UK conversion therapy ban sparks global row

Pride and joy: Ian McKellen, a pioneer of the LGBTQ+ movement, often leads UK Pride parades. © Twitter

Should gay conversion therapy be classed as torture? Pride Month begins today, kicking off celebrations in cities across the world. But LGBTQ+ people still face persecution everywhere.

In the early hours of Saturday 28 June 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Manhattan. Its patrons fought back, throwing cans and bricks, the violence finally spilling over into six days of rioting.

Many now consider the Stonewall Riots to be the starting point of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement. Every June since, LGBTQ+ people have staged a march in New York. Today, there are annual Pride parades in hundreds of cities around the world.

In 1969, same-sex relations were still criminalised in every US state except Illinois, as well as in much of Europe. In the UK, the law against them had been lifted only two years before.

Today, same-sex marriage is legal in 29 countries. But in many of these countries and around the world, LGBTQ+ people still face discrimination from the law and society at large.

In 2013, Russia banned so-called “gay propaganda” – a law that has been used to intimidate LGBTQ+ groups into silence. In the same year, Uganda started to impose life sentences for same-sex relations. Some US states have passed laws to control which bathrooms transgender people can use – and what sporting events they can participate in.

Now, the UK is tackling what many see as a new frontier in LGBTQ+ rights: conversion therapy. This term refers to a variety of different pseudoscientific “treatments” that practitioners claim can alter people’s sexuality or gender.

In the past, psychiatrists would often torture LGBTQ+ people in an attempt to “cure” them of their sexuality, using electric shocks or drugs to create feelings of aversion towards people of their own sex or to make them conform to the gender they were assigned at birth.

These brutal techniques are still used in some parts of the world, but in the West, gay conversion now mostly takes other forms. Therapists try to identify the “trauma” that makes people gay, non-binary or transgender. They encourage LGBTQ+ people to seek more role models of their own sex and to inhabit traditional gender roles. In some cases, LGBTQ+ people have been forced into heterosexual relationships in an effort to “cure” them.

Most governments recognise that LGBTQ+ conversion therapy is both cruel and unfounded in any science, and have laws discouraging it. Some regions in the USA, Canada, Australia and Spain have legal bans, while there are indirect bans in Argentina, Uruguay, Samoa, Fiji and Nauru. But the UK would be joining only four countries that have so far completely banned the practice: Brazil, Ecuador, Germany and Malta.

Some have criticised Prime Minister Boris Johnson for suggesting that religious leaders could be exempt from the law. This would allow groups to continue teaching LGBTQ+ people that homosexuality is wrong, and to pray to change their sexuality. Critics argue that this is just as repressive as other forms of conversion therapy.

Should gay conversion therapy be classed as torture?

Along for the Pride

Yes, say some. The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims classifies conversion therapy as a form of torture, on grounds that it causes enormous psychological damage to those on whom it is practised. Even if savage methods like electric shocks are not used, conversion therapy is linked with depression and suicidal thoughts. It amounts to a kind of psychological torture.

No, say others. Conversion therapy is extremely cruel, but banning it and calling it a kind of torture raises complicated legal questions. For example, some religious leaders have argued that it would prevent them from teaching young people that they should avoid sexual relationships before marriage, and as such would be a threat to their religious freedom.

You Decide

  1. Does your school celebrate Pride Month? Think of some things you could do to mark the occasion.
  2. Why might religious freedom and individual rights conflict? What should be the balance between them?


  1. Get in a small group and create a poster advertising a local Pride parade.
  2. In a small group, research the Stonewall Riots and create a short presentation about them.

Some People Say...

“Love him and let him love you. Do you think anything else under heaven really matters?”

James Baldwin (1924 – 1987), American writer and activist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that LGBTQ+ people cannot have their sexuality changed artificially. Despite decades of conversion therapy, along with more general social repression, there has never been a single case of a gay, bisexual, transgender or non-binary person being “cured” of their sexuality or preferred sexual identity.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over what some see as the commercialisation of Pride. Some in the LGBTQ+ community have criticised Pride for its association with corporate sponsors. They accuse those sponsors of using the event for “pinkwashing”, trying to improve their image by associating themselves with the cause. But others think that is too cynical. Corporate sponsors help to make Pride a huge event, and can also emphasise the breadth of support for LGBTQ+ rights.

Word Watch

A borough in New York City.
Pride parades
A march in celebration of LGBTQ+ identity. They are sometimes also used to campaign for particular political issues, such as gay marriage.
The US state is regarded as one of the most progressive for LGBTQ+ rights. The annual Pride parade in Chicago attracts up to one million people.
Gay propaganda
The law bans the “promotion of nontraditional sexual relations to minors”. It is understood as a ban on giving children information about LGBTQ+ people’s lives.
In 2016, North Carolina passed the first so-called “bathroom bills” that force transgender people to use only bathrooms corresponding to the gender they were assigned at birth.
Sporting events
Some states have banned transgender women from participating in women’s sporting events, claiming that their higher testosterone levels give them an unfair advantage.
Beliefs and practices that claim to be scientific, while actually having no basis in scientific evidence.
One common homophobic idea is that people become LGBTQ+ because of trauma in early life.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.