Content warning: contains mentions of homophobia, transphobia and acephobia
When the Bank of England announced in 2019 that mathematical genius Alan Turing would feature on the new £50 note, eyebrows were raised. The gesture seemed like extreme historical whitewashing by the state. While Turing is more than worthy of the recognition, in his lifetime he was turned upon by the very establishment who now wished to celebrate him.
In 1952, Turing was convicted of “gross indecency” after reporting a blackmail attempt by his former gay lover to the police, and sentenced to 12 months of conversion therapy, during which he was forced to undergo chemical castration. Two years later, he died by suicide.
In recent years, Turing’s reputation has been fully rehabilitated, but the most haunting aspect of his tragic legacy goes largely unaddressed. Conversion therapy is still legal and taking place in the UK today despite an explicit government pledge to ban the practice in 2018, and it is queer and transgender people of colour who are disproportionately likely to be subject to it.
Conversion therapy (also known as ‘reparative therapy’ or ‘deliverance healing’) is any practice that “seeks to change a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity and/or gender expression”, explains Kieran Aldred, Head of Policy at Stonewall.
Aldred says that the term ‘conversion therapy’ covers a vast array of pseudo-psychological practices, from talking therapies – that encourage a person to believe their that sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression is somehow wrong, disordered, or potentially ‘sinful’ – to physical abuse, beatings, or the use of so-called ‘corrective rape’.
Contrary to common understandings of conversion therapy primarily impacting gay cis individuals, trans conversion therapy is a serious worry. Figures from the 2018 National LGBT Study revealed trans respondents are almost twice as likely to have been offered or undergone conversion therapy than cis respondents. The risk is higher in general for queer people of colour too; the survey found that while 7% of LGBTQIA+ people in the UK have been offered or undergone conversion therapy, respondents from ethnic minority backgrounds were twice as likely to have had these experiences.
‘I felt violated and afraid”
Amir – a cis gay man of Pakistani heritage – was offered conversion therapy by a psychiatrist based in a lauded London medical district only three years ago.
“When I came out to my family, who are quite religious and conservative, it’s fair to say they weren’t happy. I thought that if we spoke to a professional, who could be impartial, we might be able to find some middle ground,” Amir remembers. His father quickly found someone who seemed to fit the bill: a Muslim psychiatrist, who had studied in the UAE and was now operating out of a prestigious London location.
The plan was for Amir’s parents to see him first, then for Amir to have a solo consultation, following which they would all go together for family therapy. However, when it was time for Amir’s appointment at 8pm, he was whisked away on his own to a basement consultation room.
“The psychiatrist asked if Amir had suffered childhood sexual abuse and whether his partner – who was older – had ‘groomed’ him”
The psychiatrist began asking Amir incredibly invasive questions about his sexual practices, intimacy, pornography and the girlfriend Amir had before starting university. He connected the fact that Amir was a university student in a ‘hippy’ environment to him coming out as gay, arguing that since young people are more liberal, it’s more likely that they would have experiences with people of the same sex. The psychiatrist was adamant that Amir’s queerness was something that could – and should – be changed.
“I was pressed on very personal questions like how easy I find it to be aroused when watching pornography and what element of penetration interests me,” Amir shares. The psychiatrist asked if Amir had suffered childhood sexual abuse and whether his partner – who was older – had “groomed” him. The session was “overwhelming” Amir recalls, especially because he wasn’t “particularly sexually active or experienced.”
When Amir was finally allowed to go home two and a half hours later at 10:30pm, he was drained and felt like the session had been an effort to “break him down”.
The experience left him feeling “violated and afraid”, resulting in what Amir calls a “huge amount of internalised homophobia”.
“Amir began having intrusive thoughts about his sexuality, and wondered if the psychiatrist and his family were right and he had been ‘groomed’ by ‘predatory’ men”
“I started to feel a fear of engaging with people who might have supported me – whether that was the LGBT community or the South Asian community – and also became insecure in my relationship,” he recalls.
Amir began having intrusive thoughts about his sexuality, and wondered if the psychiatrist and his family were right and he had been ‘groomed’ by ‘predatory’ men, feelings further exacerbated by the cultural pressure to receive approval from elders before continuing with a relationship.
Only with space from family and time to process his experience, did Amir become comfortable with seeking mental health support. He recently celebrated his fifth year with his partner – who Amir says was “supportive and respectful” throughout his ordeal – but says he had to step away from his relatives before he could move on.
Understanding cultural risk
Now, with distance, Amir has begun to analyse why he might have been at heightened risk of conversion therapy.
“One of the reasons South Asian individuals are more likely to be offered or agree to conversion therapy is a lack of representation of queer people of colour in the media,” he says. “Queer people of colour are more likely to feel like they don’t belong or fit into the queer community – that they don’t look or act the way they’re ‘supposed to’ – and so might agree to undergo conversion therapy if it’s offered to them by family.”
Without feeding into racist stereotypes around homophobia within communities of colour, discrepancies in the prevalence of conversion therapy needs understanding. Reverend Jide Macaulay is the founder and CEO of House of Rainbow, a Nigerian organisation supporting LGBTQIA+ individuals around the world in reconciling their sexuality and spirituality. According to him, the overrepresentation of people of colour as conversion therapy survivors may partly be explained by pressure from influential religious leaders or an increased cultural importance placed on respecting one’s elders.
“It is the right of LGBT people of faith to be able to go to church and not be subjected to inhumane treatment, such as conversion therapy or any form of deliverance healing, because there’s nothing to be delivered from,” he says. “But within Black and Muslim communities, there is the impact of cultural and traditional beliefs. If your parents tell you to go to conversion therapy, you do not argue with them, regardless of age.”
“Queer individuals considered to be ‘possessed’ by homosexuality can be subjected to deliverance healing, which can see them forced to drink or bathe in potions deemed ‘spiritual water’, or even be starved of food and sleep”
According to Macaulay, conversion therapy in Black Muslim and Christian communities specifically involves a combination of processes that can range from private or public prayer, to laying of hands. The latter can include a practice described as “beating the homosexuality out of the persons”, often with the use of brooms.
Queer individuals considered to be ‘possessed’ by the ‘demonic’ spirit of homosexuality can be subjected to deliverance healing, which can see them forced to drink or bathe in potions deemed “spiritual water”, or even be starved of food and sleep until it is believed that the homosexuality has fled their body.
While no study has ever determined that conversion therapy is successful, there is significant evidence that the physical and psychological damage caused – often accompanied by societal rejection and family prejudice – is long-lasting and life-altering.
“The UK government is yet to ban conversion therapy – over 1000 days since they first announced a commitment to do so”
Conversion therapy can be fatal and survivors carry the resulting trauma throughout their lives with a 2018 study finding LGBTQIA+ youth who had underwent conversion therapy were more than twice as likely to report having attempted suicide multiple times following the experience.
However, despite overwhelming research and first-person testimonials providing evidence for the lifelong harm caused by this traumatic practice, the UK government is yet to ban conversion therapy – over 1000 days since they first announced a commitment to do so.
In February, three of the government’s LGBT advisers resigned in protest at the lack of action, specifically charging equalities ministers, Liz Truss and Kemi Badenoch for creating a “hostile environment” for LGBTQIA+ people. Now, a coalition of mental health practitioners, LGBTQIA+ organisations and faith communities, including Gendered Intelligence, Stonewall, NHS England and the Ozanne Foundation, are campaigning for an urgent legislative ban, as well as specialist support for victims and survivors.
For trans people of colour, the threat of conversion therapy looms even larger. Often termed ‘gender-critical therapy’, the practice attempts to force a trans or non-binary’s person’s gender identity or expression to align with the one they were assigned at birth.
With transphobia becoming seemingly more entrenched in the British mainstream, anti-trans campaigners are actively attempting to prevent a general conversion therapy ban on the grounds it would “promote an affirmation-only approach to gender identity“. A March 2021 report revealed that of 450 trans and non-binary respondents, 14% had been offered conversion therapy, with 8% having undergone it. Half of those who had been administered conversion therapy said they had been “forced” through it.
“Trans people suffer a lot with our mental health, and we spend so much of our lives almost in our own version of conversion therapy, trying to suppress our identities to fit in,” says Rufaro Manganzo, artist and member of trans collective, KINESIS, who says trans people are particularly at risk from the false promises of conversion therapy.
“I suppressed my transness so much that I didn’t come out until a bit later in life, and then I was at some of my lowest points during my transition,” she adds. “It makes us even more vulnerable to other people trying to convince us that we would have a better life if we could just change who we are.”
“We’re taught a very rigid idea of how sexuality is meant to manifest. Even in communities that are more open-minded there’s a lingering belief that asexual people have something wrong with them”
The National LGBT study also revealed that asexual people faced a higher likelihood of being subjected to conversion therapy.
Asexual activist, Yasmin Benoit, thinks this figure is founded in the pathologisation of asexuality.
“In the UK, hypoactive sexual desire disorder [a sexual dysfunction that causes a lowered sex drive in women], is included in the International Classification of Diseases, and it pretty much just describes asexuality,” Benoit says.
“When you tell someone you’re asexual, they often jump straight to asking if you’ve had your hormones checked, or if you’re depressed and taking medication.”
“We’re taught a very rigid idea of how sexuality is meant to manifest. Even in communities that are more open-minded and nuanced in their understanding of sexuality, like the LGBTQ+ community, there’s a lingering belief that asexual people have something wrong with them. That’s how deeply ingrained it is.”
In recent weeks, the pressure from anti-conversion therapy campaigners has won new commitments from Liz Truss to speed up the promised ban. However, just last week, there was criticism after it was revealed prime minister Boris Johnson promised an Evangelical Christian group that a prospective ban would not include “pastoral support” for adults from churches, including “prayer” for sexual orientation or gender identity. Days later, the UN urged the UK to ban conversion therapy altogether, calling it “chilling”.
“Every day that passes is another day that somebody is at risk of or undergoing conversion therapy,” Kieran Aldred says.
“Current legislation is not sufficient to ensure people are safeguarded from these practices. While it is promising that Liz Truss has stated that she is seeking to bring forward a Bill very shortly to ban conversion therapy, this Bill needs to be holistic and comprehensive.”
“It needs to not only ban the practice but also ban its promotion, and ensure that we provide proper safeguarding training for any institution that comes into contact with someone who is potentially at risk from these practices.”