A number of key bodies in mental health recently signed up to a memorandum of understanding on so-called conversion or reparative therapies, which aim to turn gay people straight. The Royal College of Psychiatrists, UK Council for Psychotherapy, British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy and the Department of Health all (rightly, in my view) condemned such “therapy” as unethical and harmful. They do nothing to “convert” people who don’t need converting, and only serve to deepen human misery and potentially drive people to suicide.
I fully support this memorandum, but it needs to go further. It should be expanded to also condemn therapies aimed at converting transgender people back to their birth gender.
Yesterday the Liberal Democrat conference passed an amendment calling for the memorandum to include trans conversion therapy. Transgender civil rights activist Sarah Brown spoke at the conference. This is what she had to say.
Studies show that when transgender people express a need to undergo gender transition, if they are not able to then 50% will try to kill themselves.
Conversion therapy does not work. This is not opinion, this is established fact. If you try to talk a transgender person out of changing gender, there is a better than evens chance they will try to kill themselves. This is not opinion, this is established fact.
If you subject a transgender person to conversion therapy, you might as well drive them to Beachy Head and tell them to jump. Conversion therapy kills transgender people.
Brown’s comment about conversion therapy killing people is not mere rhetoric. Recently the case of Leelah Alcorn was highlighted on social media. She was a transgender teenager whose parents sent her to religiously-motivated conversion therapists, who tried to persuade her to revert to her birth gender. On 28th December 2014 she died after throwing herself into the path of an oncoming truck.
Leelah Alcorn should not have died. She should have been supported and allowed to explore her gender identity in her own time and, if she wished, to eventually transition. The therapists involved should have refused her parents’ requests to intervene against Leelah’s wishes. They should have told them to go home and listen to their child. Instead, they acted totally unethically, and appear to have contributed to a suicide. They also flouted one of the cardinal principles of psychotherapy – that it’s supposed to be guided not by your own values, but those of the client.
Transgender people are a marginalised and vulnerable demographic. In the United States, the National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that not only did transgender people experience highly elevated risk of suicide. They also found that 57% had been ostracised by their familes, 69% had been homeless, and 60% had experienced a doctor or other healthcare professional refuse to treat them.
This needs to change. In February 2015 the gay rights charity Stonewall expanded its remit to also campaign for trans equality. I hope that the signatories to the memorandum of understanding will do the same.
If you’re affected by these issues, there’s a list of relevant helplines here.