UK Health Minister Norman Lamb says he’s getting tough on gay conversion therapy. I’m not convinced.
This month, he chaired a roundtable meeting with the Royal College of Psychiatrists and leading UK gay rights group Stonewall, among others, to discuss mounting concerns that there may be clinicians working within the National Health Service who are referring people for so-called sexual orientation change efforts or, as it is more commonly known, gay conversion therapy or ex-gay therapy.
The practice has no medical support, is condemned by all mainstream medical and psychological bodies as well as the leading Christian counseling body in the UK, and there is growing evidence of the psychological harms that can occur as a result of LGBT people being exposed to this kind of quackery.
Despite this, a 2009 survey of 1,300 mental health professionals found that in an excess of 200 cases, professionals had attempted to reduce a patient’s same-sex attraction. There are some very limited circumstances in which this might be clinically appropriate (if a person is incapable of reconciling their LGB identity and so wishes to reduce those feelings and live a celibate life, clinicians may be inclined to offer a means toward such a therapeutic goal if all other courses have failed), however the prevalence was still quite shocking. It is believed that around 40 percent of those patients had been exposed to this therapy within the NHS — meaning with public money.
Lamb, while noting that such referrals have been relatively few and far between, has written to the NHS overseer for England to emphasize that no NHS money should be spent in this way. However, he has categorically ruled out a legislative ban on conversion therapy, telling the Guardian:
“There will be people who want help with coming to terms with their sexuality and need to be able to seek support from a professional,” he said. It was important to avoid a situation where a doctor or therapist felt they could not counsel someone in that situation. “We must not end up with a situation where we end up with people fearing they will be prosecuted.”
This is in response to legislation that currently sits in England’s House of Commons that would ban sexual orientation change efforts and would enable the NHS to take disciplinary action against those offering ex-gay therapy.
Traditionally, the government tends to defer to counselling services and, on matters like this, allow them to self-regulate. Gay conversion therapy should not be one of those areas.
There is a strong urge among some religiously-affiliated counselling groups to support conversion therapy as a matter of religious freedom and the rights of a patient to seek this so-called treatment. This is incorrect on both counts: there’s no religious right to dole out harmful religiously motivated discrimination disguised as treatment, and the clinician’s responsibility is not to give an ill-informed patient a quack therapy but to help facilitate what is in the patient’s best interests and how their health can be improved. A discredited and potentially dangerous non-treatment isn’t something we should worry about banning, then.
Despite this, and possibly because of the religious rights smokescreen, the British Government has so far refused to back the legislation despite having recognized that ex-gay therapy can be harmful and should not be practiced.
It appears that Lamb is sending a mixed signal here, one indicative of the government’s own confused position. He recognizes, as does the government, that ex-gay therapy is both wrong and medically unsound yet at the same time seems to suggest that in order to allow people to seek treatment to help ease their anxiety or mental health problems surrounding issues of sexual orientation, conversion therapy cannot be regulated against. There’s a gap in that logic a kilometer wide.
Attempting to change someone’s sexual orientation is in no way the same as the recognized and responsible treatment of working with someone in distress so that they can come to terms with their sexual orientation and so that they can reject whatever stigma, be it secular or religious, that has made them feel that their sexual orientation is bad, wrong, or damaging.
We would not hesitate to ban other so-called counselling methods that we know have pushed people to suicide, and yet for gay conversion attempts the UK government appears to want to step so lightly that its influence will barely be felt at all. That’s not only cowardly, it’s dangerous.
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