EXPLAINER - What is LGBT+ conversion therapy and why is it so controversial?

Tuesday, 11 May 2021 16:48 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A young woman who was raped in 2016 for being a lesbian pictured in Douala, Cameroon on August 29, 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation

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As the British government vows to ban LGBT+ conversion therapy, what is it and why is the practice so controversial?

By Hugo Greenhalgh

LONDON, May 11 (Openly) - Britain's government vowed on Tuesday to ban LGBT+ conversion therapy and support people who have undergone the practice, joining other nations that have moved to outlaw treatments that aim to change a person's sexual orientation or gender identity.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government said the process "can cause mental and physical harm" and should be stopped, even as some religious groups voiced concern that a ban could criminalise pastoral care for conflicted congregation members.

Here are some key facts about the controversial practice:

What is conversion therapy?

The practice has its roots in society's attitudes towards LGBT+ people.

Until 1990, homosexuality was considered by the World Health Organization (WHO) to be a mental disorder, and gay sex remains illegal in 68 nations.

Just two years ago, the WHO said being transgender was "not actually a mental health condition" in a further shake-up of its global manual of diagnoses.

Facing societal pressure, many gay or trans people have sought to become heterosexual or what has become known as cisgender - a person whose gender identity matches the sex that was recorded at birth.

Others are forced by family members or religious leaders to undergo conversion treatments, which can include talk therapy, hypnosis, electric shocks and fasting.

Extreme cases, such as exorcism and "corrective rape" for lesbians, have been documented in countries such as Mexico and Cameroon.

What are the laws governing the practice around the world?

Four nations have implemented partial or total bans: Brazil, Ecuador, Malta and Germany. Last year, Albania's licensing body for psychologists banned treatments that seek to change a person's sexual orientation or gender identity.

The United States does not have a federal ban on conversion therapy, but 20 U.S. states, including California, Colorado, New York, Washington and Utah prohibit the practice to some degree.

The American Medical Association has condemned the practice as "harmful and ineffective".

Nearly 700,000 Americans have undergone conversion therapy, half when they were under 18, according to the Williams Institute, an LGBT+ think-tank at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

Why is it so controversial?

LGBT+ activists consider conversion therapy to be a form of physical or mental abuse.

"All practices that seek to convert, suppress, cure or change us are dangerous, abusive and must be banned," Nancy Kelley, chief executive of Britain's leading LGBT+ rights organisation Stonewall, said in a statement on Tuesday.

A fifth of gay, lesbian and bisexual Britons who have tried to change their sexuality have attempted suicide, according to British charity the Ozanne Foundation.

A 2019 survey by suicide-prevention group The Trevor Project found 42% of American LGBT+ youth who underwent conversion therapy reported a suicide attempt in the past year.

However, some religious groups argue that bans interfere with spiritual freedoms and could criminalise clerics seeking to help people change their sexuality or gender identity through prayer.

On its website, the Evangelical Alliance, a conservative Christian lobby group representing 3,500 churches, said it opposed all coercive efforts regarding sexual activity.

"However, where an individual chooses to seek pastoral and prayer support, we believe the best approach is to allow them the support they want to respond to their sexual orientation and desires in a way they choose," the group said.

What happens next?

In Britain, the government said it would consult the public and "key stakeholders" on the conversion therapy ban, sparking anger from LGBT+ rights campaigners who want prompt action.

"We do not need yet more delay; they have consulted long enough," Jayne Ozanne, a prominent gay Anglican and former member of the government's LGBT Advisory Panel, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"We now need action before more lives are lost."

Around the world, several nations and regions are also mulling bans.

New Zealand's government has promised to outlaw the practice by February 2022, and in October last year, Canada's government introduced a bill to criminalise conversion therapy.

Northern Ireland passed a motion calling for a ban last month.


FACTBOX - New Zealand, Canada move to ban LGBT+ conversion therapy

Fifth of gay Brits who try to change sexuality attempt suicide, survey says

U.S. urged to 'turn off hate' after suicide of LGBT+ teen

(Reporting by Hugo Greenhalgh @hugo_greenhalgh; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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