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Questions raised on conversion-therapy ban

20 February 2019

Report provides ‘strong evidence’ of the harm caused by attempts to change sexual orientation

Alan Fitzgerald     

Bishop Bayes and Jayne Ozanne

Bishop Bayes and Jayne Ozanne

THE experiences of Christians who have attempted to change their sexual orientation are explored in a new report issued to coincide with the General Synod meeting this week.

The report chronicles suicide attempts, eating disorders, anxiety, and depression. About half of those who participated in the research had first attempted to change their orientation while 18 or younger. A majority reported that the methods used had been “very unhelpful”, and agreed that “sexual orientation change therapy” should be made a criminal offence.

The Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, said that the findings made “hard reading for an institution that believes it is built on the love of Christ”.

“Far too many lives at far too young an age have been traumatised by a hidden inner conflict between their love of God and their innate desire to love another human being,” he writes in a foreword to the report. “This conflict is harsh and potentially deadly.”

The report, The 2018 National Faith and Sexuality Survey Results, was organised by the Ozanne Foundation, a charity established by Jayne Ozanne, an Evangelical LGBT activist and a member of the General Synod. Bishop Bayes is its chair (News, 14 December).

The survey ran online from 12 to 31 December. It attracted 4613 responses, of which 3908 were completed. The results, the report says, provide “strong evidence of the harm that attempts to change sexual orientation can inflict”.

The findings, however, raise questions about how a government ban on conversion therapy might work, given that, for those who had attempted to change their orientation, the most prominent methods were private prayer, “plea bargaining with God”, “deliverance ministry”, and “emotional healing”. Very few had sought help from NHS professionals.

In its 75-point LGBT action plan last year, the Government said that it would “fully consider all legislative and non-legislative options to prohibit promoting, offering, or conducting conversion therapy” (News, 14 July 2017).

On Tuesday, Ms Ozanne said that the survey revealed “a significant safeguarding problem in our churches that needs to be urgently addressed”, and called for bishops to be “proactive in ensuring that the churches under their care are no longer harming children in this manner.”

Andrea King, a safeguarding officer in the Baptist Church, said that the the survey pointed to “an urgent need to ensure that faith leaders and government are working together to address mistreatment of the LBGTQ+ community as a safeguarding issue.”

This went beyond conversion therapy, she said: “As faith leaders we need to critically examine the unintended consequences of the treatment of the LGBTQ+ community, which includes the loss of life through suicide, and how together, in respectful dialogue, we seek to address the harm that is being caused.”

Bishop Bayes described the way forward as “mainly an attitudinal thing”. Those training prayer-ministry teams needed to “ensure that people understand that LGBTI identity and orientation is not a sin. The issue is not that we must never pray with anybody, but what’s the context in which we offer our prayer ministry in this area?”

Forty-five per cent of the respondents to the survey described themselves as heterosexual; 52 per cent defined themselves variously as asexual, bisexual, gay, lesbian, pansexual, queer or same-sex attracted, referred to in the report as “LGBQ+”. There was a fairly even split of men and women. (Women made up 49 per cent of respondents). A total of 57 respondents (1.3 per cent) defined as “same-sex attracted”.

In total, 458 respondents to the survey said that they had actual experience of attempts to change their sexual orientation. 

Of the 368 who volunteered why they had made such an attempt, the most popular response was “because I believed my desires were ‘sinful’” (72 per cent), followed by “because I was ashamed of my desires” (63 per cent). Half selected “I wanted to live as a straight person”, 43 per cent “my friends/family disapproved” and 54 per cent “my religious leader disapproved”. About one quarter selected: “I did not wish to be associated with LGBT people or their lifestyle” and “I wanted to have children with someone of the opposite gender”. Forty-three people said that they had been “given no choice and had to undergo it”.

Asked whom they had talked to for advice, they mainly responded “religious leader” (47 per cent), followed by “no one” (32 per cent). A small number — 12 per cent — had approached an NHS professional.

Asked what form the attempt had taken, “private prayer” was by far the most common response (75 per cent), followed by “plea bargaining with God” (45 per cent), deliverance ministry (44 per cent), and “emotional healing” (43 per cent). Twenty-two people in total said that it had entailed “forced sexual activity” with someone of the opposite gender.

For each method listed, more than half said that it had been “very unhelpful” — with the exception of private professional psychotherapy (48 per cent).

Asked about the result of attempts, 74 per cent said that “it did not work for me and I do not believe it works for others”; 17 per cent said, “it seemed to work for a while but it then wore off.” A total of 13 people said that “it worked completely.”

Asked about the impact of the attempts, the most popular response (59 per cent) was: “I have suffered from mental-health issues.” Just 30 per cent said: “I have gone on to live a happy and fulfilled life.”

The question about specific mental-health issues (“If you have experienced mental-health issues, what form(s) have these taken?”) was only answered by 281 people and skipped by 4332, making it impossible to compare those who had undergone conversion therapy with those who had not.

Of the 281 — understood to be those who had undergone attempts to change their sexual orientation — 69 per cent had experienced suicidal thoughts, one third (32 per cent) had attempted suicide, and 60 per cent had suffered anxiety and depression requiring medication. A total of 40 per cent had self-harmed, and one quarter had experienced an eating disorder.

Most of the survey’s respondents — 3930 — did answer a broader question about health. The report notes that “the weighted average mental and emotional wellbeing of LGBQ+ respondents was significantly lower than heterosexuals and lower still among those who had attempted to change their orientation. The exception was those who defined as “same-sex attracted”, whose scores were on a par with heterosexuals.”

Of the 3955 people who answered a question about what should happen to “sexual-orientation change therapy”, half (51 per cent) said that it should be made a criminal offence, rising to 60 per cent among those who had undergone it.

The report notes that the survey attracted “a higher than average level of white, English and Christian responses compared to the UK census”: 91.7 per cent were white. Almost two-thirds (63 per cent) described themselves as Christians — 41 per cent as Anglicans — and 20 per cent as non-religious.

The Government’s national survey of 108,000 LGBT people found that two per cent had undergone conversion therapy, and a further five per cent had been offered it. It was more common among Black British (13 per cent) and Asian British (14 per cent) respondents than White (seven per cent), and most likely among Muslim respondents: 19 per cent compared with ten per cent of Christian respondents (News, 6 July 2018).

The Ozanne Foundation’s survey was overseen by an advisory board including Dr Jamie Harrison, Chair of the House of Laity, Professor Sir Bernard Silverman, a former president of the Royal Statistical Society, and the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker.

Another member, Martin Pollecoff, who chairs the UK Council of Psychotherapists, said that it was “desperately sad that so few said they had sought help from the medical profession, but instead turned to discredited methods that we know cause significant harm to try and change their sexual orientation. Our aim is to help people come to terms with their sexuality so that they can embrace and celebrate who they are, rather than living in shame and fear.”

A briefing prepared by the Secretary General of the General Synod, William Nye, for the 2017 debate stated that it was “difficult to identify rigorous scientific research into the safety of conversion therapy practices” but concluded that, “unless new and convincing evidence emerges that indicates conversion therapy is both safe and effective and, hence can be practised ethically, it would be imprudent to support it.”

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