Bring on the Ban!

The following opinion piece was shared with Pink News, based on a letter sent to the Prime Minister on September 8th 2020 by the Ozanne Foundation’s Chair, Vice-Chair and Inter Religious Advisory Board.

There can be nothing more important than safeguarding people’s lives, particularly at the start of their adolescent journey into understanding who they are. That is why we fully back the Prime Minister’s commitment, echoed recently by the Secretary of State for Health, to ban so-called “conversion therapy” once and for all.

As senior religious leaders we recognise the harm done by this discredited practice, which causes a person to attempt to change their sexual orientation or gender identity and condemns them for not conforming to certain stereotypes.  We also recognise that this is promoted and practiced primarily by well-meaning but misinformed people within our religions.  What is worse, it frequently impacts children and young people at a critical stage of their development, leaving deep scars that will affect them for the rest of their lives and undermining their ability to form loving and life-long relationships. 

Let us be clear – this is not a matter of freedom of speech or of personal conscience. Conversion therapy objectively causes great harm – indeed it has been found to be torture.  We cannot allow anyone to put themselves through this, no matter how much they may think they are doing “the right thing” according to their understanding of their holy texts.  For they are misguided and the consequences are severe.

Survivors, we know, are frequently motivated to undergo such “therapy” because of a belief that who they are is “sinful”.  Heartbreakingly, many carry a deep internal sense of shame due to their religious beliefs.  It is this internalised homophobia that causes such deep psychological damage.  It must be countered by a far more positive message – central to all our religions – that recognises their unique individual worth, no matter what their sexuality or gender identity.

We know we are not alone in this belief – research has shown that the majority of those with a religious affiliation in the UK also support a ban, with only a small minority voting against.  Many are unaware of this horrific practice, which aims to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity to conform to certain stereotypes through a variety of interventions and religious rituals.

So, what should a ban look like?  Well, we believe it must do three things.

Firstly, it must cover the full range of religious practices that people are tempted or coerced to undergo.  Whilst conversion therapy outside a religious setting does still occur, it is rare.  In the main the perpetrators are motivated by their religious beliefs, and the law must recognise and address that.

Secondly, it must explicitly protect trans people, who are at the greatest risk of undergoing change therapy.

Thirdly, it must ensure that there are no “loopholes” that will allow those who practice conversion therapy to offer help in “changing” or “suppressing” behaviour, for this is just as damaging. 

Why are we so set on a ban?  Because only legislation will cause religious leaders to think twice – few will want to risk having a criminal record that would stop them following their vocation.  It will also, importantly, enable victims to know that they will be understood and protected if they seek help. 

The prevalence of conversion therapy has remained hidden in plain sight for a reason – speaking out is both traumatic and dangerous for victims. Sadly, few do so as it ultimately risks them losing their entire support network – their friends, their family, their home and their work prospects.  It is a trap few can escape. 

We are therefore committed to working together with leaders across our religious organisations to ensure people are made aware of the significant safeguarding risks these dis-credited practices represent.  We urge them to adopt formal positions, such as the Church of England chose to do in 2017 when it called on the government for a ban on conversion therapy.

It is this work with religious groups that will ultimately enable us to eradicate this practice, but for that – we are clear – we first need a ban.  We ask therefore that the Prime Minister make good his promise and urgently bring forward legislation.

Rt Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool, Chair of Ozanne Foundation

Very Revd David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s, Vice-Chair of Ozanne Foundation

with Ozanne Foundation’s Inter-Religious Advisory Board:

Senior Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, Senior Rabbi to Reform Judaism

Revd Michaela Youngson, Former President of the Methodist Conference

Revd David Mayne, Moderator, Baptist Union Council

Dilwar Hussain, Chair, New Horizons in British Islam

Anil Bhanot OBE, UK Hindu Council

Dr Jagbir Jhutti-Johal, Lecture in Sikh Studies, Birmingham University

Ursula Halligan, Chair of “We Are Church”, Ireland

Fredrick R Hyde-Chambers OBE, Chair of UK Buddhist Chaplaincy Support Group