Conversion Therapy and why I can’t join calls for it to be banned

There’s a huge new initiative launched today which brings hundreds of faith leaders together to “affirm and celebrate the dignity of all, independent of a person’s sexuality, gender expression and gender identity”. It is quite an achievement to get so many people from different traditions to sign up and publicly identify themselves with that cause.

You might think that would be right up my alley and that I’d be adding my name to the list and imploring others to do the same.

However, I don’t find myself able to do that as the campaign is focussed on trying to achieve “a global ban on conversion therapy”.

Conversion Therapy is dangerous to individuals and causes harm. It should be mocked, ridiculed and defunded.

However I’m convinced that trying to ban it will not succeed and indeed that doing so has the potential to do more harm than good.

The trouble with Conversion Therapy is that it is slippery and wears different guises. It can range from offering people tame but foolish counselling therapies to full on attempts to try to “exorcise the gay” from someone. However, the blunt reality is that what some people call Conversion Therapy, other people call prayer. And courts around the world are loathe to ban particular forms  of prayer, and for good reason. More than that, there’s the problem with the individual freedoms that are enshrined in human rights legislation. Sure, human rights thinking can easily assert that no-one should be subject to unwanted therapeutic interventions. You might even make a case that no-one should be subject to harmful therapeutic interventions but you are going to get into deep theological water very quickly. You are also going to get tied up very quickly in some complex court cases over whether particular prayers should be banned. There is a very real possibility that Conversion Therapy in its theological drag may end up being protected by the courts rather than banned by them. How do you ban someone from praying with someone who asserts their right to be prayed with in a particular way?

Attempts to ban Conversion Therapy may well turn out to be a gift to those who are opposed to LGBT equality.

I happen to think that Conversion Therapy does people a lot of harm and that attempts to try it are very unlikely to be successful.

As it happens, I’m not convinced that I believe in the immutability of sexuality or gender identity. I find myself inherrently suspicious of claims that such things are fixed at birth and worry that such claims may drown out and errode expressions of identity which don’t quite fit within rigid boundaries. But that doesn’t mean that I think that Conversion Therapy is legitimate. I don’t.

Where I differ from those signing today’s declaration is that I don’t think that a global ban on conversion therapy is achievable and is likely to distract from things that are achieveable. More than that, I’m fairly certain that trying to ban Conversion Therapy will see it being defended in the courts and see LGBT people become pawns in a fake culture war battle where we will be pitched against human rights legislation.

I could have spent the last 15 years of my life trying to convince people that we should dye the moon pink in order to affirm support for same-sex marriage. However, that wouldn’t have achieved much and instead it was more fun to work with many others on achievable steps to make such a thing an actual reality within the parts of the world that I have influence over.

One of the things that I’m puzzled over is seeing people sign this declaration for ending Conversion Therapy when they have not managed to do so nor even attempted to do so within their own jurisdictions.

Our own Priumus has signed the declaration calling for a global ban on Conversion Therapy but so far, I don’t think I’ve heard a peep from anyone in the Scottish Episcopal Church calling for a ban on Conversion Therapy within our own church. Are we to make it a specific offence in Canon 54, on the discipline of clergy? If not, why not? Because it would be too difficult to pass? Because it would be too difficult to enforce? Because it would mean de-churching people whom we’ve just spent a couple of decades affirming have a valued place in the church?

Or if we think that changing the Code of Canons is small beer, what about charitable status? Would those calling for a Global Ban on Conversion Therapy join me in calling for charitable status being removed from any charity which practises or advocates in favour of Conversion Therapy? Just to spell out that out in full, that would mean our calling for individual dioceses of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland to lose their charitable status.

I find myself wondering whether Bishop Mark would support that policy or not. Or indeed whether he would support removing the charitable status of a Scottish Episcopal Congregation where ex-gay, reparative and conversion techniques are practised.

I very strongly welcome Bishop Mark’s commitment to LGBT equality and all his wonderful public support. However, when I think about how  attempts to implement a global ban on Conversion Therapy are going to play out I’m afraid I can’t join him in this particular call.

The same issues arise in so many parts of the church and I dare say other religious expressions.

Similar questions arise for the Bishop of Liverpool for example, or the Bishop of London – both strongly supporting this new initiative.

Given that bishops in England seem incapable of even committing to share their own views publicly on whether same-sex couples should be able to marry in their churches, it is somewhat difficult to see them enforcing a ban on prayers and therapeutic interventions being offered to an individual who may be able to argue very articulately that they want them. No matter how misguided I might think that individual to be and no matter how misguided I think the offering of such things to be, I can’t really imagine bishops enforcing disciplinary measures against those doing so.

How, if we can’t manage our own back yard, are we to manage the globe?

Who is going to enforce a global ban? Is there an expectation that this is going to be a matter for the United Nations and that everyone there is going to agree to this?

A motion that the moon be dyed pink is likely to be agreed first.

Once again, Conversion Therapy is dangerous to individuals and causes harm. It should be mocked, ridiculed and defunded. It should have no place within health services. There should be no place for those offering it having a home within respectable counselling organisations and professional bodies.

However, it won’t be removed from this earth by calling for a global ban. That is illiberal and unachieveable.

It might even end up being enshrined as legitimate in law under the human rights legislation that we already have.

I expect to be in a very small minority of LGBT campaigners on this issue, but for all these reasons, I cannot add my name to the names of those calling for this global ban.





  1. Another fine, thoughtful piece. Thank you.

  2. Rosemary Hannah says

    When I heard this I must say that I thought ‘Perhaps those C of E bishops calling for this ban ought to speak up loudly and openly and affirm that same sex relationships are the moral equivalent of straight ones (as liable to be healing or harmful). But they are not.

    • Indeed they are not.

      Of course, we are all judged by the reality that it is easier to call for the hungry to be fed than to feed the hungry.

      Uncomfortable truths remain true though.

  3. Rev Richard Thornburgh says

    That’s a considered reflection of the deeper implications of what appears on the surface to be a laudable aim.

  4. ‘However, the blunt reality is that what some people call Conversion Therapy, other people call prayer. ‘ I think you have hit the nail on the head there. Thank you for this thoughtful piece.

  5. Angie says

    I want to add my name, I hear you, but still I want to do both, to sign and to continue the fight. At today’s conference ‘Interfaith Commission on LGBT+ Lives’, this form of conversion by stealth was mentioned – one of the candidates spoke about their experience of it in theological seminary. This journey into inclusion and dignity within the mainstream church in particular, seems to be incremental and painfully slow. Clearly similar in some other faith paths. The Christian denominations that have been inclusive for decades are not even being included in the conversation (by this principally I would suggest UFMCC). But I truly believe that even those of us on the outside of mainstream church have a place in trying to improve things… So, I’m signing. I’m signing because the more LGBTQI+ folk that join in with the conversation, the more we get heard. More than this, I have a ministry pledge to speak into injustice against our community. If I stay out of the conversation, I’m not even opening up opportunity to talk about conversion therapy/prayers/laying on of hands/dodgy sermons that demonize us… That’s why I’ve signed.

    • Esther Green says

      Absolutely fantastic thank you for standing with us we desperately need to change things and ban conversation to have safe guarding infrastructures accountability guidelines and the law to stop the churches abusing there position to dehumanise the individual who are victims that causes great mental anguish
      Pain and heartache to self harming attempted suicides and deaths drastic changes need to be put into place to keep our children families and loved ones safe to thrive and grow in the knowledge faith and love By you signing your saving lives and bringing Hope comfort to affirm our community Thank you and never give up Because you are making a huge difference and impact in our lives to bring healing and comfort demonstrating the very power of gods Awesome Grace and love
      May you always know you are the voice of so many like our family that has suffered immensely which almost took my daughters life and early this year I could no longer bear the intense pain and suffering that the Christain church/ Ministry and Christain who completely shut down on us I’m slowly recovering but my mental health is still taking time to regain balance it had completely changed and transformed my life that I can only message a Christain friend who is a pastor of Inclusive Gathering Birmingham West Midlands Thank you for bridging the gap love always Esther Green Warwickshire Uk

  6. The only ‘Conversion Therapy’ that I would recommend, Father, is that from Sexism and Homophobia in the Church- which should be administered with humility and patience!

    “O Come, O Come Emmauel, and ransom captive Israel”

  7. Fr. John-Julian Swanson,OJN says

    Some specs from Wikioedia USA:

    Despite the lack of federal legislation regarding bans on conversion therapy, such therapy has been banned by numerous therapy organizations operating in the U.S.[291][292] It has been banned by the American Psychiatric Association since 1998.[293][294] In 2009, conversion therapy was also rebuked by the American Psychological Association.[295] Others include the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the American College of Physicians, the American Academy of Physician Assistants, and many more. Organizations such as GLAAD and Human Rights Campaign have acknowledged that several other psychiatric and psychological organizations in the United States have rejected the practice of conversion therapy as well.[291][292]

    Resolutions and proclamations
    As of April 2020, eleven cities/counties have passed non-binding resolutions or proclamations declaring opposition to conversion therapy. These are Edgewater, Colorado;[296] Westminster, Colorado;[297] Wheat Ridge, Colorado;[298] Atlanta, Georgia;[299] Worcester, Massachusetts;[300] Columbia, Missouri;[301] Suffolk County, New York;[302] Harrisburg, Pennsylvania;[303] Appleton, Wisconsin;[304]”/> Eau Claire County, Wisconsin;[305][306] and Shorewood, Wisconsin.[307]

  8. Theban says

    I think it is very easy to see no need to ban conversion therapy when you are in no risk of becoming a victim of it yourself. Scotland is pretty safe for gay men and lesbian women. Arguably, anyone who comes across it but doesn’t want it can simply walk away.

    But the situation for trans children, even in the UK, is much more perilous. The High Court in England has just banned puberty blockers and it is clear that those who funded the court case are next going to try to stop schools even affirming trans children’s gender.

    Round the world, the situation for gay men and lesbian women is similarly much more perilous than it is in the UK. Even in Europe, the situation in both Hungary and Poland is very concerning.

    So, from a position of comfort banning conversion therapy might seem too complicated but those who might become victims elsewhere and who simply cannot just walk away, need your support.

    Please reconsider.

  9. Jim Pratt says

    Thanks for this perspective. From the other side of the Atlantic, your concerns are not so much my concerns. Our bishops have, for the most part, been much stronger and more consistent in their messaging, though we could use a definitive banning of conversion therapy within the church. Also, much of the North American legislation has been either limited to minors, or directed to licensed psychologists/psychotherapists/social workers, those holding themselves out as counselors, or those providing a service for a fee, and exclude clergy.

  10. Philip Groves says

    Thank you Kelvin. I agree with you. The key campaign around the world is for decriminalisation. Anglican leaders in Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya have supported ongoing criminalisation and the strengthening of such laws, but also Anglicans leaders (lay, clergy and bishops) in Kenya and Uganda as well as in Botswana, Zambia, South Africa, Lesotho, Jamaica (and more generally in the West Indies – especially the former Archbishop) and India as well as elsewhere have spoken courageously for decriminalisation. These people Maurice Tomlinson for example) need our support. (In Nigeria the law put in place with support from the Anglican Church there prohibits freedom to organise and freedom to speak – Although Archbishop Josiah did speak about his opposition to the laws). You cannot campaign for equal marriage or oppose conversion therapy if LGBTI+ people are criminalised for existing.

  11. James says

    Thanks for your post.

    “I happen to think that Conversion Therapy does people a lot of harm and that attempts to try it are very unlikely to be successful.”

    I agree wholeheartedly with that, having spent many years under the influence of such groups here in the UK. I left all that behind me some 15 years ago, but it took a long time to sort myself out, become comfortable in my own skin, and get release from the malign influences of some of their teachings.

    I too, think that attempts to ban it outright will not have the desired effects:

    – It will be difficult if not impossible to police. As noted, where is the boundary between prayer and ‘Therapy’? The groups operating in the UK (at least during my time) wavered between supporting celibacy and encouraging ‘change/conversion’, with individual leaders within the groups often taking different approaches, and saying different things to appease different audiences.

    – A total ban will encourage a martyr complex in those groups and churches still promoting conversion therapies, and that would not be helpful.

    – For those struggling with their identity and heavily influenced by an anti-gay interpretation of the bible, there are very few places they may feel able to turn to. They have been taught not to trust or listen to any views seen as unorthodox. They will often be under an enormous burden of shame; shame that church teachings have often loaded onto them; and shame that seems to be there just because they are thinking “incorrect” thoughts. They may be suicidal. Not wanting to reveal their issues to their local church, the conversion/therapy groups are often the only place they feel able to go to. Despite the damage that these groups can do, by reaching out to them, those individuals are at least acknowledging their own feelings. It may be the first time that they have ever vocalised what is going on in their heads, and this can be a first step on the road to – eventually – affirming to themselves who they are. This applies just as much to those in other faiths struggling with similar issues. and in societies much less affirming of gay people than the UK.

    In the USA, some states have banned such therapies for children, and I do think such a limited ban might have benefits. In the end, the increased visibility of LGBTI folk of faith, and the widespread exposure of the damaging effects of conversion therapy, will prove more effective than legal bans.

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