Following a recent controversy over conversion therapy and transgender people, I contacted the Professional Standards Authority for comment. Today I received a reply.
Conversion therapy is a controversial form of psychotherapy which aims to turn gay people straight, or in some cases to revert transgender people to their birth gender. Pretty much all the research evidence suggests it’s ineffective and harmful. Most psychotherapy organisations in Britain have condemned conversion therapy for gay people, but have not done so for transgender people.
The issue was highlighted after Dominic Davies, a BACP fellow, resigned from the organisation after being informed that the BACP would not be revising their Memorandum of Understanding on conversion therapy to include transgender as well as gay people.
The response from the Professional Standards Authority is as follows.
‘It is the Professional Standards Authority’s view that gay reparative or conversion therapy is not compatible with its legal duty under the Equality Act. The Authority is not aware of any therapists on an accredited register offering ‘transgender conversion therapy’ or any accredited register permitting it. If such was brought to our attention we would consider and apply our equality duty in the same way that we did in relation to ‘gay conversion therapy.
The Authority is a statutory body and, therefore, it has to comply with the equality duty (Public Sector Equality Duty or “the general equality duty”) contained in the Equality Act 2010. The duty covers all the protected grounds: age, disability, gender, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion and belief and sexual orientation.
The intention of the general equality duty is to ensure that a public authority must, in the exercise of its functions, have due regard to three main aims:
- eliminate discrimination, harassment, victimisation and any other conduct that is prohibited by or under the Equality Act;
- advance the equality of opportunity between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it; and
- foster good relations between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it.
Having due regard, means consciously thinking about the three aims of the general equality duty as part of the process of decision-making. This means that consideration of equality issues must influence the decisions reached by public bodies and how they develop, evaluate and review policies and guidance.’
On one level it’s reassuring to hear that no cases have been brought to light of therapists on PSA-accredited registers using transgender conversion therapy. Though obviously that doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t happening in the UK, particularly among therapists who aren’t on an accredited register or with a statutory regulator. There have certainly been cases in the United States, most tragically that of Leelah Alcorn, a 17 year old transgender girl who committed suicide after being forced to attend conversion therapy by her parents. Even if no cases come to light in the UK, I think it’s important to maintain a vigilance that this practice doesn’t make its way here from the States.
Although they’ve worded it somewhat tortuously, it seems clear from the PSA statement that transgender conversion therapy would be just as incompatible with their Equality Act obligations as gay conversion therapy
This seems to have triggered a wider debate as to whether or not counsellors, psychotherapists and mental health professionals respond adequately and sensitively to the needs of transgender people. Dominic Davies has stated that, “Those of us closely connected to the Trans and Asexual communities are hearing all the time about how crappy therapists have been, how inappropriately they’ve treated them.”
Karen Pollock, a BACP registered counsellor, has published an open letter to the BACP, citing research on the issue.
Findings by Jane Hunt (2013) found that there was a perception among some trans people that counsellors may not have experience of working with trans people, may try to link any psychological problems to being trans, or may actually express transphobic views.The ScotTrans report, Macneil et al (2012) found that 84% of respondents had contemplated suicide at some point in their life. It also reported that 66% of respondents had sought therapy for issues not related to their gender. Both Hunt (2012) and Macneil recorded many incidences of people being discouraged from seeking therapy by negative experiences directly related to their being trans. Pollock’s research (2015) found that 18% of suicidal trans people were discouraged from seeking counseling due to a fear of a counsellor being transphobic. According to the Transgender Equality Network Ireland report (2013) “Speaking from the Margins”, 40% of trans people were discouraged from seeking crisis support or counselling by previous experiences. Even of those who had positive experiences of counselling it was reported that their therapist was not knowledgeable about trans people and saw being trans as the main issue (even if the respondent did not feel it was.)
The Green Party has also released a statement, calling for conversion therapy to be banned.
In related news, recent research suggests that when transgender young people are allowed to transition, and are supported by their families in doing so, this can lead to good mental health outcomes. Such research gives a good indication of what we (by which I mean society as a whole, not just mental health services and therapists) should be doing rather than trying to “convert” them back to their assigned birth gender.