Conversion therapy ban: the ultimate no-debate policy?

11, May 2022

Cancelling, no-platforming and other no-debate policies have been a defining feature of the last decade’s public discourse.

And the recent tide of trans-activism will surely feature on the timelines of historians in years to come.

Which dates will mark the movement? The establishment of the NHS’s Gender Identity Development Service in 1989, The Gender Reform Act in 2004, and ‘cultural moments’ like Jenner’s cover appearance for Vanity Fair in 2015 come to mind.

But arguably one of the most important events was Stonewall’s decision to officially adopt a ‘no debate’ policy.

No debate on ‘trans’

On 4 October 2018, Stonewall’s then CEO Ruth Hunt announced that “what we will not do is debate trans people’s rights to exist”. A seemingly agreeable comment. Except that wasn’t what they were saying at all.

They were responding to calls from feminists and LGB campaigners who asked Stonewall to “acknowledge that there are a range of valid viewpoints around sex, gender and transgender politics, and to acknowledge specifically that a conflict exists between transgenderism and sex-based women’s rights”.

Stonewall answered with a resounding, and very public, answer of ‘no debate’.

In effect, Stonewall had decided to dig trenches rather than enter into reasoned dialogue with those who disagreed – even though many were long-term supporters with great sympathy for its cause.

And the profoundly anti-democratic, repressive, and indeed infantile move has shaped the movement and counter-movement ever since. Increasingly, attempts are made to bring police investigations, have employees ousted, and destroy the reputations of well-known public figures, merely for disputing the Stonewall-led LGBT orthodoxy.

No debate on ‘conversion therapy’

When it comes to the campaign to ban conversion therapy, Stonewall has been allowing other organisations to take centre-stage – presumably due in part to the negative press it has received over the last year.

But other Stonewall-backed groups have their own no-debate policies. End Conversion Therapy Scotland (who are ‘assisting’ the Scottish Government in formulating its own ban) recently announced to the press that they “will not accept ANY request that will place a conversion therapy survivor up against those who promote or participate in this form of abuse”.

Again, innocent sounding. But the reality is that their spokesperson, Blair Anderson, claims to be a survivor, and the group says anyone who disagrees with their approach to a ban is ‘promoting’ conversion therapy. So who are they willing to debate? No one as yet.

And those who have put forward concerns – and those who have published them – have been silenced or cancelled.

When Stella O’Malley, Jacky Grainger and Madeleine Ní Dhailigh wrote a considered piece for the Irish Times about the unintended consequences of a ban, from their professional clinical experience, there was outrage. They explained that conversion therapy as commonly understood is “utterly abhorrent”, but an ill-thought-out ban could prevent important discussions in medical settings.

Now nine months after the article was published, there are still reports of boycotts and protests over the article, and the petty nature of the attempts to silence debate has not gone unnoticed. Speaking of the most recent attempt to silence debate by the Union of Students in Ireland, John Burns wrote in the Sunday Times: “This boycott is typical of modern-day campus culture, which sometimes prefers cancelling to debating.”

Putting ‘no debate’ into law

The medical professionals writing in the Irish Times understood that ‘conversion therapy’ (as is commonly understood) is already illegal. Abuse and coercion, if it takes place today, is caught by existing laws. Those who suffer such crimes can call the authorities on their abusers today.

But the activists have been clear they will not be satisfied until there is a law which prevents dissent from their new ‘orthodoxy’.

If you think that’s scare-mongering or hyperbole, take a look at the recent briefing from the Ban Conversion Therapy campaign. It concludes by saying that allowing “exemptions such as … ‘casual conversations’ will, in practice, allow conversion practices to continue”.

Far better than having to roll out their ‘no debate’ policies in media-friendly language, they would have the law enshrine their viewpoint as the only ‘non-harmful’ one. Anyone who offers a conflicting opinion, even in ‘casual conversation’, risks police investigation and the courts. Even if a year or two later it’s decided they did no wrong, the process is punishment enough.

So they turn the ‘no debate’ policy we’ve become accustomed to into a legally mandated one. The conversion therapy ban they want, I suggest, is the ultimate ‘no debate’ policy.

Many feminists have understood this and take a firm stance against the inclusion of gender identity in a ban. Important discussions would become legal minefields if Stonewall and Co. get their way. Parents, teachers and medical professionals are particularly at risk under such rules.

Beyond gender identity

But it’s clear that the debate stretches much further than gender identity alone. Do these groups really think ‘casual conversations’ about sexual orientation can be outlawed? Who would not be captured by such a law? Clearly only those who say what the activists like.

The Free Speech Union has recognised this, describing the ‘chilling effect’ a ban could have on free speech. They explain how a ban risks the rights of parents “who may have legitimate questions about their child’s sexual orientation or gender identity or personal self-expression”.

It is a truly worrying prospect – those urging caution over sexuality and gender being frightened to speak up for fear of investigation, while those on the other side are given free reign.

Christian teaching on sexuality is also directly in the firing line. Churches play very important roles in people’s lives. Many seek the loving support and guidance of a church leader or Christian friend. And they do so over matters of sexual ethics, just as for anything else.

Some will strongly disagree with the message churches offer – and it is fine to disagree – but is it right to criminalise those beliefs?

Don’t be fooled into thinking, just like Stonewall and its friends do, that it’s okay to outlaw opinions you disagree with. We must protect free and open debate.

Worthy of respect

In recent years ‘gender-critical’ views have been officially recognised as ‘worthy of respect in a democratic society’ by the courts. There have been proud moments for many whose strongly-held beliefs have been accepted as protected under equality laws.

Many Christians who have long campaigned on these issues will smile seeing feminists wearing t-shirts saying ‘worthy of respect in a democratic society’ as a badge of honour: not only because they share some of their convictions over how we define the sexes, but because it is a judgement made by the courts about Christian beliefs on sexuality too.

Importantly, it’s a judgement which recognises the sort of society that we seek to be: one where there is freedom to disagree over all sorts of contentious issues.

No one deserves to be abused – that’s not in question – but no one deserves to be silenced for disputing LGBT thinking either. And that’s the very thing a conversion therapy ban might do.

James Kennedy works in public affairs for The Christian Institute.

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