There is no legal defence of LGBT+ conversions | Ahmed Shaheed


Almost three years since the then-prime minister Theresa May pledged to end LGBT+ conversion practices in the UK, calls for action are growing. Over the weekend, Nicola Sturgeon said that Scotland would bring forward its own ban if the British government failed to legislate. On Tuesday, Stormont passed a non-binding motion calling for a ban on conversion practices “in all its forms” before the end of the summer term. Members of the legislative assembly overwhelmingly rejected a DUP amendment attempting to exclude religious activities – such as preaching, prayer and pastoral support – from the ban.

The testimonies of survivors of LGBT+ conversion practices are chilling. By conflating LGBT+ identity with a vice or illness, those who attempt to change or suppress the sexual orientation or gender identity of non-heterosexual-cis persons are targeting LGBT+ persons with physical and/or emotional abuse. In its most extreme forms, LGBT+ persons are subjected to shock therapy, starvation, isolation and so-called “corrective rape”. More frequently, victims are impelled to reject their innate identity as sinful or wrong through discredited and damaging forms of talk therapy or religious counselling.

The term “conversion therapy” is itself a misnomer. There is no evidence that homosexuality can be “converted” into heterosexuality or that one’s gender identity can be coercively altered. On the other hand, there is strong evidence that LGBT+ conversion practices cause extensive harm. Depression and anxiety, poor educational outcomes, relationship breakdown and homelessness are among the long-term impacts. An increasing number of studies highlight the cost to human life itself – the likelihood of suicidal ideation among LGBT+ persons almost doubles following their exposure to conversion practices.

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As the United Kingdom considers whether to join the growing ranks of several other states and regions by banning harmful LGBT+ conversion practices, some claim that this move will contravene freedom of religion or belief. It is appropriate and, indeed, responsible to be concerned whenever proposed state regulations appears to encroach upon our fundamental human rights. But legislative measures prohibiting individuals and institutions from attempting to change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation or a person’s gender identity will advance human rights and do not violate the right to freedom of religion or belief.

Protected under international law by article 18 of the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, the right to freedom of religion or belief aims to advance the agency of individuals to form and pursue their own religious or non-religious beliefs, alone or with others. The right is bipartite. An individual’s forum internum – one’s private, mental space where beliefs and thoughts are formed – has absolute legal protection. Conversely, the external dimension of the right — the freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs — can be restricted by states, but only where it is necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

As such, an individual’s ability to believe whatever they wish about sexuality or gender diversity, including whether it requires treatment, is protected by the right to freedom of religion or belief. However, manifesting that belief by targeting LGBT+ persons with attempts to change or suppress their sexual orientation or gender identity that inflict harm is not a practice protected by international human rights law.

Countries already restrict manifestations of religion to protect those within their jurisdiction from harm. Religious or cultural practices such as female genital mutilation, early and forced marriage and “honour” killings are rightly condemned as human rights abuses, with many countries criminalising their commission. However, some pay less attention when it comes to ending harmful gendered practices that are less easily characterised as “contrary to western values”. The fact that conversion practices are conducted within almost all major faith communities in the UK cannot be an excuse for the state to treat it differently from other gendered practices that both constitute and cause serious harm.

Claims that a proposed ban on conversion practices would result in priests and other faith leaders being prosecuted if they preach against homosexuality or express their disapproval of gender diversity are unfounded. Some have proposed safeguards for both freedom of religion or belief, and freedom of expression, by including a definition of conversion practices that requires that (i) a specific person or class of persons is targeted; (ii) on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity; and (iii) for the purpose of changing or suppressing their sexual orientation or gender identity. Individuals would not be prohibited from discussing or exploring their sexuality or gender identity with their faith leaders (or a therapist) in a non-judgmental manner, where there is an explicit exclusion under the ban. Moreover, this threshold would exclude ordinary religious teaching and appropriate pastoral care.

States cannot compel faith leaders to change their beliefs on sexuality or gender diversity. But states are empowered to protect their people from harm. Ending LGBT+ conversion practices is necessary to uphold and protect the fundamental rights of life, health, equality, and freedom from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of LGBT+ persons. Numerous United Nations human rights mechanisms (including the UN special rapporteur on the right to health, the UN committee against torture, the independent expert on violence and discrimination on basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and the UN high commissioner for human rights) have iterated this and called for bans on conversion practices.

An innate part of one’s identity, a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity should not be sought to be “treated” through harmful practices because it differs from the majority, or because it does not conform with certain religious teachings.

Ahmed Shaheed is UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief



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