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The silent treatment

Physical “conversion therapy” is already illegal, so any new sanctions will be aimed at criminalising conversations

The government is currently consulting on banning so-called “conversion therapy”. I use scare quotes because it is not clear exactly what constitutes “conversion therapy” since the term is not defined in the consultation document.

Many might associate “conversion therapy” with the abusive and harmful practices sometimes portrayed in the media. In fact, the government has rightly concluded that all physical acts done in the name of “conversion therapy” are already illegal. It therefore does not plan to introduce any new offences in relation to physical acts. This means that what new offences it does intend to introduce, will be aimed at criminalising certain conversations. Anyone who cares about free speech should immediately be alarmed at this prospect.

Someone challenging a child’s transgender identity would risk criminal sanctions

It is clear that conversations aimed at helping someone change sexual orientation or gender identity are the kinds of conversations that the government intends to outlaw. The government proposes that adults be required to sign a consent form to have such a conversation. Vulnerable adults, or those under 18, will not be able to consent to any such conversation. Anyone engaging in such a conversation without formal consent will risk criminal sanctions.

What will you do then if a seventeen-year-old man confides with you that he is struggling with his sexuality? Perhaps he has been led into a homosexual relationship, or perhaps he has been abused. Perhaps he is just lonely and desperate for someone who will love and appreciate him. Which of us has not struggled with the subject of sexuality at some point? It is not unusual for teenagers to feel stress and anxiety about sexual identity or gender identity.

If a “conversion therapy” ban was in place, you would risk criminal sanctions for entering into such a conversation with an open mind and frankly discussing the issues. No seventeen-year-old could consent to such a conversation. If he or she takes offence or becomes resentful at something you say, you could find yourself being prosecuted. If it is an adult who wants to talk about sexual identity issues, you would be well-advised to get them to sign a robust consent form before engaging in such a conversation. Otherwise, you could be accused of engaging in “conversion therapy” and prosecuted.

Most seriously, the government proposals mean that someone challenging a child’s transgender identity would risk criminal sanctions. This would create a legal concept of a transgender child whose acquired identity cannot be challenged. Children cannot consent to therapy, even if they desperately want it. If they confide that they want to discuss this with, say, a youth worker, that youth worker could face prosecution for having the conversation.

Fewer therapists will want to take the risk of helping LGBTQ identifying people

Anyone brave enough to offer to help people struggling with sexual or gender identity issues will place themselves at risk of sting operations by activists. Several professional therapists have experienced such sting operations by activists pretending to sincerely want a conversation about their struggles. The activist then recorded the private conversation and accused the therapist of engaging in “conversion therapy”, resulting in the therapist losing professional accreditation.

With a “conversion therapy” ban in law, activists will not just target professional therapists. Youth workers, pastors, teachers, social workers or carers could all be victims of deceitful sting operations. Is this the kind of society we want, where people are afraid of informants reporting their private conversations? Or where we need to have a government consent form signed for certain types of conversations?

A “conversion therapy” ban would make it dangerous to engage in certain conversations with LGBTQ identifying people. LGBTQ identifying people will therefore become high risk clients for therapists. What if therapy for depression resulted in reduced same-sex attraction? Therapists will naturally want to avoid any possible risk of prosecution by a disgruntled client. Even the allegation of “conversion therapy” could harm their reputation. What this means then, is that all LGBTQ identifying people will be disadvantaged as fewer therapists will want to take the risk of helping them.

The fact is that any new law introduced to ban “conversion therapy” will necessarily harm free speech. Having certain conversations will require a formal consent form to be signed. People will not be free to discuss what they really think and explore all their options. There will be a chilling effect which will make people very reluctant to engage in conversations about sexual or gender identity. Sadly, the very people that such a law is intended to help will be the ones most harmed by it.

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