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Content warning: This article contains reference to abuse. Please visit mermaidsuk.org.uk/ct-support if you need to talk to someone.

I was 19 at the time of my conversion therapy experience. I was having a same-sex relationship with another member of my church congregation, and we had been found out by a senior leader in the church. My whole world was thrown upside down. 

Before that day, I was a respected member of the church. I had a job as the church youth worker, I was a respected Sunday worship leader, and was living with the Vicar’s family. Young people in the church looked up to me and older people looked at me and saw potential. I was considered a “rising star” of our community. All until the day my dark secret was uncovered. 

“I begged God to save me from my queer thoughts”

The discovery at the time of my same-sex relationship was terrifying. I was facing losing almost everyone and everything in my life. I didn’t realise, but my involvement in this modern evangelical Christian church between the ages of 17-20 led me to be somewhat isolated from my family. My housing, employment and education were all tied to the church. 

I also knew I was trans at this point, but like many young trans people, I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what I was feeling. I didn’t dare voice out loud that I was also battling with confusion over my gender for fear of further ostracisation. 

It was due to sheer fear of losing the community I was part of that for months, I agreed to attend therapy sessions. I experienced exorcisms and went on retreats to “healing” camps with other LGBTQ+ Christians, arranged by the church, and spent hours of my day in private prayers of repentance. Regularly, I begged God to save me from my queer thoughts and take away the feelings of gender dysphoria. 

Desperately searching for answers, many people around me were quick to conclude that my sexuality resulted from “demons” I was exposed to due to the trauma of being adopted as a child. 

Rebuilding my life

Eventually, after months of isolation and abuse and being no further forward in being “healed” of homosexuality, I left. I got a place through clearing at University and used my student loans to rent a new house. I cut ties almost overnight with everyone from the church, joined the LGBTQ+ student society and started rebuilding my life. 

It has taken me over a decade to heal. Part of that has been recognising that what I went through was conversion therapy and allowing myself to accept that I was a victim. 

No one used the words “conversion therapy” at the time and the people in my church weren’t evil masterminds. They were my friends and my peers. What I experienced was something no young adult should have to endure. Still, at the time, I was led to believe the people around me were acting out of love. I trusted their actions. 

Years later, I spoke to a police officer about my experience. It was made clear that I had no grounds for a report. This was because I was over 18 at the time, and technically I was a consenting adult with capacity.   

“Subtle and insidious”

It is a myth that conversion therapy happens at the hands of organised criminals and huge faith organisations. More regularly, it happens in small communities where it is subtle and insidious. For conversion therapy to occur, most perpetrators deliberately blur the lines between consent and coercion, making victims believe what is happing to them is by their own free will. 

The UK Government has been promising action on conversion therapy for years and is currently conducting a consultation on what changes to the law might look like. 

But the consultation suggests that any proposed ban will include exemptions allowing for conversion therapy to legally occur when recipients are over 18 and can “consent”. This means that instances like mine, where I was coerced to agree to my conversion therapy, would remain legal, and perpetrators would be protected by law. 

Conversion therapy, at its core, sends a message that LGBTQ+ people are fundamentally “wrong”. It teaches that those who choose to live their lives authentically should feel shame and fear. 

The Government’s consultation on a ban on conversion therapy, which is open until 4 February, is an opportunity for LGBTQ+ people to send a clear message that conversion therapy must be stopped in all its forms. 

If you’ve been affected by the issues in this piece and would like to speak to someone, you can contact our helpline or the dedicated conversion therapy helpline run by experienced LGBTQIA+ staff. The helpline is open to all LGBTQIA+ people in the UK who are victims of so-called “conversion therapy”, or who think they might be at risk. The service is run by LGBTQIA+ anti-abuse charity Galop, which works directly with thousands of LGBTQIA+ people who have experienced abuse and violence every year.

Louie Stafford (they/he) is a trans activist, educator, speaker, and facilitator. They are the founder of Learnest, a UK social enterprise supporting trans, non-binary and LGB people to access safe and affirming employment opportunities. Learnest offers free mentoring and employment advocacy for LGBTQ+ people. 

A group of senior human rights experts have joined with parliamentarians and civil society leaders to launch The Cooper Report, which recommends to government how to ban the harmful and degrading practices of “conversion therapy” while urging swift and immediate action to avoid further lives being damaged and lost. 

The Forum, chaired by Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, was launched in June 2021 and brings together some of the most experienced legal minds in the country including highly respected legal academics, influential barristers, international human rights lawyers together with senior parliamentarians and civil society leaders. 

The Cooper Report, named after the renowned human rights barrister Jonathan Cooper OBE who died while helping to produce the report, recommends a twin-pronged approach that utilises both the criminal and civil law. It deals with the challenging issues of religious conversion practices and explains why the ban cannot create an exemption for “consenting” adults. 

Speaking about the rationale for this approach Baroness Helena Kennedy QC explained: “We see criminalisation as essential when dealing with human rights abuses, as this draws a clear line as to what acts will and will not be tolerated in a civilised society.

This should sit alongside new civil law measures, such as protection orders, which will help provide immediate support to those most at risk – such as LGBT+ children and vulnerable adults. This will ensure that perpetrators are left in no doubt that if they continue their harmful practices, they will face the full force of the law.” 

How should the government define “conversion therapy”?

The report deals with the vexed question of how the government should define “conversion therapy” and recommends that the term “conversion practices” be used, as the practices involved are far from therapeutic and often occur in a religious or cultural setting, not just a medical one. 

Jayne Ozanne, the convenor of the Forum and whose Foundation had commissioned the report, said: “Whilst there have been many who have sought to muddy the water and question whether it is possible to define ‘conversion therapy’, the Forum is clear that it should relate to ‘any practice that attempts to suppress, ‘cure’ or change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity’.” 

Robin Allen QC, Head of Cloisters Chambers (2002-2018) and one of the foremost human rights lawyers in Britain today, explained the significance of the report: “All conversion practices, by denying the right freely to explore and determine one’s personal identity, undermine human dignity and can cause terrible lasting damage.

The Cooper Report makes the case for sensible and proportionate legislation by the state to outlaw them through civil and criminal remedies. It has been a privilege to work with the Foundation on this issue.” 

The report recommends that acts of prayer that are directed at a specific individual or group of individuals with a predetermined purpose of seeking to suppress, “cure” or change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity must be banned. It also sets out why there can be no loopholes to allow those who insist they have consented to the harmful and degrading practices. 

Professor Nick Grief, Emeritus Professor of Law at the University of Kent, says: “The freedom to manifest one’s religious or spiritual belief is not an absolute right. States are obliged to restrict these practices in ways that are necessary, justified and proportionate in order to protect individuals from degrading or other ill-treatment.

We are recommending that any religious practice that is directed at an individual or group of individuals with a predetermined purpose of attempting to suppress, ‘cure’ or change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity be banned.” 

Crispin Blunt MP, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Global LGBT+ Rights expressed his concern about the latest delay in delivering a ban.

“The Forum has shown that it is necessary to bring forward legislation to ban conversion practices in the UK. The continued delay casts doubt over the Government’s good intentions and Global Britain’s leadership on LGBT rights. These recommendations can and should be implemented without delay, for whilst we wait countless lives are being impacted as it implies the UK thinks it is alright to try and ‘fix’ anyone’s sexuality and gender identity. 

“This distinguished Legal Forum, reinforced by cross party consensus from politicians closely engaged on this issue, have delivered a recommended solution that can bring immediate protection to those threatened by conversion practices and prosecution of perpetrators if necessary. Further government prevarication is no longer defensible.”

Nancy Kelley, CEO of Stonewall added: “As long as this barbaric practice is legal in the UK, LGBTQIA+ people remain at risk of abuse and lifelong harm. It has been more than three years since the Government committed to ban conversion therapy, and now the Cooper report has laid out how this can be done. There the Government must take these recommendations on board and publish their consultation without further delay.” 

The report is available online and will be submitted to the government for their consideration. 

Notes for editors

1. The full report can be read at ozanne.foundation/cooper_report  

2. The Ozanne Foundation commissioned the report over the summer, after convening the Ban Conversion Therapy Legal Forum in July 2021. 

3. The 18 signatories to the report are: Lawyers Baroness Helena Kennedy QC (Chair) Robin Allen QC (former Head of Cloisters) Robin Dormer (Retired Parliamentary Counsel) Revd Dr Helen Hall (Associate Professor in Law, Nottingham Trent University) Professor Javier Garcia Oliva (Professor in Law, University of Manchester) Professor Nick Grief (Emeritus Professor of Law, University of Kent) Dr Craig Purshouse (Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Liverpool) Dr Ilias Trispiotis (Associate Professor in Human Rights Law, University of Leeds) MPs/Peers Baroness Liz Barker (Liberal Democrats) Crispin Blunt MP (Chair of APPG on Global LGBT+ Rights) Angela Eagle MP (Labour) Wera Hobhouse MP (Liberal Democrats Spokesperson for Women and Equalities) Civil Society Susie Green (CEO, Mermaids) Nancy Kelley (CEO, Stonewall) Paul Martin (CEO, LGBT Foundation) Leni Morris (CEO, Gallop) Jayne Ozanne (Director, Ozanne Foundation) Peter Tatchell (Director, Peter Tatchell Foundation) 

4. The report is dedicated to Jonathan Cooper OBE who died suddenly while helping produce it. 

5. The report is launched just as the Government has announced a delay to the publication of its public consultation on conversion practices, which it committed to ban in the Queen’s Speech earlier this year.

6. For more details please contact Jayne Ozanne or [email protected].