How the Tories spent years promising a conversion therapy ban – only to betray LGBT+ people
Boris Johnson has binned a planned conversion therapy ban, capping off almost four years of dither, delay and betrayal.
The government confirmed reports that a legislative ban on the practice – routinely likened to torture – has been ditched on Thursday (31 May).
A spokesperson said: “The government has decided to proceed by reviewing how existing law can be deployed more effectively to prevent this in the quickest way possible, and explore the use of other non-legislative measures.”
It came after ITV News reported on a leaked briefing which stated: “The PM has agreed we should not move forward with legislation to ban LGBT conversion therapy.”
It comes after a lengthy saga in which successive prime ministers and ministers have promised, repeatedly, and unequivocally, that a conversion therapy ban would be forthcoming.
2018: Theresa May announces conversion therapy ban
In July 2018, the Conservative government promised the UK’s LGBT+ community that they would ban the traumatising, dehumanising practice known as conversion therapy.
That month, Theresa May’s government released its LGBT Action Plan – a comprehensive document that laid out how the Tories would work to improve life for queer people in the UK.
The goals in the plan weren’t pulled out of nowhere – they were based on extensive research. Specifically, the government pledged to ban conversion therapy after it carried out a survey which found that five per cent of LGBT+ people in the UK had been offered conversion therapy, while two per cent had directly experienced the debunked practice.
It seemed like real change was on the way for LGBT+ people – and then it all fell apart.
2019: Theresa May’s downfall and Boris Johnson’s rise put a ban on the backburner
Plans for a conversion therapy ban started to go south when Theresa May became one of the many political casualties of Brexit.
In May 2019 – less than a year after her government promised to ban conversion therapy in its LGBT Action Plan – Theresa May announced that she was resigning as prime minister following humiliating rebellions from Tory MPs on her Brexit deal.
In July, Boris Johnson became the new leader of the Tories, and that December he led the Tories to its best election performance since 1979, cementing the party’s shift further right.
2020: Boris Johnson promises conversion therapy ban
In the summer of 2020, there was still no progress on a conversion therapy ban – and LGBT+ people were starting to question what had happened to the government’s grand plans to outlaw the practice.
In June of that year, women and equalities minister Liz Truss described conversion therapy as a “vile, abhorrent practice” during a speech in the House of Commons. She said the government had “commissioned research to look at the scope of the practice in the UK”.
In July, Johnson told ITV News that conversion therapy had “no place” in a civilised society and he promised his government would bring forward legislation.
“On the gay conversion therapy thing, I think that’s absolutely abhorrent and has no place in a civilised society, has no place in this country.”
“What we’re gonna do is a study right now on… where is this actually happening? How prevalent is it? And we will then bring forward plans to ban it.”
It later emerged that the results of that research landed on ministers’ desks in December 2020 – but the study wasn’t made publicly available.
2021: After outrage, the government picks up its plans
In March 2021 a row broke out in relation to the government’s LGBT Advisory Panel. Three members of the panel – which was set up under Theresa May’s government – resigned, citing a “hostile environment” for LGBT+ people in the Tory administration.
One of those who resigned was Jayne Ozanne, who is herself a survivor of conversion therapy. She cited a concerning speech given by equalities minister Kemi Badenoch earlier that month following a conversion therapy debate. In her speech, Badenoch refused to use the word “ban” and refused to give MPs a timeline for when legislation prohibiting the practice would being introduced.
Just one day after Ozanne resigned, James Morton and Ellen Murray quit the panel. In a blistering letter to Priti Patel, Morton said he had “no confidence” that the UK government wanted to protect the rights of LGBT+ people in the UK.
Shortly after those resignations, Truss told ITV News that she would “bring forward plans to ban conversion therapy” in the near future – but all wasn’t as it seemed. In April, the LGBT Advisory Panel was disbanded altogether, and in May, the government signalled that it had abandoned the 2018 LGBT Action Plan entirely.
However, that same month, the government announced that it would ban conversion therapy after a public consultation process on the topic – and LGBT+ people immediately reacted with frustration and disappointment. A previous public consultation into Gender Recognition Act (GRA) reform found that there was broad public support for change – but the government scrapped its plans anyway.
In October, the consultation document was published. It was widely condemned for being shot with loopholes and red flags, including religious exemptions.
Although the document set out to ban “talking conversion therapy” as well as physical violence, it added: “To be clear: talking conversion therapy could not be reasonably understood to include communication such as casual conversations, exchanges of views, private prayer or pure speech acts.”
The exemptions of “private prayer” and “everyday religious practice”, would have left those in faith communities especially vulnerable to legal conversion therapy.
The document also said that adults should be able to “consent” to conversion therapy practices.
The government laid out the definition of consent from Section 74 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003: “Where a person agrees by choice, and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice.”
But campaigners, and existing case law, say that no one can freely consent to psychological harm.
The document also referred to attempts to convert a person “from not being transgender to being transgender”, and even alluded to the anti-trans talking point that trans children will be pushed to go down a “clinical pathway” which “might result in an irreversible decision”.
Tory equalities minister Mike Freer would later signal that any legislative ban would cover religious practices and protect trans people, insisting: “There is no LGBT without the T.”
In the end, it would be the entire LGBT+ community thrown to the wolves by Boris Johnson.