So-called “gay conversion therapies” are to be banned as part of a 75-point government LGBT action plan to improve the lives of gay and transgender people.
The move comes after a national survey of 108,000 members of the LGBT community – allegedly the biggest study of its kind in the world – revealed how 2% of respondents had undergone therapy claiming to “cure” their sexuality and a further 5% had been offered it.
Responding to the news, Ruth Hunt, chief executive of LGBT campaign group Stonewall, said: “It’s absolutely vital that more is done to stamp out this demeaning and unethical act.”
Hunt said research carried out by the group found one in 10 health and care staff across Britain had witnessed colleagues “express the dangerous belief that someone could be ‘cured’ of same-sex attraction”.
“Sadly, this survey reveals that conversion therapy is still happening,” she added.
Equalities minister Penny Mordaunt told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme: “This is very extreme so-called therapy that is there to try and ‘cure’ someone from being gay - of course you can’t cure someone from being gay. In its most extreme form it can involve corrective rape.
“That’s very different from psychological services and counselling. It’s pretty unpleasant, some of the results we found, and it shows that there’s more action to do.”
Mordaunt said the government is consulting on the best way to implement a ban, adding: “It’s absolutely right that that abhorrent practice has to go.”
The government survey also found two-thirds of LGBT people avoid holding hands in public, for fear of negative reactions.
Prime Minister Theresa May said she was “shocked” by the survey findings.
“That so many people fear the consequences of this simple gesture shows that a society in which we are all treated equally and fairly is still some way off,” she said.
Hunt added: “It’s a sad fact that holding hands in public isn’t something same-sex couples do with the ease that carefree love encourages. It’s an act that’s fraught, it’s uncomfortable – the thoughts of ‘are we safe’ overwhelm the moment.
“That sense of safety is not something legislation can achieve. That’s for all of us to work towards.”
At Birmingham’s LGBT centre, most attendees at a coffee morning for over 50s were shocked to hear the practice had not already been banned.
Mick Harper, said: “I’m surprised it’s still around so I completely agree that it is going to be banned. I find it absolutely unacceptable. It just goes to show the kind of pressure people still feel when coming out.
“When I was young, I knew I was gay but I still tried not to be at first, and it’s harder for those who grow up in religious families I think, which is may be why this still happens.”
Richard Green said he knows people who have undergone it. He said: “I remember a guy who had electric shock treatment. They should show him pictures of naked men and if he physically reacted to it, they would give him a shock. Socially it just wasn’t acceptable to be gay.”
He said the social expectation puts pressure on people. “Before I came out I was always asked if I had a girlfriend. For some that leads to depression and even suicide.
“I think people turn to this kind of therapy because they are so desperate and they want to be normal and accepted. It’s incredible it’s still legal.”
The proposal was welcomed by the Church of England, who called the practice “unethical” and “potentially harmful”. A spokesperson said that it “has no place in the modern world”.
But they added: “As we await the detail of any proposals, we also welcome the recognition that any steps taken should not have the unintended consequence of preventing people seeking spiritual support from their faith leader in the exploration of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Journalist Patrick Strudwick, who went undercover to expose conversion therapists, said he has “seen, and felt, the damage it does”.
The survey also found that two in five people surveyed had experienced verbal harassment or physical violence because of their sexuality and 90% of those people felt they couldn’t report it because “it happens all the time”.
The £4.5m equality plan was produced by the government as a direct response to the survey’s results.
It also includes plans to introduce a national LGBT health advisor, tackle discrimination, improve the response to hate crime and to improve diversity in education institutions.