Despite the stereotypes, the practice of gay cures is surprisingly prevalent in the UK. The first major mainstream media coverage of the practice came in 2010, when Patrick Strudwick conducted an undercover investigation into gay conversion in Britain. He received treatment for being gay from a number of psychotherapists, one of whom, Lesley Pilkington, was then a member of a professional body, the British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists (BACP).
This revelation led to Pilkington’s eventual suspension from the BACP pending “extensive training and professional development”, but not before a very arduous fight on the part of Strudwick to get the issue investigated by the BACP – a fight which, Strudwick later stressed in a Guardian article, most gay sufferers of conversion just wouldn’t have had the resilience to pursue. A psychiatrist called Paul Miller also offered Strudwick conversion sessions through Skype. Strudwick complained to the General Medical Council (GMC) about him, but they let him off without even warning him or conducting a hearing.
Strudwick also noted how British gay conversion groups – taking a leaf out of American organisations’ books – were seeking various funding streams through universities and academic organisations. Pilkington also claimed to be getting most of her clients through NHS GP’s surgeries. He exposed the undercurrent of gay conversion practice in the UK, a Guardian article since noting how, “a 2009 survey of 1,300 therapists, psychoanalysts and psychiatrists found more than 200 had attempted to change at least one patient’s sexual orientation, with 55 saying they were still offering such a therapy.”
Exposures like Strudwick’s – and California’s success in banning conversion therapy for teenagers – have resulted in continued, if sporadic, mainstream media coverage, and there is now finally an overwhelming level of condemnation of Reparative Therapy from professional bodies in Britain. In 2010, the BMA declared conversion therapy harmful by a two-thirds majority in their conference, and called on the Royal College of Psychiatrists to condemn it. The Royal College of Psychiatrists, duly obliging, now maintains a page on its website with details about the practice, noting the strong evidence that sexuality can’t be changed and that conversion therapy can harm patients. The Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO)/WHO released a report condemning Conversion Therapy as a proper medical practice in 2012; in light of the fact that homosexuality isn’t a disease, it emphasised, there was no medical need for a cure.
Most crucially, in 2010 another professional body for psychotherapists, the UK Council for Psychotherapists (UKCP), issued a statement condemning the practice of “conversion therapy”. They dedicate a page of their website to details of the practice, which includes videos from previous victims.It took two years for the body Pilkington was associated with and the other main professional psychotherapy organisation, the BACP, to make a statement against conversion therapy, but their statement now means that the two main professional organisations for psychotherapists within Britain, along with the BMA and Royal College of Psychiatrists, now condemn Reparative Therapy.
Statements that conversion therapy doesn’t work are even coming in from previous practitioners. The leader of a global conversion group, Exodus International, caused outrage amongst his peers by admitting that, in most cases, homosexuality can’t be cured. Jeremy Marks, a gay man and leader of a British gay conversion group in the 1980s-1990s, came to realise that gay conversion didn’t work and now his group helps support same-sex relationships. Robert Spitzer, however, has been the most prominent scalp for the anti-conversion movement. He had played a key part in getting the American Psychological Association to stop classifying homosexuality as a disorder in 1973, but in a 2001 study he argued that conversion was possible for 13% of homosexuals. For proponents of gay conversion (who presumably hadn’t actually checked the full details of the study), this vindicated everything they were doing. His was one of only two major inquiries into the practice (the other concluding that conversion had little effect and in fact did considerable harm). He now admits his study was “fatally flawed”, meaning pro-conversion groups have virtually no academic justification to cite for their practices.
Unfortunately, however, psychotherapy is still a very poorly-regulated profession. Anyone can still call themselves a psychotherapist, without being part of a professional body, and get away with a shocking level of abuse. The Daily Mail, indeed, has exposed the disturbing case of Derek Gale, an Arts therapist who sexually abused his patients. Despite being officially-banned by the legally-recognised body that regulates Arts therapy, he was able to continue operating by re-designating himself as a psychotherapist.
In 2007, Labour produced plans to regulate psychotherapy, but the Tories have no such intentions. What this means is that until the government bring in proper regulation in the psychotherapy sector, conversion therapists will be able to carry on operating outside professional bodies like the BACP and UKCP, whose statements, legally, have no meaning.
The extended media coverage has prompted religious groups and others to strike back. In California they’re challenging the conversion ban in the courts, just like they managed to briefly ban gay marriage there just after it was made legal. In Britain a group called Core Issues is distributing their own petition and trying to present their case in as moderate-sounding and reasonable way as possible.
We are now, therefore, at a watershed moment. Professional groups and even former conversion therapists have come out against the practice, and it’s time to persuade the Government to do the next logical thing and end conversion therapy in Britain.