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Gay Conversion Therapy: Can the government’s LGBT Action Plan really work?

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By Andrew Spearman, award-winning lawyer and Director of A City Law Firm

The UK government's LGBT Action Plan sounds like the blueprint for some upcoming war game, rather than a 32-page, 75-commitment based document aimed at pulling down barriers for the LGBT community in both their public and private lives. 

Yet one promise causing the most interest appears to commitment to finally ban the so-called 'gay conversion therapy':

We will bring forward proposals to end the practice of conversion therapy in the UK. These activities are wrong, and we are not willing to let them continue. Led by the Government Equalities Office, we will fully consider all legislative and non-legislative options to prohibit promoting, offering or conducting conversion therapy. Our intent is protecting people who are vulnerable to harm or violence, whether that occurs in a medical, commercial or faith-based context. We are not trying to prevent LGBT people from seeking legitimate medical support or spiritual support from their faith leader in the exploration of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

It is rarely the child who finds the problem with their own sexuality once they understand and accept it, rather it is those around them; those who would otherwise provide support.  LGBT charities still exist to tackle those occasions when parents are unaccepting – if you want to appreciate the real scope, just take a glance at the homelessness statistics and the functions of the Albert Kennedy Trust. 

The government's promise on introducing both legislative and non-legislative options to prohibit "promoting, offering or conducting conversion therapy" is an important and substantive change in tenor that should not be underestimated. 

The conversion therapy makes the fundamental assumption that sexual orientation is a psychological disorder that can be 'cured'.  Previously, while there was no general acceptance of it, the UK government's position was that the regulation and code of ethic for any regulated practitioner would prevent LGBT individuals being offered or undergoing this treatment.  The government would not legislate for the sake of it and nor would they criminalise the conduct. 

There is not harmony or unified thinking about this across either Europe or the rest of the world.  Some countries, like Brazil and Argentina, plus a few US states, have banned it - but great swathes still take no real affirmative action.

How can the government ‘ban’ conversion therapies?

The government has many tools in its war cupboard when approaching the issue.

The big guns of the arsenal could be the criminalisation of the therapy itself, but it can just drive the practice further underground and some would argue that it is a practice which people 'choose' to undertake. 

Criminalising the promotion of it is another route, or introducing hefty fines for those practitioners caught conducting or condoning it.  How would you regulate it, though?  Those who are professionals are already regulated by their professional body and by those who have already taken steps to prevent it. 

Some, including myself, have argued previously about how the government was simply burying their heads in the sand on this point and was failing vulnerable children who are not being taken to regulated professionals, but camps involving the most inhumane physical and psychological torment. 

Whichever way the government shapes this, a root and branch approach is going to be needed to get this from the core and strip it back to a fundamental understanding in all sections of society. Gender identity and sexual orientation already have incredibly high levels of suicide and depression amongst young adults and children.  It is important that they see this change and the support that it brings them, when society will step in and say, "This is not just wrong, it is abhorrent.  This will not be tolerated in any form anymore."

Could the most determined parents just take their children abroad?  If so, how can we protect and prevent this too, without a wider consensus in foreign countries? I would hope the UK government has a plan to deter this happening, but what safeguards can they put in place? 

Here we would hope to see non-legislative change, promoting better understand and LGBT education in schools, building relations with different parts of society and adding these forms of harm to child protection officers in schools and local authorities. The Church of England acknowledged this in 2017.  Will other community leaders openly do so too?

The LGBT Action Plan is a tome of information, statistics and ambitious promises.  It highlights many other facts, such as disclosure of sexual orientation at work and the high level of discrimination in the workplace that still remains. Whilst we have legislation in this area already, the absence of real and substantive legislation or debate in the area of gay conversion therapy is astounding.  Whether the government of the day decides to criminalise the practice, or place deterrents in some other form, this will be hailed by the LGBT community as a step towards not just equality but basic, human dignity.  

The more cynical side of my mind remains with a question though: will the government be able to create a robust enough system of 'prevention' which is better than the 'cure'?

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