to terms with their sexuality, family arguments over their sexuality, or hostility from other people.

“We know from research that the incidence of depression, anxiety and suicide within the gay community is significantly higher than within the heterosexual community and this is why ‘No health without mental health’ identifies lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as a specific group for whom a tailored approach to their mental health is necessary.”

A big supportive build up to be followed by a promise that the government intends to do… Well, nothing for now.

Sandra Osborne tabled an Early Day Motion in Parliament earlier this year calling for a ban on the provision of ‘gay-to-straight’ conversion therapy for under 18s.  An amendment to the motion proposed by Swansea MP Geraint Davies would remove the “under 18” limitation.  You can check the EDM’s progress online at www.parliament.uk/edm/2013-14/219