UK

Trans conversion therapy survivor warns Boris Johnson ‘lives will be lost’ unless he rethinks ban

Patrick Kelleher April 1, 2022
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Carolyn Mercer and Boris Johnson

Carolyn Mercer is a trans woman and a survivor of conversion therapy. (Provided/Getty)

It has been more than 40 years since Carolyn Mercer was subjected to attempted conversion therapy. She’s still dealing with the fallout today. 

In 1964, Carolyn was 17 years old and she had no idea that there were other people out there like her. She decided she wanted to be “cured”, which led to her undergoing electric shock treatment at the hands of NHS doctors.

“What happened to me when I was 17, 18, almost drove me to suicide,” Carolyn tells PinkNews. “I did attempt suicide – I wasn’t successful, fortunately, but it condemned me to 40 years of self-hate, self-loathing, and it has deprived me of positive emotions. I was 70 years old before I enjoyed my first holiday. I’d been on holiday, but I didn’t enjoy it. That’s what this treatment did.” 

Carolyn Mercer.
Carolyn Mercer. (Provided)

Like much of the UK’s LGBT+ community, Carolyn was horrified when she learned that prime minister Boris Johnson is reportedly planning to exclude trans people from its ban on conversion therapy.

Reports first circulated on Thursday evening (31 March) that the prime minister, after years of promises, had decided not to ban conversion therapy at all – a claim that was later confirmed by Downing Street.

The backlash was so swift that Johnson backtracked – but only partially. Sources told ITV News that the government would push ahead with a ban on conversion therapy, but only on the basis of sexuality.

Carolyn, 74, was disturbed by those reports, but she wasn’t surprised. She was “more or less expecting” it – the trans community has been repeatedly let down by the government, and many had feared for some time that it would ultimately renege on its promise to protect the community from the debunked practice.

“It’s barbaric. You are telling people that not only one aspect of their character, personality, being is wrong, you’re telling them – as they told me – that the whole of their being is wrong,” Carolyn says.

Without exaggeration, lives will be lost. Unequivocally, lives will be destroyed as mine almost was.

“Forty years after I was subjected to that treatment, I did decide I would align my gender presentation with my gender identity and that gave me the opportunity to deal with the issues of the past. But it’s hard wired – after 40 years, I still don’t feel positive emotions, and that is down to the treatment I had when I was 17, 18 years old.” 

She is urging Boris Johnson to urgently reconsider. 

“Please rethink. You have the power to make it better for other people. Do it, or history will condemn you.

“Without exaggeration, lives will be lost. Unequivocally, lives will be destroyed as mine almost was. It needs to be banned, and banned now.”

Boris Johnson has ‘caved in to political pressure’ on conversion therapy

That sentiment was echoed by Jayne Ozanne, a gay survivor of conversion therapy who has campaigned to have the practice outlawed.

“I’m absolutely livid with the prime minister,” Ozanne told PinkNews. “He’s caved in to political pressure and decided, OK, we’ll let you have gay conversion therapy, but he doesn’t seem to understand that it’s trans people who are the most at risk, the most likely to be offered and put through conversion therapy, with the most significant harm as a result.”

Jayne Ozanne at the Oxford Union
Jayne Ozanne has been featured on ITV and the Acting Prime Minister podcast speaking about her experiences with conversion therapy. (YouTube/OxfordUnion)

Ozanne added: “It beggars belief in my mind that he doesn’t understand the real truth around conversion therapy which is that it is done by people, often in religious settings, who do not believe that you should be gay or trans.”

She is calling on the UK government to follow the likes of Canada, France and other countries that have banned conversion therapy for all LGBT+ people. 

I don’t understand how the prime minister expects us to trust him ever again.

“What the prime minister needs to do is sit down with survivors – he’s never done that – listen to their stories, apologise for the mess he’s made here, and try and rebuild some form of trust with the LGBT+ community, because I’m afraid none of us now believe he has anything other than contempt for us.

“I don’t understand how the prime minister expects us to trust him ever again.”

Cleo Madeleine, communications officer with Gendered Intelligence, said she is “completely dismayed” by reports that trans people will be excluded from the law.

“It’s so hard to see how the government is going to recover any trust from the LGBT+ community without serious thought and serious action,” Madeleine says. 

However, she’s keen not to send a message of despair. 

“We don’t want to send a message first and foremost of despair because we genuinely believe that despair is the weapon of choice of the anti-trans or anti-gender voters in this establishment and that they very much profit from us being depressed and divided.”

Madeleine says the fallout is likely to grow, and she doesn’t expect Johnson’s reported decision to go unchecked. She expects there will be a “substantial rebellion” within parliament, with a number of Conservative MPs likely to speak out against any effort to exclude trans people from a conversion therapy ban.

“While we’re preparing for the worst, we do continue to hope for the best. We hope the Equalities Office, allied MPs and all parliamentarians that are within the LGBT+ community will be able to make the prime minister’s office see sense and get the planned legislation back on the road.” 

LGBT+ organisations united to condemn the government’s reported plans

The backlash from the trans community and organisations was swift when news broke on Thursday night that the government was planning to exclude trans people from its legislation.

Mermaids, a charity that works on behalf of trans youth, said it condemned the decision in a statement. 

“Mermaids condemns the government’s decision to back-track on its promises to the LGBT+ communities to ban all forms of conversion abuse,” a spokesperson said. 

“By actively excluding trans and non-binary people from the ban, the government has decided to condone conversion abuse for our community. 

Trans people are nearly twice as likely to be targeted by conversion practices and any ban that is not trans-inclusive abandons those that are most at risk.

“The government’s own data illustrates that trans people are at an unparalleled risk of being victim to this abhorrent practice. This decision allows conversion abusers to keep harming trans people without punishment. Such a decision secures decades of future abuse, pain and suffering. It is a dark moment in the history of LGBT+ rights in this country.” 

Nancy Kelley, CEO of Stonewall, said: “After years of delay, in which LGBTQIA+ people across the UK have continued to suffer as a consequence of conversion practices, it is devastating that the UK government is breaking its promise to implement an inclusive ban that protects all our communities from abuse. 

“Trans people are nearly twice as likely to be targeted by conversion practices and any ban that is not trans-inclusive abandons those that are most at risk.“

Protesters holding placards saying 'some poeple are gay/bi/trans, get over it'
Stonewall is the UK – and Europe’s – largest LGBT+ charity. (Getty)

TransActual, a trans-led organisation, said it was “appalled but not surprised” by the decision.

“Just a few months ago, this same government called conversion practices abhorrent. Its LGBT Survey of 2018 uncovered that trans people were twice as likely to be subjected to conversion practices, with Black trans people and trans people of colour vastly more impacted by them.

“This decision to walk away from banning abhorrent practices leaves the most vulnerable in our society exposed to harmful actions disguised as therapies. It is notable that only those organisations opposed to trans inclusion have welcomed this decision.” 

Progress on trans rights has stalled

The news is just the latest blow in a long line of disappointments for the UK’s trans community. 

In 2004, the Gender Recognition Act became law – at that time, it was a trailblazing piece of legislation that gave trans people the opportunity to get legal gender recognition for the first time. But in the years since, the legislation has become increasingly outdated – it requires trans people to live in their “acquired gender” for two years before they can seek legal gender recognition. It also requires them to have a formal diagnosis of gender dysphoria. 

In 2018, the then-government launched a public consultation on the issue to explore ways they could reform the act to make it more streamlined for trans people. Of the 108,000 people who responded, more than 80 per cent were in favour of de-medicalising the process, and three quarters were in favour of dropping the requirement for trans people to provide “evidence” that they had lived in their correct gender for two years. 

In 2020, after numerous delays, equalities minister Liz Truss formally announced that she would not be reforming the Gender Recognition Act after all, declaring that “proper checks and balances” were needed.

Liz Truss
Liz Truss, Secretary of State for International Trade leaves 10 Downing Street on February 13, 2020 in London, England. (Leon Neal/Getty)

Meanwhile, the UK is in the midst of a crisis in trans healthcare, one that the government seemingly has little interest in rectifying. 

In the background, the Conservative government has instead been channelling its energies into planning what it has called the first ever global LGBT+ conference in London. The event, titled Safe To Be Me, is due to run from 29 June to 1 July to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the first official London Pride marches. 

The prime minister seems to be championing a country where it is not safe for LGBT+ people.

However, a Vice World News report published Thursday (31 March) revealed that the conference is crumbling at the seams with just three months to go. No corporate sponsors have signed up, and LGBT+ organisations are boycotting it because of the government’s track record on LGBT+ issues. 

As news broke that the government was planning to exclude trans people from its conversion therapy ban, trans people and advocacy groups noted just how hollow that conference now appears. 

“Our belief at Gendered Intelligence is that the conference, particularly for trans and non-binary people, is nothing more than an exercise in pinkwashing,” Cleo Madeleine told PinkNews. “It’s not something we want to be a part of.” 

Jayne Ozanne echoes that. “The government has said it wants a conference where it’s ‘safe to be me,’” she says. “The prime minister seems to be championing a country where it is not safe for LGBT+ people, and he needs to look hard and long at what he must do to rebuild trust and protections for our community.” 

More: Boris Johnson, conversion therapy ban, Jayne Ozanne

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