Comment: Ban those trying to 'cure' gay teens

Richard Heller is an author and journalist and a former adviser to Denis Healey.
Richard Heller is an author and journalist and a former adviser to Denis Healey.

Any attempt to change the sexual orientation of a child is futile and cruel and abusive – an outright ban is needed.

By Richard Heller

For over ten years the Christian organization Care (not to be confused with the international anti-poverty group of the same name) has supplied interns to MPs of all parties. In 2000 it had a spat with Ben Bradshaw about alleged discrimination against gay MPs, such as himself. But since then the programme has continued without controversy.

Not anymore. In the last two weeks, Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs have fallen over themselves to disavow the organisation of which they had previously been satisfied customers. Care had jointly promoted the controversial "ex-gay" advertisements which were hastily withdrawn by mayor Boris Johnson from London's buses. The MPs in question were also informed that Care had sponsored a conference on so-called "reparative" therapies to convert gay people into straight ones. This conference actually happened in April 2009 and it might seem a bit late for MPs to get angry about it, but they did and they helped to make the murky and generally unpleasant story of gay therapies front page news.


Labour's Chris Bryant, one of the angry MPs, drew attention to the pressures put on gay children to convert. He was right, and I hope other MPs will follow his lead. They should act urgently to protect children from any attempt to induce a child to change his or her sexuality.

One can argue about the merits of gay 'therapies' for adults. I believe that in principle these are wrong, since same-sex attraction is not an affliction, and that in practice they are almost certain to be a waste of money. But adults are presumed capable of making their own decisions and unless a gay conversion practitioner is manifestly fraudulent I do not believe that an adult should be prevented by law from consulting one.

But it is a very different thing to try to change the sexual orientation of a child. I have no direct interest or experience of the issue: I stumbled on it in researching my recent novel. Since it is meant to be a light novel I did not incorporate it into the plot, but my research led me to believe that all such attempts, including attempts by words alone, such as preaching and exhortation, are futile and cruel and abusive. They are based on the Orwellian premise of thought crime. They condemn and punish children not for behaviour but for thoughts and feelings. A child can never give informed consent to any such attempt, and whatever its form or setting it is likely to expose him or her to stress, isolation and mental and physical bullying. Victims typically have little means to resist them or complain about them. I believe that an outright ban is the best way to protect them.

I felt this even more strongly after reading about the experience of gay children who have undergone attempted "conversion therapies" in the United States, including isolation camps where they were starved of food or physically punished for continuing to harbour "inappropriate" feelings. Such 'therapies' seem disturbingly commonplace in the United States and at least one of the ministries that offers them is already active in this country. An early ban is necessary to head off any more of them.

Last year I put all of these arguments repeatedly by letter to Michael Gove, the education secretary, and several of his officials. It took me six months to persuade them that the protection of gay children was any part of their responsibilities! I have made almost no headway since then, except a promise that the government might look at the issue in the context of an ongoing review of children who have been subjected to exorcism. (I do not believe that any child should be exorcised for any reason, but that is another debate). I have had no comment from the department on the general issue: why should any child be forced to undergo any attempt to change his or her sexuality?

However, I made equally little headway writing to the official opposition. After initial interest, Michael Gove's shadow Stephen Twigg passed me to his deputy Kevin Brennan, and he eventually told me that parliamentary procedure prevented him from taking up the issue and I should go through my local MP. I had already done this, without result, and parliamentary procedure says no such thing. I have better hopes from the new shadow children's minister, Catherine McKinnell, since she is one of the MPs who have recently disavowed Care.

I put the issue to the main party candidates for London's Mayor, and to the independent candidate, Siobhan Benita, who has made much of her plans to empower London’s young people. No reply from any of them, except from Boris Johnson who said that it was not part of his responsibilities. However, Boris has never been afraid to talk about all sorts of issues which are not his responsibility and this is one which affects an untold number of London's children.

There is one obvious reason for the hesitancy of politicians to get involved. Many of the pressures on gay children to 'convert' – and almost all of the people who actually attempt to 'convert' them – are religious in origin, and all the parties have become afraid of confronting religious groups.

It is time for politicians to recover their nerve and put the rights of children before the rights of religion. No child should be coerced into 'therapy', still less threatened with hellfire or forced into exorcism, for having feelings.

Richard Heller is an author and journalist and a former adviser to Denis Healey. His would-be light novel is The Network.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.  

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