Did the UK Try to Bury Important Conversion Therapy Research?

· Updated on March 23, 2023

Two years ago, the UK government commissioned a report on conversion therapy. This was part of an effort to ban the practice by first studying its effects and prevalence. At least, that’s how the government has publicly framed it. As it turns out, the investigation was completed and passed off to ministry officials on December 15, 2020. Seven and a half months later, the findings still have not been published, and no action has been taken on conversion therapy.

The report was commissioned specifically by the Government Equalities Office, and it asked participants to share their experiences with conversion therapy, “whether it happened in a medical, commercial or faith-based context.” Conversion therapy has previously been defined as any attempt to change sexual orientation or gender identity.

As if taking two years to tell us what we’ve known for a long time—conversion therapy is harmful and should be banned—isn’t bad enough, we only know about the report because the BBC submitted a Freedom of Information request. The government seems all too ready to place it on the backburner. As Matt Hyndman, the cofounder of the Ban Conversion Therapy group, put it to the BBC, “It sounds like it’s just been buried in a drawer somewhere and it’s not that urgent.”

Activists like Hyndman have long been decrying the government’s feet-dragging. He added, “If they’ve commissioned a study which says conversion therapy is happening and it’s quite severe and they’ve been delaying to ban it, it’s not a good look.”

In other words, the UK government has been talking the talk, without meaningful follow-through. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that conversion therapy is “absolutely abhorrent” and “has no place in this country.” In May, the Queen gave a speech pledging to ban conversion therapy in England and Wales. Both of these instances lack specific timing and plans of action.

A government spokesperson has said that they are waiting on a public consultation in which they will decide how best to move forward while “protecting the medical profession; defending freedom of speech; and upholding religious freedom.” The problem, of course, is that last part—cries of “religious freedom” are what got us into this mess, as religious bodies are far and away the biggest instigators of conversion therapy. A conversion therapy ban that makes allowances for religious practices is essentially meaningless.

At the same time, the Royal College of Psychiatrists has said it is participating in the consultation to attest to the harm of conversion therapy while making sure “clinicians can still help people fully explore their gender identity where appropriate” without being accused of breaching the ban.

But for so many people, these delays are not just frustrating—they are life-threatening. Hyndman said of his organization that deals regularly with the victims’ conversion therapy: “We have so many stories of people and organizations that can attest to the harm it causes.” For now, the UK government has yet to share a specific timeline for the public consultation and the long-promised ban.

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