Today I will attend the launch of a new Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Conversion Therapy. This agreement is the first time all the major UK psy/therapy organisations have worked together on a collaborative project. It’s a huge achievement for the therapy world in its relationship to gender and sexual diversities. Check out the list of signatories to the document at the end of this blog.
The MoU will be launched at the Department of Health and arose from a meeting last April with health minister Norman Lamb MP who had convened a Round Table of all the psy/therapy professional bodies to discuss whether the government should ban conversion therapy outright. He was very concerned that vulnerable people were being offered what is known to be a potentially very damaging ‘therapy’. The Minister had previously asked UKCP to co-ordinate a Consensus Statement which also was launched at that event.
We all wanted to get beyond just fine words and look at how we can ensure therapists know what to do when someone presents for help over conflicts with their same sex attractions. All the professional therapy organisations already had individual statements condemning conversion therapy and attempts to ‘cure’ same sex attraction and their existing ethical codes are robust enough to deal with infringements by their members who might think this is acceptable.
It was the felt by all attending that making conversion therapy illegal would be impossible to enforce and unhelpful to single out one rogue ‘therapy’ amongst all the other dubious therapies which exist for special treatment would be unhelpful. Conversion therapy as an overt practice is almost exclusively delivered in the UK by a small group of religious fundamentalists (from both Evangelical Christian and Orthodox Jewish groups) who are likely to claim persecution for their religious beliefs. They are a powerful lobbying force but it’s clear to pretty much everyone Conversion Therapy goes against all the existing ethical frameworks for professional therapeutic work and our understanding of best practice.
However, my concern has always been that Conversion Therapy in the UK as practiced by a relatively small number of vociferous religiously motivated ‘therapists’ was more of a red herring. What concerned me more was that research published in 2009 (Bartlett et al) revealed that an alarming 1 in 6 secular professional psy/therapists (members of BACP, UKCP, BPS and the RCPsych) had at some point either practiced to change a client’s same sex attractions or referred a client to a practitioner who would. Much of this harmful practice may be attributed to the historical and existing deficiencies in qualifying training to equip therapists to work in informed, competent and non-discriminatory ways with people from gender and sexual minorities.
So what centrally concerned us, was not to scare therapists off from responding to what are often very distressed clients presenting for help. Expectations, or explicit requests, that therapy will change sexual attraction or gender identity by clients struggling in managing their sexuality conflicts in what can often be experienced as life threatening situations (suicide and self harm rates are much higher amongst LGBT people). Intersectionality issues, such as religious, cultural, socio-economic and body type circumstances also may intensify a client’s anguish and isolation, also presenting further real threat of violence, enforced marriage, “corrective rape”, illegal incarceration and even execution.
If our attempts to inhibit incompetent or abusive therapy result in a therapist saying “I can’t talk to you about this” for fear of disciplinary action and complaint then we have reduced supportive safe spaces for that vulnerable person rather than protected and helped them.
So in the relatively easy step of gaining publicly shared consensus against conversion therapy across the psy/therapy bodies, it is really important that we invest in the harder, less glamorous and more committed work of ensuring therapists are adequately trained and culturally safe and competent. This does not just include knowing that agreeing to requests to change a same sex attracted person into a happy heterosexually oriented one is much more likely to result in harm than success, but also safely holding and supporting the client through this early stage of psycho-education and further in their journey in finding their way to own their sexuality with self-worth and integrity.
Now the work can really begin. In this document the psy/therapy bodies commit to ensure that all therapists are trained to a high level of cultural competence in working with LGB clients so that they know how to respond when a client presents in distress over their sexuality conflicts. It’s not enough to just ban Conversion Therapy, it’s important that therapists feel confident in knowing how to work with requests for change in the wider context of that client’s life.
Very few therapy training courses in the UK adequately prepare therapists for working with LGB people (let alone all the other gender and sexual diversities that will be coming through their door). This document gives a clear mandate that they should be and that the professional associations which regulate therapists will be supporting and monitoring this process.
Therapy is increasingly becoming a highly regulated profession. Although such regulation is a highly contested area, (we might want to reflect for a moment on the licensing of human compassion), and I don’t want to get into the pros and cons of this in this particular blog.
Some people are concerned that therapists should be state licensed and they are worried that anyone can set themselves up as a ‘therapist’ and offer psychological treatment and help. This is true, but it would be virtually impossible to protect every title of support. ‘Counsellor’ for example is being used by so many different trades and businesses, and loopholes would soon be found to get around any protected title that got enshrined in law. We already have several national voluntary Registers which are being regulated by the Professional Standards Authority (PSA) and the major therapy bodies are all well into the process of getting their members on those registers. Furthermore, state licensing does not prevent Doctors from abusing their patients, there is no evidence that it would prevent unethical practice by therapists.
However, the PSA has no interest in addressing the standards of training in psy/professions as they only regulate the voluntary regulators themselves, not their registrants or training organisations. Therefore there remains tremendous discrepancy in how much quality and assessed training a psychotherapist or counsellor on a PSA registered register has actually undertaken. Only the psy/therapy training bodies can step up to ensuring adequate training in working with LGBT clients as a “voluntary duty” and the registering bodies show action consistent with their words by resourcing these developments in competency standards. This is a task we’re actively involved in as the next focus is to ensure therapists are adequately trained!
We felt it was therefore also very important is to raise public awareness that any person being consulted for help should be a member of a professional body which has a complaints procedure and a code of ethics and that the professional has had specific training to undertake the work they’re seeking to do and that they are registered, insured and culturally competent and safe to be undertaking the work.
So far, the working group has focussed on Conversion Therapy as it pertains to sexuality change since this had been the major focus in the United States and the UK and was addressing the brief given to us by the DoH. However, the tragic death of Leelah Alcorn at the end of last year shows how important it is to ensure that we include gender variance in the definitions of what we mean by Conversion Therapies because trans kids are also being sent to therapists for their gender non conforming behaviour. Again, this is largely within fundamentalist Christian families as was the case with Leelah, but some years ago Dr Ken Zucker, a fairly well respected Canadian psychiatrist came under criticism for offering conversion therapy to gender non-conforming children attending his clinic. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenneth_Zucker.
As I understand it, Zucker’s point for trying to discourage gender non-conformity and cross gender play (with all the binary notions that plays into) was that Richard Green and others at the Tavi who did some research some 20-30 years ago on how many kids who expressed gender atypical behaviour in childhood and a desire to change gender, later into adolescence and adulthood didn’t ‘persist’ and ending up identifying as gay.
However, we’re increasingly seeing larger numbers of gender variant young people feeling able to speak out about their gender dysphoria and services and support for gender variant young people are growing all the time. It would be interesting to see if more young people emerge from childhood and adolescence with a secure trans identity wherever they place themselves across the spectrum. My own reading of the situation is, there will be many more ‘persisters’ rather than ‘desisters’ if the environment feels safe enough for them to be themselves, and not all will feel that a full and permanent transition of their gender in necessary. I think we’ll be seeing more non binary and genderqueer identities as gender will be more of a spectrum, than the binary we’ve been seeing it as.
The MoU focused, (at the request of the DoH) on sexuality. However, as psy/therapy bodies we shall be meeting on a regular basis over the next year to review the implementation of the recommendations and I and many others will be working to ensure that gender variance will be included in its implementation and explicitly included.
I’ve worked my entire career to try to raise the standard of culturally competent and safe therapeutic support for gender and sexual diversities. Often it’s felt like a cry in the wilderness, but finally it seems the therapy world is playing catch up and interested to listen to what we have to say and I am hopeful together we can improve the quality of care and support available for all gender and sexual diversities.
Founder – Pink Therapy
Signatories to the Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy include:
Association of Christian Counsellors (ACC), British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychology (BABCP), British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) British Psychoanalytic Council (BPC), British Psychological Society (BPS), Gay and Lesbian Doctors and Dentists (GLADD), National Counselling Society (NCS), NHS England, Project for Advice, Counselling & Education (PACE) Pink Therapy, Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP), Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCPsych), Relate, Stonewall, UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP).