Notable by its absence in the recent King’s Speech, a bill to finally ban conversion therapy topped the private members’ bill ballot and received its first reading on 20 November, thanks to former Lib Dem Solihull MP Lorely Burt, now Baroness of Solihull. The Conversion Therapy Prohibition (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) Bill will now go through remaining stages for further debate in parliament.
2023 marks the 20th anniversary since the repugnant Act known as Section 28 was repealed in England and Wales. Brought in by Margaret Thatcher, the Act banned local authorities and schools from ‘promoting’ homosexuality. Thankfully the Act is now a nightmare of the past, hopefully consigned to the history books.
However, the current picture is certainly not rosy. In recent years, progress has stalled and even gone backwards. The UK has not only plummeted down international LGBTQ+ equality charts but is now in real danger of losing its Human Rights ‘A’ status at the UN. The UK’s Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is set to undergo a special review and a downgrade could lead to the UK losing its right to sit on the UN Human Rights Council.
The debate around banning conversion therapy adds to this depressing scenario. Theresa May first promised to deliver a ban in 2018, for which she received cross-party support. But the Conservatives have broken this promise, failing to bring forward the legislation five years on.
Marriage equality: hardly a Tory achievement
Much has been made of David Cameron’s return to the cabinet as the new foreign secretary. Forgetting the car crash of Brexit, one of ‘his’ greatest achievements as prime minister is seen to be marriage equality. However, anyone who has read former Lib Dem MP Lynne Featherstone’s book Equal Ever After will know that the road to equality certainly did not always run smoothly, despite Cameron’s (sorry Lord Cameron’s) tacit approval. According to the book, it was Featherstone’s tenacity that finally got marriage equality over the line despite the obstacles she faced from her Conservative coalition partners in government.
Fast forward a few years, and even Monty Python might have struggled to invent a new anti-woke minister for common sense (Esther McVey) created in the recent reshuffle. Somehow escaping the comings and goings was the minister for women and equalities (along with international trade and heaven knows what else), Kemi Badenoch, who is as far from being an LGBTQ+ ally as possible. The departure of Nick Gibb, the long-standing, openly gay schools minister is also a cause for concern. LGBTQ+ ministerial appointments have been few and far between in recent years, and there is now a complete absence of openly LGBTQ+ cabinet members.
Higher thoughts of suicide still prevalent in the LGBTQ+ community
Now celebrated in films like The Imitation Game, commemorated on stamps and even honoured on the current £50 note, Alan Turing undoubtedly plays a special role in British history. As one of our greatest war heroes, not only is he said to have shortened World War II by around two years, but he is also seen as one of the fathers of computing. However, back in the 50s when male homosexuality was still illegal, he cut short his own life after undergoing a form of conversion therapy known as chemical castration. Surely the country should learn from its mistakes and ensure this never happens again.
The harms of conversion therapy are well-documented, with a 2020 academic study finding that people who had undergone conversion therapy were twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts. This is on top of the already-high rates of mental ill health in the LGBTQ+ community. Research carried out in the aftermath of the pandemic showed that young LGBTQ+ people are still three times more likely to self-harm and twice as likely to contemplate suicide as their non-LGBTQ+ peers.
A chink of light?
Baroness of Solihull has been chosen in a private members’ ballot to introduce a bill to ban conversion therapy. Anyone who knows Burt knows full well she shares the same tenacity as Lady Featherstone and will certainly not give up at the first, second or third hurdle.
She told Central Bylines:
“I had a feeling banning it would be missed out from the government’s programme. I really can’t understand why it has taken this long to ban conversion therapy which is clearly wrong at every level. Not banning it gives a signal that it isn’t okay to be LGBTQ+ which in this day and age is ridiculous. If we want to lead the world in being an open and tolerant country, then we should get on with it, but the government seems to be doing all it can to push us backwards. Although it would be nice not to be dropping down the equality index, it’s more to do with humanity and allow everyone to live their best life. I’m delighted that the bill has been chosen and sincerely hope that the government will allow it through.”
So what’s next?
Burt’s bill will finally ban all conversion therapy practices across the UK – making it an offence for any person to practise, or offer to practise, conversion therapy. To prosecute, police will have to demonstrate both action and motivation with a predetermined goal to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
The bill is due to receive its second reading in the House of Lords in early 2024, where peers will have the opportunity to debate it in detail. Once approved in the House of Lords, the bill will be passed to colleagues in the Commons where government support will be essential to its success. Lady Burt urges readers to get in touch with their MPs to ask them to back the bill when the time comes.
To be sure, the bill’s journey through parliament is just beginning. But Lady Burt is determined to do everything in her power to deliver the change that the LGBTQ+ community deserves.