What is trans conversion therapy? The perfect disguise for gay conversion therapists
The Queen’s Speech on Tuesday confirmed the worst fears of campaigners, numerous MPs and several major mental health organisations.
The Government will not ban conversion therapy when performed on transgender people. Any forthcoming legislation will only protect gay people (and only then if the victim is under-age or does not consent).
These key details were published separately, but reignited the uproar over the Government’s announcement last month that it would renege on its promise to outlaw all conversion therapy. Nearly a hundred LGBT organisations withdrew from Britain’s long-planned international LGBT conference entitled ‘Safe To Be Me’, forcing the Government to cancel it.
But the U-turn also left many unanswered questions.
The Government said it was excluding trans people because of “the complexity of issues and need for further careful thought”.
Some commentators talked of the “unintended consequences” from such a ban; that it might stop clinicians or therapists being able to freely explore different options with their trans patients – even though no one is proposing this.
What has been missing from the furore, however, is a clear discussion about what actually happens during conversion therapy, whether gay or trans, and what effect outlawing one and not the other will have.
The problem is, almost no one with a public platform can explain with any authority exactly what conversion therapists do try to “cure” LGBT people – even though this really matters when applying the law. I wish I didn’t know either. But in 2009 I subjected myself to conversion therapy, undercover, to expose the grim details.
It was conducted by a British psychotherapist and separately a British psychiatrist. Afterwards, I successfully fought to get the therapist struck off from her professional organisation. She became the first such therapist to be held to account.
For the next 12 years, I interviewed many others who’d been subjected to various forms of these “cures” for homosexuality or gender identity: from exorcisms to aversion therapy (where electric shocks or nausea-inducing medication is deployed), and from corrective rape (sexual violence to make someone heterosexual) to the talking therapy version: conversion therapy.
Their stories never failed to horrify the public. But the specifics of victims’ experiences reveal how the Government can best protect vulnerable people. And they answer two vital questions posed in the wake of the decision to exclude trans people: what exactly is transgender conversion therapy? And what effect will it have if we keep it legal while criminalising gay conversion therapy?
The proposed ban seeks to divide where divisions are unclear. What this leaves is a mess, and worse: a mass of loopholes ready to be exploited
The short answer to the first of these is that conversion therapy for trans people is simply an intent to change or suppress a person’s gender identity. Bluntly put, to stop – through a range of techniques – a trans person from either accepting that they are trans, living as another gender, or medically transitioning. Instead, it seeks to convince them they are in fact cisgender – that their gender identity matches the sex on their birth certificate.
More than two dozen health organisations, including NHS England, NHS Scotland, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, and the Royal College of GPs signed up to a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ in 2017 which agreed upon a definition of conversion therapy – and called it “unethical and potentially harmful”.
The starting point is that being gay or trans is not a mental illness so no treatment should be applied. The memorandum then explains that conversion therapy, “attempts to bring about a change of sexual orientation or gender identity, or seeks to suppress an individual’s expression of sexual orientation or gender identity on that basis”.
Conversion therapy – what it involves
Nothing in these definitions, however, tells you how the attempted conversion might differ for trans or gay people. That’s because largely they don’t. The techniques involved have been peddled, taught, and sold for over 60 years and deployed on gay, bi and trans people alike. The tactics can be placed into four categories.
The first is what I call the “wound hunt”. Because conversion therapists consider being gay or trans an illness, delusion, demonic possession, or perversion that needs “curing”, they try to find its cause, to unpick it or “heal” it. The root cause, they say, is usually something traumatic from childhood that caused a wound. The wound was what led the person to become gay or trans.
So they go looking for it, convinced it’s there, even if it isn’t. In my case, the therapist decided that I had likely been sexually abused as a child. I had not. But so sure was she – standard among these folk that my homosexuality cannot be a natural or healthy alternative to heterosexuality – she convinced herself that a member of my family had probably molested me. Had I not been an undercover reporter she would likely have convinced me too.
The second category involves practical tips for being heterosexual or cisgender. This involves many things. First, interrupting thoughts that reoccur about your sexuality or gender identity. Either through a form of distraction when a feeling arises, or through immediately praying (religion is often entwined with conversion therapy).
Next by telling you that your feelings or identity aren’t real but merely a warped reaction to your environment. This is an attempt to disrupt what is actually your core identity – and is particularly traumatising.
Profound parts of who you are become denied or diminished by the following types of messages: You’ve just been exposed to the wrong things. This isn’t the real you; it’s a maladaptation. This is superficial, sudden, and will pass. You’re not gay, you’re internally scarred. Your mother was overbearing. Your father was weak. You’re not trans, you’ve just been taken in by things on the internet. You’ve been influenced by the wrong people.
Then, there is a whole swathe of suggestions for how to encourage the “true” heterosexual or cisgender self to emerge. These centre around enforcing traditional notions of gender. Whether you are gay or trans, the therapist – particularly if they are religiously motivated – will repeatedly tell you to engage in activities that are associated with the ultra-masculine or ultra-feminine.
If you are a gay man, you’re told to play rugby or take up boxing. To wear plain, baggy clothes. To engage in nonsexual male bonding. Rough and tumble. If you are a trans woman, you will be given the same advice: ignore your true self, do exactly what 50s versions of men were supposed to do: sports, distancing themselves from women, and being macho. These activities, the convertors tell you, will also help heal your wound.
But this is where we come to the fourth, most important conversion tactic that’s crucial to today’s furious debate: gender policing. Most of the conversion therapy movement is bound up in enforcing sexist, old-fashioned versions of what men and women are supposed to be. If a lesbian goes to a conversion therapist, she will be told to wear frilly dresses, make-up, and play with dolls (if underage). And if someone goes to a conversion therapist saying they were born female but are now a trans man, the conversion therapist will do one of two things. Tell them they’re deluded, that gender identity isn’t real, that you can’t change gender. Or tell them exactly what the lesbian is told: be feminine, be passive, smile more, do “women’s things”.
This may be delivered gently. It may even seem kind, but the messages are insistent and laced with judgement. It is meant to shame. Shame is the magnet drawing people to conversion therapy. It charges everything. You will be shamed into the sex or sexuality the convertor deems your true, superior self.
The legal problem here, in the event of only a gay conversion therapy ban, is that there is more gender policing that goes on in conversion therapy than anything else. It’s the framework and foundation of it all. It assumes not only that LGBT people are wounded but also that the wound manifests in poor adherence to their sex. Fix the wound, fix the unmanly or unfeminine ways, and they are “healed”.
Only banning gay conversion therapy won’t just discriminate against trans people by excluding them, it could discriminate between trans people according to their sexual orientation
This is where the government has misunderstood conversion therapy by excluding the trans kind. Conversion therapy is all about gender expression. People might think gay conversion therapy focuses on sexual orientation — sex, sexual feelings — but there’s actually little discussion of lust or romantic feelings, because they’re too powerful to reverse, and the therapists secretly know this. Not once did the therapist or psychiatrist who treated me tell me how to be aroused by women. So in its place much more gender policing goes on. It’s like re-spraying a car because the engine can’t be replaced.
It is impossible therefore to draw a line legally between gay conversion therapy and trans conversion therapy. There is so much overlap in the implementation as to make them indivisible. Any law that attempts to divide them, therefore, would become unworkable.
By keeping trans conversion therapy legal, anyone who went to the police or a lawyer saying they were subjected to gay conversion therapy could be thwarted by the therapist saying: “No, we were dealing with your gender issues.” Imagine a gay man constantly being told to act manly, which is what happens. That therapist could genuinely cite all the work they had done together policing that person’s gender expressions. The therapist could simply say it was gender identity issues. Imagine if, amid everything else discussed, that gay man also had told the therapist they weren’t sure about their gender identity. Again, the therapist has a get-out-of-jail free card.
Which leads to another element that renders this indivisible: the victims. Trans people can also be gay, and vice versa. Let’s imagine a trans man goes to a conversion therapist to stop being trans, in the hope he can in fact be a woman.
Bear with me here, a minefield awaits. If he is attracted to men, the conversion therapist will try to make him live as a woman and continue having sex with men. But that trans man might be legally recognised as a man with a gender recognition certificate. A man in law who has relations with men is gay. The convertor has just attempted to make them live as a woman and have sex with men; in other words, in their eyes, to make them heterosexual and cisgender. Legally, he could be deemed a gay man who now, living as a woman, is having heterosexual sex. Attempting to convert a gay person to heterosexuality is gay conversion therapy.
Would this trans person be covered by the law? If not, why not? If they were deeply scarred by being psychologically abused into reverting to their sex at birth and having intercourse with men as a woman, could the therapist be prosecuted?
That therapist would argue they were merely performing trans conversion therapy. But any lawyer could argue that what they have attempted to do is make a heterosexual.
What if the trans man is attracted to women? If the therapist attempts a conversion, to make them identify as a woman, then that therapist is, in the therapist’s own eyes, going to make a lesbian. So if they were religiously motivated they might try to avoid that. Which means they might encourage the patient to date men while identifying and living as a woman. By banning only gay conversion, is the law really going to deem it acceptable to use psychological manipulation to make what is – according to the therapist – now a woman have sex with men?
Are you confused yet? That’s the problem. The proposed ban seeks to divide where divisions are unclear. What this leaves is a mess, and worse: a mass of loopholes ready to be exploited.
Only banning gay conversion therapy won’t just discriminate against trans people by excluding them, it could discriminate between trans people according to their sexual orientation.
Beyond this, by keeping trans conversion therapy legal, it creates the perfect disguise for gay conversion therapists when what they excel at is cloaking their language in euphemisms to conceal what they’re doing.
They never say, “I’m a conversion therapist”, they say, for example, “I help people deal with unwanted same-sex attraction”. They will switch their language to comply with the law. Gay people won’t be protected either.
The ban for gay but not trans people unravels it for everyone. Confusing the law with exemptions only protects the therapists.
The legal system will be flummoxed. In that confusion, all LGBT people will lose. What’s the difference between gay and trans conversion therapy? Not much. What’s the difference between gay and trans victims of conversion therapy? Again, not much. It won’t be conversion therapists successfully sued in the highest courts in the land. It will be the government.