Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran has called out the Conservatives’ “cowardly” delay on banning conversion therapy, a range of harmful practices that attempt to reverse someone’s sexual orientation and/or their gender identity.
The MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, who supports a ban on activities that falsely claim to ‘cure’ people of homosexuality and transness, told HuffPost UK the Tories may be stalling over the inclusion of trans representation in the ban, which is set to be debated in the House of Commons on March 8.
Moran said a ban on any sort of conversion therapy is simply “not a priority” for the current government, following years of stalling on the issue.
“The block is partly government cowardice and not wanting to say one way or another,” said Moran. “They haven’t ruled out including trans in it, but they haven’t said they will either. As far as I can see they’re running from that debate, so I’ll be curious to see whether or not they’ll address it on Monday.”
“They’ve got their ‘war on woke’ going on,” the MP added. “It doesn’t fit with their image that plays to their right-wing and their base. To legislate on something like this, I think they’ve made the calculation that it’s not worth their while, so I’ll be curious to see what they say.”
Theresa May committed to a ban on all conversion therapy in 2018, as part of her LGBT Action Plan as prime minister, and Boris Johnson confirmed his support for the ban in 2020, although no legislative action has been taken.
Despite Johnson saying he believes the therapy is “absolutely abhorrent,” March 28 will mark 1,000 days of inaction since May’s original commitment.
“He said it himself in June,” said Moran. “He reaffirmed that and said ‘yes it’s something we want to do,’ and again nothing’s happened...
“If you see how it sort of stopped and started, it’s only ever in response to enormous public pressure that the government does anything on this.”
Several human rights organisations including Stonewall and the Peter Tatchell Foundation are running campaigns to rally the public into demanding quicker action. Stonewall’s Ban Conversion Therapy website, which launched this week, encourages Brits to email their MP to create a groundswell of opinion.
“The World Health organisation removed homosexuality from the international classification of diseases in 1990. 31 years later, attempts to ‘cure’ us are still happening – and still legal,” campaigning material on the website reads.
Calls for a ban on conversion therapy have been echoed by the Church of England. In 2020, hundreds of religious leaders from around the world representing all the major faiths, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, David Rosen, came out in support of a ban.
Meanwhile, a recent YouGov poll revealed a majority of the British public, including those who are religious, also back a ban on conversion therapy.
‘It’s torture – and happening in this country’
“We have to remember what it is – it’s torture,” said Moran of a practice that has been branded “dehumanising” and “degrading” by a UN report. “It is, by any definition of the word, torture that’s happening in this country right now and the government doesn’t seem to want to move quickly on it.”
Moran believes that a potential block to the ban being passed is Conservative sensitivity over trans representation in any legislation that is passed.
“That’s certainly one of the things that I’ve seen from the government – it’s a bit cowardly when it comes to trans rights,” she told HuffPost UK. “We’re not talking about stuff that people sort of want to debate, it’s stuff that you’d just consider basic human rights.”
Moran added: “It’s not like they don’t have the data, the evidence: they do now and they know how bad parts of the Gender Recognition Act are and how behind the curve we are as a country. I think what’s happened is they decided it’s too difficult.”
In 2020, in what was seen by human rights groups as a massive setback for trans rights, the UK government dropped proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act that would allow people to self-identify on gender without an official medical diagnosis.
Equalities minister Liz Truss insisted the Act had “proper checks and balances in the system and also support for people who want to change their legal sex”.
But Stonewall’s chief executive Nancy Kelley said at the time: “The UK government has fallen far short on its promise to reform the Gender Recognition Act, and has missed a key opportunity to progress LGBT equality.”
Peter Tatchell, who has been campaigning for LGBT+ rights since the 1960s, has launched the Stop Dithering campaign to push for action on the conversion therapy ban, with actor Stephen Fry one of its main ambassadors.
In a statement to press, Fry said: “Any attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity is unethical and harmful.”
Figures from the National LGBT Survey found that 7% of LGBT+ people have been offered or undergone conversion therapy.
Trans people are almost twice as likely to have been offered or forced to undergo conversion therapy, and data also showed asexual people to be at a higher risk of being offered or undergoing the practice.
Government figures also reveal trans people are the group that are most often subjected to conversion therapy. Many campaigners believe the issue of how to include them in the legislation may be what’s delaying the ban.
Nancy Kelley of Stonewall, said: “Being LGBTQIA+ is beautiful, and there is no place in our society for any so-called ‘interventions’ which tell us otherwise.
“The UK government must stop dragging its feet and make good on its promise to bring in a full legal ban, and put a stop to conversion therapy in the UK for good.”
‘It’s got to stop and it’s got to stop now’
Carolyn Mercer, 73, was electrocuted by doctors in the 1960s in an attempt to ‘cure’ her when she said she felt like she was living in the wrong body. So-called electrical aversion therapy, the application of electric shocks to the hands or genitals, was common practice at the time, along with the administering of nausea-inducing drugs while patients were exposed to erotic stimuli.
“The damage that was done in 1964 and 1965 can’t be undone. I just have to deal with it,” Mercer, now a spokesperson for the Stonewall campaign, told HuffPost UK. “That is lifelong. I am still struggling with that.”
Speaking on a ban, she said: “It’s got to stop and it’s got to stop now.”
Addressing the prime minister directly over the delay, she added: “It must involve banning trans conversion therapy in the way it was imposed on me.
“You’ve had 1,000 days from when you said you were going to legislate; 1,000 days of public acknowledgement that it’s barbaric and must stop; 1,000 days when young and not so young people have been told still they are wrong and have been subjected to conditions which will damage their lives irreversibly.”
Matthew Hyndman, 31, co-founder of the Ban Conversion Therapy campaign, was offered talking conversion therapy when he came out as gay to his faith group. He turned it down, and supports Stonewall’s lobbying of government.
Speaking to HuffPost UK, he said: “What more do we need to do in order to
show the support and the need for a ban? You wonder: what else, what else must we do? There’s clearly precedent for it, the harm is clear.
“I think the people who are making the decisions probably haven’t heard from someone who’s gone through conversion therapy and heard of what they’ve had to endure, and the long lasting impact that it’s had on their life.”
Countries around the world that have already banned conversion therapy include Albania, Argentina, Fiji, Samoa, Uruguay and Switzerland.
Conversation in the UK is now focused on what a ban would look like in practice. In 2020, for instance, Germany became the fifth country to ban conversion therapy for minors, following Malta, Ecuador, Brazil and Taiwan.
The situation is more complex in the US, where 20 states and some cities have banned conversion therapy for minors, but there is no countrywide ban as yet. (Only one US jurisdiction, The District of Columbia, bans the therapy for adults.)
“What I still need to understand, and I’m hoping to get a bit of clarity on this, is what needs to be done legislatively for this to happen,” Moran told HuffPost UK. “Is it guidelines, can you do that quickly or do we need a white paper and do we need a proper piece of legislation?”
Moran plans to speak when the Commons meet to debate the ban on Monday and said she will be asking first and foremost: “What exactly is the block?”
High on her priority list is “getting them to commit to not just their word but making sure it’s about trans as well,” she added.
“There’s always excuses. It’s Brexit, it’s pandemic, it’s whatever, but I think they’ve run out of time now.”