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The UK is moving to ban conversion therapy. Where in Europe is the practice still legal?

Demonstrators holds rainbow flags during a protest outside from the Parliament house in capital Nicosia, Cyprus, on Thursday, May 25, 2023.
Demonstrators holds rainbow flags during a protest outside from the Parliament house in capital Nicosia, Cyprus, on Thursday, May 25, 2023. Copyright Petros Karadjias/AP
Copyright Petros Karadjias/AP
By Giulia Carbonaro
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Only eight countries in Europe have imposed bans on conversion therapy, the controversial practice trying to “cure” LGBTQ+ people of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

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After years of failed attempts and unkept promises, the UK is getting closer to finally banning conversion therapy.

Conversion therapy, the practice of forcing gay, lesbians, queer, and trans people into emotionally and physically harmful practices to “cure” their attraction to the same sex or “fix” their gender identity, is fully banned in only eight countries in Europe.

Across the majority of the continent the practice is generally condemned, but technically still legal.

Even as the European Parliament voted 435-109 to adopt a text condemning practices trying to “cure” queer people from their sexual orientation and gender expression, attempts to ban conversion therapy in countries like Austria, the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands have repeatedly failed.

But in the UK, a bill to ban the controversial practice has finally landed on the prime minister’s desk, according to Paul Brand, an ITV reporter who’s been tracking the issue for the past five years.

“It’s been a long journey to get to this point,” Robbie de Santos, Director of External Affairs at LGBTQ+ rights group Stonewall in the UK, told Euronews. “It’s almost exactly five years since the ban was first promised. It’s very much a wait-and-see moment now.”

Does conversion therapy still exist?

When people think of conversion therapy, they think of the 1950s, de Santos said, when people were kept against their will in institutions where they received electroshock therapy.

“There are many people still alive today in our community who’ve been through that, but it’s really important to understand that conversion therapies are a broader concept, which includes practices hiding almost in plain sight in society,” de Santos explained.

Conversion therapy today takes place in family, religious, and psychiatric settings - and it’s much more common than the stigma around it would suggest.

“We know that 7% of the LGBTQ+ population in the UK has been offered or has undergone conversion therapy, and that goes up to 13% of trans people,” he said, adding that trans people are almost twice as likely to have been offered or have experienced conversion therapy.

De Santos knows many people who have experienced conversion therapy in the UK and abroad. He says the practice has caused significant harm to these people, often breaking the trust they had in their families, traumatising them, forcing them to repress their identity and suppress joy.

“In so many cases, it has a long-term impact on people,” he said. “It leads into a suicidal space. And some people do end up taking their lives.”

Where has a ban already been implemented?

The first European country to ban conversion therapy was Malta, which did so in 2016 -- four years before two other countries, Germany and Albania, dared to follow in the same direction.

Malta, which was named the best European country for LGBTQ+ rights by advocacy group ILGA-Europe in both 2015 and 2023, voted in 2016 to pass a law dictating that anyone who tries to “change, repress or eliminate a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity and/or gender expression” will be fined or even jailed. Fines can reach up to €10,000 and possible jail time up to one year.

Germany banned conversion therapy for minors in 2020 and for non-consenting adults in 2021. Since then, “medical interventions aimed at deliberately changing or suppressing the sexual orientation or self-perceived gender identity of a person, and the advertisement of such therapies” have been forbidden in the country.

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Under German law, the practice can be punished with a prison sentence of up to a year in case a minor is involved, or a fine up to €30,000. Adults who willingly decide to subject themselves to conversion therapy can still legally do so.

Albania also banned conversion therapy in 2020, but only for minors.

In France, conversion therapy was banned in January 2022, when the National Assembly voted unanimously to approve the new law, with a 142-0 vote. Anyone found to practice conversion therapy can be sentenced to up to two years in jail or face a fine of €30,000, which can be increased to €45,000 in case a minor is involved.

In the same year Greece also banned conversion therapy. In May, the country passed an amendment to an already existing law making “treatments or conversion practices” aimed at suppressing someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity was passed for minors only. Consenting adults can legally subject themselves to such a practice.

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Spain banned conversion therapy in any form in February this year, as part of a new legislation package allowing gender self-determination, introducing menstrual leave, and making access to abortion easier.

In May, Cyprus joined the short list of European countries which have already banned conversion therapy, after 36 members of parliament out of a total of 50 voted to pass the new bill into law.

Iceland passed a ban on conversion therapy earlier this month, on June 9. In Portugal, a ban on the controversial practice was approved by Parliament this year, together with other measures protecting LGBTQ+ rights, but it still needs to be signed into law by the country's president to be considered effective.

Why are other countries lagging behind?

Several countries are considering banning conversion therapy, including Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland and the UK. But previous attempts have failed for a number of reasons, often political.

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Last week, Austria’s conservative-Green government was meant to push forward a new bill in the country’s parliament, but the law was blocked due to disagreements around whether trans people should also be protected by a ban on conversion therapy.

Austrian Justice Minister Alma Zadić of the Greens rejected a proposal from conservatives to pass the ban for sexual orientation only, calling it “a sham solution which does not protect all people of the LGBTQ+ community from these ‘pseudo-therapies’.”

Belgium’s State Secretary for Gender Equality, Equal Opportunity and Diversity announced a conversion therapy ban in late 2022, but the ban is yet to formally be introduced.

The Netherlands introduced a bill to ban the practice in February 2022, but it failed to pass, with the Council of State saying it breached the constitutional right to religious freedom and did not consider adults who might voluntarily choose to be subjected to the practice.

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The issue of consenting adults is a sticking point for the UK too, de Santos said. “It would be a waste of parliamentary time to pass a law that includes such a gaping loophole as allowing adults to consent to conversion practices,” he argued.

“What is consent when a practice is abusive? Can you consent to rape, for example? It’s a huge legal grey area,” he added. “We’ve got to make sure that it’s absolutely crystal clear that conversion therapy is simply abusive and has no place at all in society.”

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