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Angela Tilby: Conversion-therapy ban is a muddle

08 April 2022

Mark Kerrison/Alamy Live News

People take part in the Reclaim Pride march in London last year

People take part in the Reclaim Pride march in London last year

THE muddle that the Government has got itself into over the banning of conversion therapy reflects a wider misunderstanding of the issues involved. The conversation therapy sometimes urged on gay people by conservative Christians is a very different matter from the kind of listening and exploratory counselling that surely should be the norm for pre-pubescents wanting to change gender.

The recent Cass report on NHS gender services suggests that the gender-identity service at the Tavistock Clinic, in London has been operating “beyond normal controls”, especially in prescribing life-changing hormones to pre-pubescent girls presenting with gender dysphoria. A study by Lisa Littman, of Brown University, is one of several to show that, among American adolescents, trans services are being accessed far more often by teenage girls than boys, because of what she terms “peer” or “social contagion”. That is controversial, but the trend is the same here.

I can’t help but reflect that things were very different in my childhood. I was a tomboy; I played endlessly at cowboys and knights in armour. But nobody thought this particularly odd. After I had rejected my father’s beautiful hand-crafted dolls’ house, he simply made me a magnificent ranch house for my collection of plastic cowboys.

I cannot bear to think of what might have happened if my parents or a sympathetic teacher had asked me if I thought I was really a boy. They didn’t. But, of course, the point was that I simply had no concept of what it might mean to be “really” a boy. The experience of being “born in the wrong body” was not unknown, but it was exceptional. I didn’t hate my body. I was rather fascinated when it began to change at puberty. And, since then, I, myself, and me have got on reasonably well together.

I am not, of course, suggesting that today’s gender dysphoria is comparable to my tomboy preferences. In fact, I think that today’s children face far greater pressures: from the internet, from consumerism, and also from the fact that campaigning groups have given them a pre-formed language of distress. This is even more reason to allow adolescents space and support to work out what their birth bodies might mean. An over-hasty or ideologically driven process does not always bring peace or freedom, as those such as Keira Bell discovered. She recently detransitioned and sued the Tavistock on the grounds that she was too young, at 16, to give consent to the hormones that would lead to a double mastectomy.

I find it a sad reflection on our own society that children seem less free to experiment with who they are without censure than they were in the days of Enid Blyton, whose “George” character in the Famous Five was my childhood inspiration.

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