As the British government’s long-promised conversion therapy ban hit yet another roadblock this week, a young person is speaking out about their experience of the harmful practice – and why it shows the proposed ban doesn’t go far enough.
E, a young non-binary lesbian in Derbyshire, was subjected to regular religious conversion therapy attempts by people at their church, their reverend and their parents, both when they came out as a lesbian and later when they came out as non-binary.
“No one was violent towards me, in fact, they came across loving and concerned,” E says. “That is what made it harder for me to realise it was wrong… as it actually did feel like they had my best interests at heart and were trying to help me be a better Christian.”
“I consider myself lucky but despite that I am still traumatised,” E says. “I struggle to maintain relationships as I have huge trust issues. I find physical intimacy so difficult as it just comes with a sense of guilt and shame that has been instilled in me.”
E adds: “I have been in therapy for the last six months which has helped a tremendous amount but the emotional scars will always be there.”
Non-binary survivor of conversion therapy ‘didn’t know what was happening’
E had “no idea” at the time that what was happening to them – a series of concerted attempts by the church to make them straight and cisgender, including the reverend setting his son the task of “courting” E – was a form of conversion therapy.
“I didn’t even know there was a name for what was happening,” E says. “It felt wrong but everyone I asked in the community, my parents, or online backed up what was happening. It sadly just felt the norm… like this is just what happens.”
It wasn’t until E’s girlfriend at the time told them that the abuse they were experiencing “wasn’t normal” and was “not OK” that E began to question what was happening to them.
Around two per cent of LGBT+ Britons have undergone conversion therapy, also known as reparative therapy, according to 2018 findings by the Government Equalities Office. Five per cent have been offered it in the past.
E was a member of an Evangelical Christian group from when they were six until they were 17 – along with the rest of their family.
When they came out as a lesbian, aged 13, E was “repeatedly approached by members of the church who told me I was confused and that they would always love me as a child of God as long as I didn’t act on my attraction to women”.
E didn’t tell their church or their family that they had a girlfriend, because they were being told that “lesbianism was a phase” and that their attraction to women “had been caused by the death of my grandma who was a strong female role model in my life”.
“My parents said I was just projecting my loss and trying to find a woman to replace her,” E says. Later on, the reverend sent his son to “become friends” with E. He was four years older than E, and quickly confessed – after asking if E was gay – that he’d been told to “spend time with me and convince me that I wasn’t gay” but that “he felt awkward about it”.
“I was so upset and confided in my parents who denied it being an issue and said the reverend was looking after my best interests and that I should get to know his son better,” E remembers. “We spent some time together at church events but it always felt awkward. One day he said, ‘My dad wants to know if you have ever kissed a boy?'”
E’s girlfriend was increasingly uncomfortable with what was happening and told E they would have to break up with them if they kept going to church. E stopped for a few months, but then returned due to parental pressure. Their anxiety was made worse when several members of the congregation came up to them after a service saying: “I hear you are courting the reverend’s son.”
“It felt like everyone in the whole church was in on whatever was happening,” E says. “This heightened my anxiety and I began to self-harm. I broke up with my girlfriend and stopped dating altogether.”
During lockdown, E realised they were non-binary and came out to their parents–– who went to the church for help.
“We had a new reverend at this point and he actually came to our house,” E says. “He told me that there must be a reason that I was rejecting God and tried to encourage me to confess that I had been sexually abused (which I hadn’t) as he felt that was the root cause my gender/sexual diversity.
“He said he was going to pray for me and gave me a Bible that he had written in, ‘To help you find the right path back to God.'”
As it stands, the government’s proposed ban has a loophole for religious conversion therapy attempts like this one – an exemption that means efforts to “pray the gay away” will not be criminalised.
Faith-based conversion therapy – anything from what E was forced through to troubling exorcisms – is the most common form of the practice. Fifty-one per cent of people who have endured conversion therapy had it conducted by faith groups, according to the government’s 2018 National LGBT Survey.
E is now in therapy and being supported by Mermaids, a charity that supports young trans people and their families. While they process what happened to them, E is aware that the government is planning to bring in a ban on conversion therapy.
But would it have helped them? “I am not fully sure the ban would have covered what happened to me,” E says. “It was all just conversations and religious material. Plus my parents were not preventing it and at some points actively encouraging the home visits from the clergy.”
What could have been different, E says, is that an explicit ban on trying to persuade or convince LGBT+ people that they are not LGBT+ would have “given me the confidence to say ‘this is wrong'” and could have meant they sought help outside the church.
“That’s the hardest part for young people,” they say. “If the church is so embedded in your life and is your main community other than school, it’s so difficult to realise what is happening isn’t OK.
“The ban would have changed things for me because I would feel that if I reached out for help, I would be taken seriously. You have no idea how much control this church can have. I honestly feel like I was brainwashed for years.”
The Tories this week have delayed a public consultation on banning conversion therapy, extending the consultation by another six weeks to give more people the opportunity to respond.
Asked what they would say to people who are yet to fill in the consultation, E says: “This ban needs to be in place as conversion therapy is abuse. The evidence speaks for itself… conversion therapy damages people.
“Being LGBT+ isn’t something that should ever try and be cured or prevented.”