When Hannah* pulled up to the grand Georgian house, she thought everything was going to be OK. There were inspirational quotes painted across the white walls, and the beds in each room were cosy and welcoming. This residential home was going to be her base for the next six months – and she was joined by 19 other women, all with their own different reasons for being there. Some were self-harming, others had been abused, and then there were those – like Hannah – looking for support for eating disorders. The programme promised to help them navigate their issues and become closer to God. As a Christian, Hannah trusted the faith-based organisation to help her. Their days there were structured: she would complete her chores, go to Bible studies, listen to guest speakers and have one-on-one sessions with the staff to check on her progress. Hannah did everything she was told – she wanted to get better.
But gradually, the staff introduced rules that didn’t seem right. Rules that had nothing to do with why she checked in in the first place. She wasn’t allowed to speak about being gay. Then, her sexuality became the entire focus of her treatment. The staff told her they could smell the demon that lived inside her. External visitors would come in regularly to lay their hands on her womb and pray, telling her that unless she repented by becoming straight, her future children would not exist. Slowly, Hannah began to believe them. Each day, she’d beg God to take away this “repulsive” part of her. She became convinced that her sexuality was a sickness.
It’s been 13 years since Hannah’s stay at Belief House*, but the free six-month programme is still welcoming participants today. Across the UK, what is commonly known as “conversion therapy” – a pseudoscientific practice that aims to change an individual’s sexual orientation – still happens, and it’s totally legal. Many facilities avoid labelling themselves as “conversion therapists”, preferring terms like “reparative therapy” or “ex-gay ministry”. This makes it difficult to know how many exist, but Stonewall’s LGBT In Britain Health Report found that one in 20 LGBT people have been pressured to access services similar to the one Hannah experienced, while one in five trans people have been pressured to access services that suppress their gender identity when accessing healthcare. The practice has been condemned by NHS England, the UN and the British Psychological Society for its harmful effects. In 2018, the government said it planned to ban it. This year, representatives from eight political parties wrote to the Equalities Minister stating that “the longer we wait, the weaker the intention sounds”. So why is this taking so long? And what impact does conversion therapy have on those subjected to it?
Every day, it was drummed into Hannah’s head – by people she trusted – that her sexuality was created by Satan. She was told that because her mother had left when she was young, she’d become “fixated” on women. Now 34, Hannah feels like “a completely different person” from the vulnerable young woman who stepped through those doors. “To be told that who you are is sinful and needs to be corrected is the most damaging, painful and devastating experience,” she tells me. “I felt so full of shame that it stopped me from having a meaningful relationship until very recently, which is a huge cost.”
Like 51% of conversion therapy survivors, Hannah’s experience was conducted by a religious group. This type of conversion therapy involves prayer and “exorcisms” – casting out demons – though many institutions would deny the latter. But the practice also has roots in psychoanalysis – back in the 19th century, homosexuality was seen as a mental disorder that could be treated through shock therapy, chemical castration and lobotomies. These physical treatments aren’t legally used in the UK today, but the “therapeutic” practices are still common.
“Any type of conversion therapy is based on inaccurate and outdated assumptions about gender and sexual orientation,” Marcel Vige, head of equality improvement at the mental health charity Mind, tells me. According to Vige, the idea that non-heterosexual people need to be “fixed” contributes to a “damaging homophobic rhetoric” that only worsens an individual’s mental health. “This,” he says, “is the polar opposite of mental health therapy.”
When Harry’s* parents found text messages on his phone revealing that he was gay, they bundled him into a car and drove him to the home of a man they knew from church. Once there, he was taken into this man’s office and sat down opposite him. It wasn’t long before he was being lectured. “He was telling me that I wasn’t really gay,” Harry recalls. “I was only 14.” The man – a church minister – told Harry that evil spirits were living inside him. Having grown up in a religious household, Harry believed him, and sat in terror as the man put his hand on his chest and tried to “push” the homosexuality out of his body.
“His idea was that if he cast the demon out of me, the gayness went with the demon,” Harry recalls. “It really made me question as a child, ‘Am I actually gay? Or is this something else?’” Because so many LGBTQ+ people already face stigma around their sexuality and are statistically more likely to suffer from poor mental health, those who undergo conversion therapy are often incredibly vulnerable and open to believing that they are “wrong”. For others, like Harry, pressure from loved ones who want them to be “cured” can make them feel as though they have no other option.
When Harry returned home, things calmed down for a while. But two years after the first visit to the minister, he was sent back. “It was after that that I ran away from home. Around that time, [my parents] had done a lot of psychological damage, telling me that they wouldn’t love me again,” Harry, who is now in his early thirties, tells me. “From the outset, it put me into survival mode. I was very destructive, which was just adding more and more trauma… it just all had to break before I could fix it.”
The illusion of choice
Opening the social media account, I am met with smiling faces. Everyone is in a bright yellow t-shirt, a rainbow X proudly emblazoned across each of their chests. It could almost be a charity page, broadcasting all the people they’ve helped. But the X on each shirt is there to show the identity they’ve left behind – X-lesbian, X-trans, X-LGBT supporter.
This page belongs to Core Issues Trust, which describes itself on its website as a “non-profit Christian ministry supporting men and women with homosexual issues who voluntarily seek change in sexual preference and expression”. Core Issues Trust insist that they are not conversion therapists. When I ask why they distance themselves from the term, they say it’s “a pejorative imposed on any individual or organisation that does not accept the normalisation of homosexuality as a viable sexual expression”. The representative went on to say that the organisation “supports LGBT dignity, unlike the LGBT lobby that will not tolerate any viewpoint supporting those wanting to leave homosexual or ‘gay’ patterning.”
According to the Government Equalities Office, organisations disassociating themselves from the term “conversion therapy” and labelling themselves differently is one of the main obstacles when it comes to banning it. A spokesperson said: “Conversion therapy is an abhorrent practice that this government will take action to stop. We have committed to conducting research that looks at the scope of practices and experiences of those subjected to conversion therapy. We will outline plans to end conversion therapy practices in due course.”
There are also some people who hold the view that if a consenting adult wants to try to change their sexuality through one of these programmes then they should be allowed to do that. But in a society where queer people are disowned, attacked and ostracised, can converting to heterosexuality – if it were possible – really be a free choice? Hannah admits that “technically”, she chose to stay at the residential programme after realising what was happening. This is the biggest regret of her life. “I know people struggle to understand why anyone would stay [at the facility], but often it comes after years of the same attitudes and beliefs being taught within families, and in my case, churches. [Conversations similar to] conversion therapy happen within [some] churches every single week, so by the time you end up in a residential programme, this stuff is already embedded.”
Harry was only a child when he experienced conversion therapy – he didn’t have a choice. But his story shows how pressure from loved ones can force people into these practices. “Obviously, as a young person, all I wanted was for my parents to love me. So my mum kind of dangled that, like she would love me if I went and got this thing ‘fixed’.” He also argues that not even his parents had been entirely free in their choice. “They were brainwashed, long before I came along, into thinking that ‘gay’ is wrong and ‘gay’ is demons. I really don’t think that anyone can go into this with an educated mind, even if they are an adult,” he says. “I think these places put out poison. It’s like giving people a problem and saying, ‘We’ll solve it’ at the same time.”
When I found Harry on Instagram, I felt inspired by his commitment to recovery. Describing himself as a “spiritual teacher and healer”, he spends a lot of time walking his dog in the beautiful woods of Northern Ireland. But it took a lot of work for him to get to where he is. “The damage that was done happened at such a developmental age,” he says. “For years, I had night terrors about demons. It took until my twenties before I was actually able to process any of the stuff that was done to me.” Harry began to feel suicidal when he was 27. It was only after hitting this low point that he started healing. He tells me that while seeing a qualified therapist two years ago, he experienced a turning point. “For an adult [the therapist] to acknowledge that what happened to me was wrong… I think it opened it up for me to finally express everything,” he explains. “To let the 14-year-old that was terrified in that room come up in my body and cry and express the emotions that didn’t get to be expressed.”
Time to educate
It’s for this reason that so many psychologists are calling for faster action from the government to make the practice illegal. A number of organisations including the British Psychological Society, the UK Council for Psychotherapy and the National Counselling Society have published a Memorandum of Understanding agreeing that the practice is “unethical and potentially harmful”. It isn’t just psychologists that want the government to move forward with their promise. The Church of England condemned conversion therapy in 2017, and social justice groups such as Humanists UK and Stonewall have long called for it to be banned.
With help from educated, qualified therapists, Hannah and Harry are on the path to self-acceptance and are using their experiences to help others. Hannah is in a happy relationship with another woman and is studying to be a counsellor. “I know the value of good counselling, and also how destructive counselling is when it’s being pushed by people with an agenda,” she says. For Harry, finally being told that how he was treated was wrong had a huge impact on his ability to heal. He now provides one-to-one spiritual mentoring, claiming that if he can find happiness then others can, too.
But with conversion therapy groups often disguising themselves as religious institutions and mental health facilities, LGBTQ+ people and allies worry that the practice will never be stamped out – that as long as queerness is seen as negative, people will continue to provide a “solution”. It is for this reason that Jessica Holden, senior policy officer at Stonewall, thinks education is the answer: “It’s important to make sure that everyone is taught about LGBT identities in school,” she says. “Education has a huge impact in teaching children that lesbian, gay, bi and trans people are a part of normal, everyday life, as well as encouraging children to be accepting of difference from an early age.”
Conversion therapy flourishes when the public is uneducated about LGBTQ+ identities. Hannah’s church, Harry’s parents, the teachers at their schools – if one person along the way had stopped to say that being gay is normal, the damage done to these vulnerable people could have been avoided. We claim that the UK is a progressive country, but under the cheers of Pride parades are a quiet but dangerous minority who make people like me feel abnormal. I’m the same age as Hannah was when she was first sent to Belief House, and thankfully, my experience as an LGBTQ+ person has been one of privilege – no one in my life ever told me directly that my attraction to women was wrong. Despite this, I have still battled with self-hatred and shame about my sexuality my whole life, and I know I’m not alone in that. If I had learnt about queer identities at school, and if the kids around me had learnt that gay wasn’t a negative thing to be, maybe I would have been less terrified of who I was and happier because of it.
Conversion therapy is a symptom of a culture of intolerance where at best we’re afraid to hold hands with our partners in public, and at worst we are disowned by our families, assaulted and made to feel like deviants. The world we live in is tolerant on the surface, but dig a little further and it’s clear that we still have a long way to go.
*Names have been changed
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