Comment: We have a chance to finally stamp out gay conversion therapy

By Diana Johnson MP

Just the other Saturday, amidst the best sunshine we’ve had for months, Britain saw its first lesbian, gay and bisexual husbands and wives say their marriage vows. It was a momentous, giant leap forward for equality in Britain, which politicians and activists from across the political spectrum should rightly celebrate.

But now the confetti has settled, we must pause and reflect. Now is the time to ask ourselves what more needs to be done to truly secure LGBT equality, both in this country and across the world.

For all our success in achieving formal equality, Britain is still a country where one quarter of all lesbian, gay and bisexual people feel the need to "act straight" when in public to avoid being attacked; where nearly 40% of trans people, in one survey, reported being sexually harassed because of their gender identity; and where a shocking 99% of all young people report regularly hearing the word "gay" used in a derogatory way in our schools.

Tragically, for some lesbian, gay and bisexual people, this abuse leads them to wish they were someone else. They approach a therapist asking to "change" their sexual orientation in the hope that this, finally, will lead them to becoming accepted into wider society.

This 'gay-to-straight' conversion therapy is perhaps one of the most shocking, antiquated manifestations of the continued inequality still crying out to be tackled in modern-day Britain. All the medical evidence – set out clearly in statements by the British Psychological Society (BPS), United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), and various other organisations – suggests that such therapy, resting as it does on the premise that sexuality is an illness, is both ineffective and potentially extremely harmful.

Yet damaging as this practice is, there is shocking evidence that it still takes place in the UK and, worse, that some medical professions in the NHS may have been complicit in the practice. In a 2009 survey of 1,300 accredited therapists who had been in practice in the early-2000s, over 200 admitted to having attempted to change at least one patient's sexuality.

Of the patients they described, 35% had been referred to them for treatment by a general practitioner. An undercover investigation by the Independent's Patrick Strudwick in 2010 mirrored these findings: one of the therapists who attempted to change his sexuality was then an accredited member of a professional body, the British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists (BACP), and claimed most of her clients were forwarded to her from her local GP's surgery.

This is why, last week, fourteen other MPs and I – including my shadow ministerial colleagues in the Health and Equalities office, Andrew Gwynne and Sharon Hodgson MP, wrote a joint letter to health minister Norman Lamb asking him to do more to tackle the practice. Drawn from all three main parties, we believe the government must take six measures to help bring an end to conversion therapy:

  • Implement effective training in LGBT-friendly mental health provision: The World Health Organisation only removed homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental illnesses in 1990. Many professionals still practicing in the health and therapy sectors received their training well before this change took place. I do not doubt the professionalism and good-intentions of the vast majority of these people, but we need to ensure that if an LGBT patient approaches them expressing uneasiness about their sexuality, they know the most beneficial way to respond. 
  • Investigate NHS links with conversion therapists: There is evidence of informal links between the NHS and conversion therapists, and back in July 2010, the British Medical Association called on the government to investigate cases where NHS money might have been used to fund the practice. There is a serious need to do so now.
  • Explore regulating the counselling and psychotherapy sectors: The conversion therapist who attempted to "cure" Strudwick was a psychotherapist. The professional body she was part of, the BACP, has since struck her off, and most professional psychotherapy bodies, including the BACP, have now made statements against conversion therapy. But unlike other professions, which are statutorily registered by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), anyone can call themselves a psychotherapist without being part of such a professional body. We need to explore further regulation to address this anomaly.
  • Make sure the NHS only commissions to accredited mental health providers: Similarly, NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) and other bodies do not necessarily have to commission counselling, psychotherapy and other services from individuals who are accredited to professional bodies.  Some CCGs have a strict policy in place and only commission from BACP members, but others don't. This needs to change.  
  • Ensure effective use of the public sector equality duty: As Stonewall's most recent lesbian, gay and bisexual men's and women's health surveys show, LGB people sometimes get a rough deal in the health sector. One third of gay and bisexual men, for example, reported a negative experience related to their sexuality. Back in 2010, Labour brought in the public sector equality duty – which legally requires the NHS and other public sector bodies to strive for equality of service quality for all vulnerable groups – to drive forward changes in these areas. The coalition needs to say they'll keep it and work to make it as effective as possible in driving up standards.
  • Explore legal restrictions on conversion therapy: Many US states have now banned conversion therapy for under-18s. Britain would send a powerful message to LGBT people around the world if it did the same.  

When I first heard about the practice of conversion therapy, I was shocked it still happened in the 21st Century. Sadly, despite the passage of gay marriage, too many LGBT people in Britain and across the world still struggle to be happy being who they are. This doesn't have to be the case. By taking the above measures, government can help consign conversion therapy to the history books, where it belongs.

Diana Johnson is Labour's shadow crime and security minister.

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