After almost five years of promises, the UK government says it will again introduce legislation to ban conversion therapy — and in a policy shift, the proposed law would include therapies designed for transgender people.
Conversion therapy, which includes a range of practices that aim to change someone’s sexuality or gender identity, has long been controversial. Many in the LGBTQ community consider it outright evil.
As the practice has spread, often pushed on young people by homophobic family members, there has been a worldwide push to make conversion therapy illegal, with the UK as the latest country set to ban such practices as electric shocks, aversion therapy and a variety of other traumatic, dangerous techniques to try to change someone's sexual preferences or gender identity.
The British Association for Counseling and Psychotherapy, the professional body which governs therapists in the UK, calls the practice “unethical (and) potentially harmful.”
In France, journalists have documented many healthcare professionals offering the pseudoscientific practice. In one case, a self-described “LGBT-friendly” therapist offered to “cure” a young lesbian through so-called "rebirth therapy," a dangerous practice that was banned in some U.S. states after unlicensed therapists killed a 10-year-old girl during a session.
For one Canadian man, therapy included prescription medication and weekly ketamine injections to “correct the error” of his homosexuality, all under the guidance of a licensed psychiatrist. Some people are forced into treatment against their will — often minors — but most of the time, those who receive conversion therapy do so willingly.
The UK announcement of plans to ban conversion therapy for England and Wales comes after four separate British prime ministers had promised, for almost five years, to ban the practice.
When the British government first considered legislation to ban conversion therapy back in 2018, it was expected to include gender identity as well as sexuality. But the government backed down in the face of conservative opposition, watering down the bill to cover only efforts to change sexuality. This week, however, gender identity was reinstated.
If the UK moves ahead with the legislation, it would join more than a dozen other countries and jurisdictions in the world that have enacted some sort of restriction. Here is a quick overview look at where governments have, and have not, moved to ban conversion therapy.
What were the first countries to ban conversion therapy?
Brazil was the first country to pass a nationwide ban on conversion therapy related to sexual orientation — in 1999, almost a decade before any other country. The ban was expanded in 2018 to also include gender identity.
In the following years, Samoa (2007), Fiji (2010), Argentina (2010), Uruguay (2017) and Taiwan (2018) passed laws to ban healthcare professionals from practicing conversion therapy on the basis of sexual orientation, and, in the last three cases, also gender identity.
In Ecuador, conversion therapy was banned in 2014 after media reports prompted more than 100,000 people to sign a petition demanding the government shut down clinics that used brutal techniques including torture, sexual violence and imprisonment. A 2018 Reuters investigation found numerous clinics still operating.
Pride in Hong Kong
Spreading in Europe
In 2016, Malta became the first European country to introduce legislation criminalizing conversion therapy. The island nation, often ranked as one of Europe's most LGBTQ-friendly countries, announced in Jan. 2023 that the law would be expanded to make it illegal to advertise or promote the practice.
The Maltese legislation came two years before the European Parliament voted to ask member states to ban the practice.
Conversion therapy for minors has been banned since 2020 in Germany, where advocates estimated that prior to the ban, about 1,000 people were subjected to conversion therapy every year.
Previously, some licensed German doctors provided therapy aimed at changing a patient’s sexuality and gender identity. One doctor told a German journalist with Die Zeit newspaper who went undercover in 2014 to document healthcare professionals offering the practice, that he “became” gay because of a scar on his chin. The doctor billed €92.50 for the session; another doctor rubbed oil on the journalist’s forehead and offered a prayer to “exorcise the spirit of homosexuality.”
German law now also makes it illegal for parents to force their children into therapy — but it remains legal for people over the age of 18, a decision criticized by opposition parties when the legislation was introduced. At the time, the German government said that a ban covering adults might not pass a legal challenge, and that their priority was to ensure young people weren’t subjected to conversion therapy.
Albania’s professional order for psychologists banned its members from offering conversion therapy in 2021, effectively making the practice illegal nationwide.
The following year, the French parliament voted unanimously to ban conversion therapy for sexuality and gender identity.
Skirting bans with online therapies
After years of dragging its feet on the bill — which the government had previously introduced but failed to move through parliament despite broad support — Canada banned conversion therapy targeting sexual orientation and gender identity in Dec. 2021.
The law also bans taking minors outside of the country for conversion therapy. No one has been charged since the legislation came into effect.
The law can also only control what happens within the country’s borders: with psychologists and therapists increasingly offering services online since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, conversion therapy practitioners based in the U.S., where it remains legal in many states, have targeted Canadians.
A recent investigation by Canadian broadcaster CBC found American "life coaches" freely offering conversion therapy to Canadians online, despite the ban.
In New Zealand, a ban passed in 2022, with opposition from just eight members of parliament. Like Germany, New Zealand’s law only concerns minors.
In Spain, Australia and Switzerland, several provinces and states have their own bans, and the Spanish government proposed legislation in 2021 that would implement a ban nationwide.
The practice is still legal in Italy, where recent research suggests as many as one in 10 young LGBTQ+ people have experienced it. The current Irish government has pledged that this year it will propose a bill to ban conversion therapy on the basis of sexuality and gender identity, after a 2018 bill failed to make it out of the legislature before an election.
Mixed messages in the U.S.
Twenty five states in the U.S., as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have also banned conversion therapy — in many cases only for minors. However, it remains legal in the other 25 states, and efforts to ban the practice in many have attracted intense conservative opposition, as the debate now includes the movement by conservatives to instead ban gender transition services
Lawmakers in nearly a dozen U.S. states have introduced a wave of anti-trans legislation since 2020, including bills in Oklahoma, South Carolina, Kansas and Mississippi that criminalize providing transition-related healthcare, even for adults.
In Texas, where lawmakers have proposed some of the most extreme legislation, conversion therapy remains legal — and in 2022 the governor ordered the state’s child protection agency to investigate parents whose children had received transition-related healthcare.
Exorcisms and "corrective" rape in Asia
In many countries around the world, conversion therapy remains not only legal, but increasingly popular.
In Indonesia and Malaysia, for example, these “therapies” are openly sponsored by governmental agencies as the official response to sexual and gender diversity issues and can include exorcisms and “corrective” rape. The Malaysian government even produced an app in 2016 that promised to help the LGBTQ+ community “return to nature.” It was removed from the Google Play store only last year, as it was breaching the platform’s guidelines.
In China, patients are subjected to electric shocks or cold showers and are given a cocktail of medication that includes antidepressants and nausea-inducing pills they have to take when watching gay pornographic movies. Some hospitals offer blood tests, DNA analyses and brain scans as well. If the results are normal, and they usually are, the doctor tells the patient that they can be cured because their "problem" is not genetic.