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.