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Almost half of trans conversion therapy survivors attempted suicide, devastating study finds

Patrick Kelleher March 31, 2021
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Conversion therapy Ozanne Foundation

Trans and non-binary people who undergo conversion therapy are more likely to experience depression and anxiety. (Envato Elements)

Nine out of 10 trans and non-binary people who underwent conversion therapy subsequently experienced anxiety and depression while almost half attempted suicide, according to new research.

Conducted in October 2020 by the Gender Identity Research & Education Society, the LGBT Foundation, the Ozanne Foundation, Stonewall and Mermaids, the study confirmed that conversion therapy has long-term damaging effects for trans and non-binary people, whether they “choose” to undergo the debunked practise or are coerced.

The research found that gender identity conversion therapy is “more widespread and often more violent” than most people realise, with some respondents undergoing forced nudity, corrective rape, forced feeding or food deprivation, beating, isolation or verbal abuse as part of the process.

It also revealed that many trans, non-binary and gender diverse people underwent conversion therapy when they were children, with some going through the traumatising practise when they were less than 12 years old.

One bisexual gender diverse woman who responded to the survey said: “Having gone through gender identity conversion therapy when I was younger, I can confidently say that it doesn’t work. It just resulted in 23 years of depression, alcoholism and suicidal thoughts, until I transitioned in 2011.”

A trans man reported feelings of immense shame and internalised hatred as a result of his conversion therapy experience.

“The pastors created a trust in me for them, that they knew what was best for me – when they didn’t,” he said.

“The covertness of it was sickening. Removing them from my life has meant I am now fully embracing my transgender self and I couldn’t be happier.”

Another wrote: “Unfortunately it has affected every aspect of my life so drastically I think I’ll be trying to heal for the rest of my life.”

Trans and non-binary survivors of conversion therapy have worse mental health outcomes

The research found that gender diverse people who have undergone conversion therapy have significantly worse mental health outcomes than those who have not. The findings broadly fall in line with other research, which has found that trans and non-binary people are significantly more likely than cis people to experience suicidal ideation.

Almost half (47 per cent) of trans and non-binary people who underwent conversion therapy attempted suicide, compared to around a quarter (26 per cent) of the wider gender diverse respondents.

Trans and non-binary survivors of conversion therapy were also more likely to experience suicidal thoughts and eating disorders than gender diverse people who had not been through the practice.

Meanwhile, 92 per cent of trans and non-binary people who experienced conversion therapy later faced issues with anxiety and depression, compared to 79 per cent of those who did not undergo the practice.

While the significant majority of respondents said conversion therapy did not change their gender identity, eight people felt that the practice had made them cisgender.

Notably, 95 per cent of trans and non-binary respondents to the survey said gender identity conversion therapy should be banned, compared to 85 per cent of cis respondents.

More than 1,500 responses were received when the survey was made public in October 2020 – 1,086 were analysed in-depth and 418 were excluded for quality control reasons.

Of those respondents, 450 said their gender identity did not match the sex they were assigned at birth, with 170 of those identifying as non-binary. Sixty-four were offered conversion therapy and 39 had direct experience of the practise, with almost half of those reporting that they were forced through it.

Almost half (49 per cent) of those respondents were children when they started conversion therapy, while three-quarters were aged under 24. Half of the gender diverse people who underwent the practise said it damaged their romantic, family, community and peer relationships.

Most of those who experienced conversion therapy did so in a religious context, while others underwent the practise with a psychiatrist, psychologist or therapist. 23 people reported having gone through some form of “talk therapy” as part of efforts to change their gender identity.

The study also notes that a large number of transphobic responses to the survey were received, with many people filling it with anti-trans sentiments. These responses were discarded in the quality control stages.

Survey results are ‘eye-opening and heartbreaking’

The report urges the UK government to urgently bring forward legislation to ban conversion therapy “in both the public and private spheres, including healthcare, religious, cultural and traditional practices”.

“It must protect everyone regardless of age or whether they were coerced or consented to the practice, and must include a ban on the advertising and promotion of such practises.

“Given that this research shows that gender diverse people are profoundly harmed by conversion practices, any legislative ban must include practices which attempt to change, suppress, convert, or cancel a person’s gender identity or gender expression,” the report says.

Eloise Stonborough, associate director of policy and research at Stonewall, said the survey results are “eye-opening and heartbreaking”. 

“The UK government must not leave these people out in the cold. We urge them to make good on their commitment to ban conversion therapy and ensure no more gender diverse people have to go through such damaging, demeaning and degrading practices.”

It has been almost three years since the UK government first pledged to ban conversion therapy in its 2018 Action Plan. Despite repeated pledges to do so, the practice remains legal.

Earlier this month, equalities minister Liz Truss committed to advancing legislation to ban conversion therapy “shortly” after Jayne Ozanne, James Morton and Ellen Murray resigned from the government’s LGBT Advisory Panel due to stalled progress.

Suicide is preventable. Readers who are affected by the issues raised in this story are encouraged to contact Samaritans.

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email [email protected] or [email protected]

In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

Related topics: conversion therapy

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