Germany has published a draft law that will seek to ban ‘gay conversion therapy’ across the country. The practice is condemned by human rights groups, yet continues to take place across Germany, Europe and further afield. Sometimes described as a ‘gay cure’ or ‘reparative’ therapy, it is a form of so-called treatment that attempts to change an individual’s sexual orientation. However, conversion therapy has no scientific backing and can result in individuals who receive it developing further health complications. Considering the harmful nature of this practice, the recent announcement brings into question if the rest of the European Union should be following suit and banning conversion therapy altogether.
Gay conversion therapy might sound like something that is solely confined to the pages of history books, but the harmful practice continues to be carried out on LGBT people across the world. Recent examples include an El Diario journalist going undercover to expose the practice in the Spanish Roman Catholic Church, a doctor in Switzerland offering cure therapy to his patients, and ‘starvation therapy’ being used in a church in northern England. It can be offered by medical practitioners, psychologists, religious groups and other unregulated individuals.
There is no scientific evidence that supports the suggestion that conversion therapy can change an individual’s sexual orientation. In fact, the evidence points out that the practice can have harmful, long-term effects on a person’s mental health. Anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation are just some of the potential consequences that can arise from those who experience conversion therapy.
Moreover, I would argue that those who carry out this practice play on the vulnerabilities of LGBT people who may be coming to terms with their sexual orientation. Social isolation, rejection from the family home, and hate crimes might leave LGBT people needing emotional support with navigating these challenges. Those offering conversion therapy exploit these societal pressures that LGBT people might feel, and offers them a means of ‘curing’ their sexuality. This only further perpetuates the notion that being lesbian, gay or bisexual is something that one should be ashamed of, resulting in further harm being inflicted on the mental and emotional wellbeing of those who receive it.
At present, there is regulation to help prevent this practice from being carried out, but this often only implemented by regulatory bodies of healthcare professionals. Although these practitioners might be struck off their professional register, they may not face other legislative prosecution, such as fines or imprisonment. So-called therapists who are operating without professional accreditation, or using a religious group to access ‘clients,’ will rarely face consequences unless there is wider legislation in place.
I think the current challenge regarding the banning of conversion therapy in the EU is the lack of legislative consistency across the member states. Whilst there is a unified voice from global bodies, such as the World Psychiatric Association, that categorically condemns the practice, this is not enough to prevent the practice and safeguard LGBT people from experiencing it. There needs to be clear legislation that empowers legal systems across the Union to prosecute individuals and organisations found guilty of offering and enabling this practice. This legislation must also reflect the gravity of conversion therapy, and ensure that those who have delivered conversion therapy are prevented from doing so again.
Broader societal issues also need to be examined by governments in relation to gay conversion therapy. Homophobia, hate crimes, and social isolation of LGBT people are implicitly enabling this practice. Those who are discriminated against and isolated as a result of their sexual orientation may be more likely to seek out these so-called therapies, as they may feel left with no other option. Furthermore, the stigmatisation of LGBT people continues across Europe, meaning that those who have been victim of this harmful practice feel unable to come forward to report it.
This not only means that those who have experienced conversion therapy may be left without psychological support, but authorities are unable to appraise the extent of the practice in their country. I believe governments should examine the means to reduce hate crimes towards LGBT people and societal stigmatisation of this group when exploring new legislations and policies that seek to prevent gay conversion therapy.
Gay conversion therapy continues to take place across Europe, but the true extent of the problem may never be truly known. That being said, legislative changes and harsher sanctions for those who carry out this exploitative practice will punish perpetrators and protect LGBT people who fall victim to it. There must be greater consistency across the EU as a means of stamping out this practice for good.
What’s more, governments and policymakers ought to take into consideration the wider contextual factors that might be facilitating conversion therapy from going unreported, and why LGBT people might be accessing such therapies in the first place. Now is the time for governments to bring gay conversion therapy out from the shadows, and bring those who continue to carry out this harmful practice to justice.
- Hadley Stewart is a London-based writer, broadcaster and medical journalist
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