I have been struggling for some weeks to discern what I might helpfully write about so-called conversion therapy. Most trans people that I know have experienced attempts to persuade them that they are, in fact, cis, many of which are experienced as attempts at conversion. Many trans people have also experienced more formalised conversion therapy. I, personally, have experienced attempts at conversion through prayer. I believe that this was, and continues to be, a form of attempted conversion therapy. I also believe that it is just as damaging as conversion therapy in a more formal practice/setting.
I have often touched on this experience in my writing and speaking, but have avoided talking about it explicitly. Why? I simply cannot face any contact from the church concerned. I have removed any details that identify the church from this account, and hope that this will be respected. I do feel, however, that it is essential to write about this, given the important conversations that are ongoing in political, religious and public life regarding conversion therapy and prayer.
My experience, below, is contained in a coloured box, please feel free to skip this section if descriptions of attempted conversion and it’s effects are triggering.
When I was 15, I went on a three-week trip with my church youth group to a foreign country. When on that trip, I accidentally came out, through a casual comment. That night, a youth worker came into the room that I was sharing with another young person, knelt by my bed, put her hand on my head, and prayed for me. The prayer included a clear sense that I was incorrect about who I was, that I would be judged by God, and that God could change my heart so that I could avoid the consequences of that judgement. I was also told to avoid socialising with the other young people on the trip. For the rest of the trip, I was isolated, and was not cared for appropriately. Every morning and evening, during devotions, I was prayed for, which often included unwanted physical contact.
I became very ill during these three-weeks, experiencing extreme nausea and vomiting, being unable to keep down any food, breathing difficulties, and fatigue. My illness was treated by some as a fabricated inconvenience. Others correlated the illness with sin. Still others suggested it was part of a ‘healing’ process. When I finally arrived home, my parents rushed me to our G.P. who, seeing how unwell I was, was concerned that I had contracted a disease during my trip. Eventually, after a lot of tests and conversations, I was diagnosed with severe anxiety. I suffered with anxiety, breathing difficulties, nausea and vomiting, eating difficulties, and fainting episodes for several years following this experience. I still experience generalised anxiety, social anxiety, and fear of judgement.
I find it hard to comprehend how any person could read my account, and the accounts of other survivors of conversion therapy, and believe that faith groups should be permitted to continue these abusive practices. The effects of this abuse ripple through the LGBTQIA+ community in ways not unlike a pandemic, often isolating us from peers and communities, severely impacting our physical, social and mental health, and changing the way that we see the world forever. This needs to stop, urgently.
In her annual speech, the Queen asserted that, “Measures will be brought forward to […] ban conversion therapy”. This promise appears disingenuous, however, given the fact that, after three years of waiting, we will now be subjected to yet another public consultation which, it seems, will prioritise the views of ‘medical professionals, religious leaders, teachers and parents’.
A key discussion point has been prayer. I was finally persuaded to write this post by a Tweet this morning by campaigner Jayne Ozanne, who writes that
I couldn’t agree more with Jayne. Further, I’m not sure that ‘prayer’ that attempts to change another is prayer at all. Prayer is about listening to God, witnessing God’s image in creation and humanity, and expressing our innermost truths to the Source of all that is. Prayer to change someone else simply isn’t prayer. Let’s stop pretending that it is. #banconversiontherapy now. No ifs, no buts. This is not ok.