Government launches conversion therapy consultation: Sex Matters’ response

A rushed six-week consultation has been launched, with the claim that this will stop under 18 year olds making irreversible decisions. But will the threat of criminal penalties be used to pressurise parents and therapists who don’t take an affirmation approach to gender identity?

The government has launched a rushed six-week consultation on its plan to criminalise “LGBT Conversion Therapy”.

Concerns about the proposal

While the government says it will stop under 18 year olds making irreversible decisions, Sex Matters is concerned that the threat of criminal penalties will be used to pressurise parents and therapists who don’t take an affirmation approach to gender identity, and will put children and families at risk.

It will:

  • create a legal concept of “transgender children” based on self-identification
  • threaten parents and therapists who resist affirming their child’s declared trans identity with criminal sanctions
  • allow Stonewall and other charities to apply for “Conversion Therapy Protection Order”, removing a child’s passport 
  • make charities that work with children afraid to employ gender-critical staff.

Over the past few years there has been an exponential increase in the number of children experiencing gender dysphoria. 

Organisations such as Stonewall, Mermaids, and the Gender Identity Research and Education Society (GIRES) have promoted the idea of “transgender children”, and vociferously opposed the previous therapeutic “watchful waiting” approach to children suffering from gender dysphoria. Such children would typically outgrow these feelings and often develop into gay or lesbian adults. 

These organisations have promoted the idea that gender-nonconforming children are “born in the wrong body” and should be treated with experimental drugs that stop them developing through puberty, leading to sterilisation and loss of adult sexual function. 

They are now trying to criminalise therapies that “seek to change a child’s transgender identity”.

Parents, teachers, youth workers and therapists would be threatened with up to six months’ imprisonment or an unlimited fine if they undertake something classified as a “talking therapy”. The sentence could be handed down by a magistrate‘s court.

While the proposal offers “symmetrical” protection (it would be criminal to try and change a child’s gender identity in either direction), we are not comforted by this. Given the training and ideological capture of schools, NHS bodies, medical and therapeutic professional bodies, police, CPS and judicial guidance it would be more likely to be used to target, frighten and prosecute people undertaking non-affirming approaches to gender identity. It also entrenches the idea that some children are ‘cis’ and some ‘trans’.

The proposal would also enable local authorities, the police, charities, teachers or family members to apply for a “Conversion Therapy Protection Order” to prevent parents travelling abroad with their children. Stonewall would be able to apply to remove a child’s passport.

This legislation has been driven by an ideological campaign, with no evidence underpinning it. 

There is no robust evidence on the prevalence of “conversion therapy”

While gay conversion therapy was an abhorrent practice in the past, there is little evidence that it is now taking place in the UK. Abusive and coercive practices are already illegal in any case.

A survey undertaken by Stonewall, Mermaids, GIRES and the Ozanne Foundation found only 51 individuals who said they had undergone any kind of “gender identity conversion therapy” in their lifetime. Any responses to the survey that the organisations judged to be “transphobic” were simply discarded. 

Sex Matters board member Dr Michael Biggs says:

“This number is surely a slender basis on which to propose new legislation. The category of ‘gender identity conversion therapy’ is so broad that it conflates quite disparate phenomena. On one hand, it includes ‘severe physical and sexual violence’, including rape. These abhorrent acts are already serious crimes, and so new legislation is not required to outlaw them. On the other hand, the label ‘conversion therapy’ is also applied to voluntary counselling by an NHS psychotherapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist.”

No robust evidence on “gender identity conversion therapy” and children

As the proposal notes, the evidence base on the effects of conversion therapy to change a person’s sexual orientation is long-established, extending over 20 years. However this cannot simply be applied to the entirely different phenomena of gender dysphoria and transgender identity.

There is no robust evidence to support the early diagnosis of children as transgender, or to support social transition and treatment with puberty blockers. The case of Keira Bell v Tavistock Clinic revealed this worrying lack of evidence. The government has commissioned Hilary Cass to undertake a review of current models of care for children and young people questioning their gender identity or experiencing gender dysphoria.

The questions around healthcare for children experiencing gender dysphoria are already fraught and politicised. Adding the threat of criminal penalty into the mix will only make it harder for professionals to operate and to put children first. The threat of prosecution will be wielded against gender dissidents.

Maya Forstater, Executive Director of Sex Matters, says:

“Threatening parents and those working with children with imprisonment for disagreeing with what Stonewall, Mermaids and Gendered Intelligence think is best for their children is truly frightening.”

A rushed consultation

The government code of practice on consultations says they should normally last for at least 12 weeks, with consideration given to longer timescales where feasible and sensible. Under normal circumstances, consultations should last for a minimum of 12 weeks.

“Rushing this through after a six-week consultation is another attempt by these organisations to run rings around democracy. They must not be allowed to do this at the expense of the welfare of children.”

Sex Matters calls on the government to withdraw the flawed consultation and proposal, and to wait for the outcome of the Cass review of gender identity services for children and young people. 

Parents, teachers, therapists, lesbian, gay and bisexual people, transsexuals, detransitioners and others with relevant experience and expertise should respond to the consultation and tell the government to “press pause”.