Is this a good time to bring up the subject of whether Conservative governments can be relied on, whether they stick to their word, whether they keep their promises?

It is years now since the UK Government said it wanted to ban an abhorrent practice some call therapy and others call torture. And yet several years on, the ban has still not happened.

To be fair, the Scottish Government has looked pretty ropey on the subject too. Nicola Sturgeon, in a change from her usual tactics, effectively said she would wait and see what the UK Government did and possibly follow their lead.

The campaign groups that represent victims of “therapy” have also expressed their frustration with the Government in Scotland. They began to wonder if a ban would ever happen.

The promise to ban gay conversion therapy was first made by the UK Government in 2018 when the then Prime Minister Theresa May said the Government would be outlawing it as part of an effort to counter intolerance and discrimination.

Her promise came after a Government survey found that some 2 per cent of gay people have undergone the practice. Mrs May said she had been shocked into action. “No-one should ever have to hide who they are or who they love,” she said.

When Boris Johnson took over, the same promise was made again, but his Government has since been accused of dragging its feet on the issue and possibly even going backwards.

In 2021, three of the Government’s LGBT advisers resigned and accused the equalities ministers Liz Truss and Kemi Badenoch of creating a hostile and ignorant environment. Ms Truss, on the other hand, insisted she was committed to LGBT equality and would shortly be bringing forward her plans to ban the therapy.

But the question is why we’re still waiting and it’s a question that matters because of the kind of experiences the people who have suffered conversion therapy have had to go through.

People like Blair Anderson, a 23-year-old law student from Glasgow who realised he was gay while growing up in North Lanarkshire. The problem was that his family were fundamentalist Christians who believed homosexuality was wrong.

‘Would go to hell’

BLAIR said he was only 14 years old when attempts to convert him, or make him straight, began and they focused on what would happen to him if he didn’t comply: convert to heterosexuality and in time he would join the rest of his family in Heaven, but stay gay and he would go to Hell.

“It was all about the consequences,” said Blair, “how they would be in heaven and I would literally be in Hell. They believed in Hell as a real place.” Isolated at home with his family, the attempts to convert him, through prayer and pressure, continued but they came up against the central problem with the idea of gay conversion therapy which is that it does not and cannot work.

“At a certain point it became clear that it wasn’t working because it’s impossible to change someone’s sexuality,” said Blair. “So it then stopped being about me changing and it became ‘live with this but live in a celibate and chaste way’.”

However, as far as Blair is concerned, it all amounted to the same thing: you must stop being who you really are.

The long-term consequences for Blair were catastrophic. He felt suicidal, he had nightmares, and the relationship with his family eventually broke down.

“I don’t have a relationship with my family at all now,” he said. “This was going on when I was still at home, before I went to university in 2016. Over the years the relationship had been breaking down and I now have no relationship with any of my family.

“It was for the best. I tried but it wasn’t good for my mental health. I’ve had severe mental health struggles because of what was going on and it was only when I moved away that I was able to get support. And I’m better now – I still have PTSD but I’m able to manage it.”


WHAT has helped Blair a little is that he’s been able to channel a lot of the anger and frustration he feels about conversion therapy into politics – he is a candidate for the Scottish Greens in the forthcoming local elections in May but he is also an activist for the campaign group End Conversion Therapy Scotland. The group defines conversion therapy as forced conditioning against a person’s sexuality or gender identity and says it has damaged generations of LGBT+ young people and adults, and continues to do so.

The precise extent of the issue is hard to pin down, partly because, as in Blair’s case, it often happens in private, in homes or in churches. But among those who have spoken out, a large number have experienced serious consequences mentally, emotionally and physically. A 2018 study by the Ozanne Foundation, which works with religious groups to eliminate discrimination based on sexuality or gender, says more than 30% of those who have experienced conversion therapy have attempted suicide and 40% have self-harmed.

Blair says it is happening much more than people think and that part of the problem is there is still a strong streak of social conservatism in Scotland that’s resistant to LGBT rights and reform. It’s undoubtedly better for gay people than it used to be in Scotland, he says, but there are still places where it isn’t – in his old family church for example. He also cites the resistance to reform of the legislation on gender recognition and the furore over the Government’s recent sex survey in schools.

However, Blair also points out that times are changing, albeit slower than he would like. He says there is an SNP/Green majority now in Parliament for a conversion therapy ban and gender recognition reform, and believes such changes are becoming the mainstream view in Scotland.

“We’re still seeing the same debates,” he says, “but increasingly they are driven by a smaller number of people, mostly online and very limited. The opposition to progress is quite small.”

The question, however, is what the Scottish Government is going to do about it, and there may be some steps forward thanks partly to a push from Blair’s campaign group which submitted a petition to Holyrood. The equalities committee then agreed to look at the subject and has just issued its conclusion: support for a full and comprehensive ban. Significantly, it also said that the Scottish Parliament should not wait to hear what the UK Government is planning to do before going ahead with its own legislation.

Ban definition

THE committee reached its conclusion after listening to a broad range of views including some organisations which have serious worries about what the practicalities of a ban would mean.

The Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, for example, says it is important to recognise that there are many people with same-sex orientation who want to live their lives in harmony with the teachings of the Church. Anthony Horan of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland says there is a genuine concern that some of the day-to-day practice of the Church will be consumed by a sweeping definition of conversion therapy.

Courage International, a Catholic organisation that aims to help people who have same-sex attraction and a commitment to chastity, supports the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland’s position. Courage’s executive director, Father Philip Bochanski, said that his organisation does not provide, require or refer for therapy of any kind for its members.

He also insists the Catholic Church does not teach that the experience of same-sex attractions, or of gender identity discordance, are sinful in themselves, and no-one is expected or required to take action to “become straight” or change his or her identity.

However, Courage International does encourage a commitment to chastity as defined by the Catholic Church – “the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being”.

Some, such as Blair Anderson, would say this can still amount to the same thing as conversion therapy but Father Bochanski believes that what he calls overbroad definitions of conversion therapy pose a grave risk to anyone who would speak honestly about the teaching of the Catholic Church regarding chastity, sexual identity, or sexual intimacy.

“A Bill that would define conversion therapy as broadly as the committee recommends,” he said, “could penalise an honest conversation about what it means, in the Catholic Church’s moral teaching, to acknowledge and accept one’s sexual identity by imposing heavy fines and even imprisonment.

“Whether or not such a severe penalty would be imposed in practice, it seems clear that such a Bill would have a chilling effect on Catholics and others who would speak clearly about what the Word of God, revealed in Scripture and in the Tradition handed on from the apostles, has always said regarding human identity, sexuality and intimate relationships. While the state has a responsibility to protect people from others who would do them physical or psychological harm, it seems patently unjust to attempt to do so with broad, sweeping definitions.”

Grey areas

BLAIR Anderson accepts that there are grey areas at work here. John Wilkes, head of Scotland at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said any new law on conversion therapy should recognise that there are LGBT people who wish to adhere to the tenets of their faith.

He told the committee that the law should be drawn up so that it allows support for people from their faith leaders and spiritual leaders – support that is not intent on changing a person’s identity but can help them in how they live their life within the rules of their religious faith or belief. “To us, that is the key dividing line,” he said.

Blair broadly agrees with this but warns that “helping someone to live within the rules of their religion” can cross over into conversion therapy. “If someone has their own faith and decides this is how they are going to live their life – they are going to live a chaste and celibate life, we’re not stopping you, that’s not our prerogative. But it’s when it’s the other way round, it’s when there’s pressure on people to live a chaste or celibate life.

“We’re not stopping anyone coming to that conclusion on their own, or even going to a faith group and saying I’m struggling with this and I want you to know what the Bible says about this, for example – that is not conversion therapy because someone is trying to get support when they’re struggling with their sexuality.”

However, Blair argues that any definition of conversion therapy should include attempts to pressure someone into being chaste or celibate. “In terms of the suppression – being gay but not doing gay things – we would argue that ought to be covered by the ban if someone is trying to supress or deny or not act on their sexuality. That’s what happened to me. At a certain point, it stopped being an attempt to change who I was and became an attempt to give me the resources to not do anything about my sexuality.” He warns that this is what some religious organisations operating in Scotland are doing – they say they are merely encouraging people to live chaste lives, but according to Blair it is conversion therapy all the same.

Broad scope

BASICALLY, the term “conversion therapy” can cover a broad range of activity but End Conversion Therapy Scotland, and the committee, propose the definition which is used by the UN, namely the belief that a person’s sexual identity or gender identity can and should be changed, and attempts at changing people from gay, lesbian or bisexual to heterosexual and from trans or gender diverse to cisgender.

“Someone standing up and reading the Bible and saying this is what the Bible says would not be banned,” says Blair, “but having a prayer group or having one-on-one prayer saying ‘I am praying for you to stop being gay or not act on the fact you are gay’, that’s what we would say is conversion therapy.”

So, what happens now? Campaigners have in the past been frustrated by an apparent lack of progress by both the UK and Scottish governments – the promise to introduce a ban may have been made as far back as 2018, but other than consultations and reports, there hasn’t been much significant progress towards the ban.

Nicola Sturgeon said at one point that the law in Scotland would be changed “if the UK Government does not take serious action” and “in so far as the powers of the Scottish Parliament allow” but Blair Anderson is not impressed by that kind of talk.

“We were getting pretty frustrated with the Scottish Government,” he said. “It felt like kicking the political football. The Scottish Government’s internal position, the position we were getting as a campaign group, was that the government wanted to wait to see what the UK said because there was potential that the UK proposals would cover Scotland and it would be a Westminster Bill that would cover the whole of the UK – all it would require would be a consent motion at Holyrood.

“However, we were saying from the start that wouldn’t be good on two grounds. One: the politics involved – look who’s in Government and who you’re talking to down south. We were saying to the Scottish Government that it’s not going to look good. But also legally it’s a health matter, it’s a justice matter and criminal matter – Scotland can do it first. It doesn’t have to wait.”

Blair does accept that there may be one or two issues that are reserved –people being sent abroad for conversion therapy, for example – but other than that, he says it’s an entirely devolved matter and the Scottish Government could introduce a ban now if it wanted to. “It could ban conversion therapy on its own tomorrow,” says Blair.

“It has the power to do it. That’s what we were saying the whole time but the Scottish Government were saying we’ll wait and see.”

Scots legislation

THE campaigners for a ban are now confident, however, that the wait-and-see road is running out. As part of the co-operation agreement between the SNP and the Greens, the Scottish Government has now agreed to a form of backstop which means they cannot keep saying we’ll wait and see.

The backstop says that legislation to ban conversion therapy has to be introduced by 2023 and if it hasn’t been done through a committee or member’s Bill then the Government will have to do it. In other words, the campaigners should only have another year or so to wait.

One concern that some of the campaigners have is that the legislation will introduce a ban without any of the other mechanisms that would be needed to make it work.

For young people in situations like Blair’s, for example, the ban on conversion therapy would be a small comfort if there was no way of enforcing it or getting help. He says having the ban will send a very clear message that “therapy” is not acceptable, but it won’t be enough.

There will also have to be a helpline, regulated and operated by a quasi-governmental body, that people could approach for help if they need it. People could also call to whistle-blow on organisations breaking the law.

In the end, Blair is confident all of this will happen but says there must be no more waiting for the UK Government to do something. The equality committee’s report also noted that the majority of religious organisations support a ban – the tricky part will be working out when religious freedom becomes conversion therapy.

The campaigners say much of it will be down to the case law once the ban has been introduced, but the stories of people who have been subjected to conversion therapy – stories like Blair’s – have already made their powerful effect.

The chairman of the committee, the MSP Joe FitzPatrick, said conversion therapy had been going on for far too long. “It is happening in Scotland,” he said, “and the existing legislation is not strong enough to prevent it.”

After the promises, the consultations and the reports, Scotland may be about to fix it at last.