Image by David Scullion
Artillery Row

The liberal contradiction

Is banning gay conversion compatible with letting children change their gender?

People, even authors whose trade is carefully-chosen words, often say things in the heat of argument that they later regret. Criticising the offer of gender reassignment to children by comparing it to gay conversion therapy, which JK Rowling did last week, was one suspects little more than an exaggeration by someone exasperated with the humourless zealots who had been piling onto her for a couple of weeks before that on account of her less-than-woke views on gender. It certainly didn’t merit the perfect storm of anti-TERF abuse she received as a result.

Yet there is a serious point waiting to get out here, even if JK didn’t mean to make it. There is actually a lot in common between gender reassignment and conversion therapy. Both raise very delicate moral issues. Both engender high emotions; both rest on less than rock-solid foundations (though to be fair the latter is the more redolent of snake oil); and both, when misapplied, have a potential for frightful consequences. Most important of all, the similarity of the social and ethical arguments applying to both is in stark contrast to the different treatment they receive, and tells us a great deal about the way the progressive establishment thinks.

Each gets diametrically different treatment. With conversion therapy, the establishment is in complete agreement, as indeed is the human rights and equality freemasonry that circulates around the UN (whose official rapporteur last month called for a worldwide ban) and organisations such as the Council of Europe. Quite simply, it is a diabolical invention that must be expunged from the face of the earth; it has no redeeming features and must be entirely forbidden, full stop. Whether the process works or not doesn’t matter: nor whether the person receiving it is an adult or an adolescent, or whether if an adult they have consented to receive it or even requested it. This view is gaining traction. At least four US states have already banned it outright; and Canada, together with three Australian jurisdictions, is presently mulling doing the same. Social media have sensed the way the wind is blowing: Facebook and Instagram have already banned any material supporting the practice. A couple of years ago the UK government committed to “end the practice” in its LGBT action plan, though more recently to her credit Kemi Badenoch, the Equalities Minister did backtrack somewhat, saying this was a “very complex issue” (which is indubitably correct).

Things couldn’t be more different with gender reassignment. Here the advanced view is that it should go ahead, with relatively few controls and no specific protections for children. In essence it should be regarded as simply another medical procedure. A few have dared to question this view: there is a judicial review currently under way aiming to establish that protections for adolescents are inadequate, and the government seems tentatively to think the same way. But any such scepticism is invariably dismissed with assertions that any approach other than providing this therapy to anyone who asks for it will lead to psychosis, suicide or worse, or even that it would amount to inhuman or degrading treatment under the European Convention on Human Rights.

The first point to make is the obvious one: these approaches are mutually inconsistent. If an adult should be able to make an informed choice to receive gender reassignment therapy on the basis of their feeling that they might have been born in the wrong body, then however distasteful this may seem the same should apply to gay conversion therapy. If an adult feels strongly that they want to change their sexuality and wants to undergo such therapy even after being warned that it will be unpleasant and probably won’t work. Treatment with possible long-term psychological and other effects either should or should not be available to those under 18: to say it should be available for some therapies but totally prohibited for others makes no sense.

What is even more striking, however, is the openly illiberal trend inherent in both approaches. With any treatment carrying a potential for long-term effects, the liberal view can be summed up in three propositions. First, within reason adults should be trusted with autonomy. If they choose a given treatment or refuse it, albeit foolishly, we should respect their choice. Nor should we lightly introduce backdoor bans, for instance by subjecting those providing the treatment to professional sanctions. Secondly, subject to tightly-drawn exceptions, children and adolescents should not be given potentially harmful treatment even if they want it, or even sincerely think they need it; nor should they be pressurised at school or in other institutions into asking for it. Thirdly, discussion of such matters and their ethical implications should be free and unfettered in order to allow the rest of us to make up our minds.

The new establishment approach fails all three tests. By calling for conversion therapy to be banned outright (tellingly, a proposal in Queensland for a defence of consent by the patient has been roundly condemned), it explicitly sets at naught adults’ rights to choose for themselves what treatment they wish to have, and to take decisions as to their own sexuality. Instead it prefers to act on the basis of some more abstract (and incidentally unprovable) proposition, such as that it must be wrong to allow any practice founded on the idea that being gay is abnormal, or that the dignity of gay people must not be compromised; and it then goes on from there to the conclusion that this must be something to be decided not by the individual, but by the state and those who know best what is good for the rest of us.

Daniel Radcliffe thinks public debate should only be allowed to proceed if experts agree

Similarly, by demanding that gender reassignment treatment be made available to adolescents it potentially takes away the protection we give to such people against potentially harmful decisions: instead the matter is left to the decision of insiders, with or without a certain amount of suggestion and pressure.

Lastly, there is about all this an unsavoury whiff of a disinclination to argue and a desire to suppress debate by others. It is all too common to find peremptory statements that, for example, the desirability of allowing gender reassignment, or prohibiting conversion therapy, is one on which debate is closed. Even more interesting is the reason given by Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe for his attacks on JK for her views on gender: not only was she wrong, but (he continued) “Any statement to the contrary erases the identity and dignity of transgender people and goes against all advice given by professional health care associations.” In other words, public debate should only be allowed to proceed in so far as experts agreed to allow it.

Does all this matter? I suggest it does. One reason I have already explored. It is worrying enough that in charge of many of our institutions there is a class of people of large influence and little respect for those outside it, for whom liberal principles and individual autonomy count for very little, and who instinctively lean towards the authoritarianism of abstract slogans like “trans women are women,” or “no-one should be told their identity is something that can be cured.” Another reason is that this authoritarian virus is not inherently limited to sexuality matters. It could easily spread to other treatments. Think for example cosmetic treatments such as Botox, liposuction or facelifts. All could be asserted to be undesirable practices dependent on unacceptable beliefs such as fat-shaming or outdated views of female attractiveness, and hence on the same logic ripe for transfer from the realm of individual choice to state discouragement.

But there is third cause to worry. At a pinch we can ignore the shouts of a vociferous cabal of the entitled telling us that they know best about sexuality and they’d prefer the rest of us to shut up about it. Unfortunately, however, the threats created by this group to the freedom of the rest of us to disagree publicly with them are spreading and becoming more tangible. Last year, for instance, there were protests by parents about gender teaching in a primary school in Birmingham. These were quickly banned by the courts, who smartly rejected arguments based on freedom of speech and instead preferred to regard them as simply misguided efforts to disrupt ordinary schooling. Again, if you look at proposals for the banning of conversion therapy, you will see something similar. Such measures, and the demands of those putting them forward, are generally not limited to clinical or medical matters. Instead they refer expansively to practices as a whole undertaken with this aim. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that this would potentially catch a great deal of advocacy by groups who did not agree with the establishment view, and of course a great deal of religious teaching, preaching and interaction.

Of course it will be protested that any restrictions should take account of freedom of speech or religion. Nevertheless one strongly suspects a not-very-well hidden hope in the new establishment that such freedoms will not count for much, and that in practice they will be able to harness the power of the law to silence those who disagree with them. Indeed as good progressives they will probably think that that would be a thoroughly good thing. Now there is a frightening thought.

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