Christians challenge claims that gay conversion therapy is harmful
The outcome of a good debate may not be mutual agreement, but better understanding. That seemed to be the hope at the start of the Setting Love in Order conference in London on Thursday.
The conference was organised by advocacy group Christian Concern to consider the ethics of gay to straight conversion therapy.
The conference was opened by Geraint Davies, the Labour MP for Swansea West and the proponent of a bill to regulate the psychotherapy sector in such a way that would ban gay to straight conversion therapies.
He argued that conversion therapy was ineffective and harmful, and that a registered psychotherapist should not be allowed to offer them.
He told the conference that "intrinsic sexual orientation cannot be changed", and that it was unlikely anyone would seek conversion therapy out of their own volition.
"The premise is homosexuality is an issue in someone that needs resetting. That is simply untrue," he said.
"People seek out this therapy because of pressure from conflicts with their cultural and religious traditions."
He continued: "We can't just throw up our hands and say 'just because it hasn't worked the last hundred times, doesn't mean it won't work on the hundred and first try'… our approach has to be evidence based."
Mr Davies was also critical of NHS money going towards practitioners who offer conversion therapy, as well as the current lack of regulation. While one in six psychotherapists has practised conversion therapy, half are not members of any official industry body, he said.
Mr Davies summed up: "It is undesirable, it doesn't work, and it causes trauma."
Dr Mike Davidson, of the Core Issues Trust, who has himself struggled with homosexual attractions, agreed that the psychotherapy sector in the UK needed better regulation and that considerations around conversion therapy should be evidence-based.
However, he rejected the claim that all gay to straight conversion therapy was the result of coercion, and suggested it was unreasonable to expect results at "a flick of a switch".
He warned that a greater danger was the lack of research being done into conversion therapy, as he noted that Christian Concern's requests to the Royal College of Psychiatrists for peer reviewed academic papers substantiating claims of harm and ineffectiveness had gone unanswered.
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While concerns about the harm of conversion therapy may be "well intentioned", the mainstream psychotherapy community was on a "path to harm", he contended.
"We have been thrown out because we do not articulate the doctrine of the state," Dr Davidson said, as he called for a "genuine" debate.
"At the moment, we cannot talk about [gay conversion therapy] without being branded as religious fundamentalists."
Other parts of the conference focused on theological question of Jesus's position on homosexuality, with Reverend Andrew Symes, of Anglican Mainstream, asserting that Jesus's lack of comment on it should not be read as endorsement.
He further pointed out that there would have been no misunderstanding of Jesus's use of the word 'porneia' in his condemnation of sexual immorality, and that to an audience of first century Jews, it would have been understood to include homosexual acts.
There were also accounts from the front line of therapy, offered by the noted American ex-gay Andrew Comiskey.
He dismissed Mr Davies comments, saying they were from someone who "didn't really know much about psychotherapy".
He passionately invoked the need for an "empowered Gospel" and pointed out that "forty five minutes a week isn't going to do it".
Andrea Williams, the founder of Christian Concern, argued that certain articles of the European Convention on Human Rights prevented a blanket ban on gay conversion therapy, specifically Article 8 on the right to privacy, Article 9 on the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, Article 10 on freedom of expression, and Article 14 on prohibition of discrimination.
The conference was joined by Christian psychotherapist Lesley Pilkington, who was struck off by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy after a complaint was made by Patrick Strudwick, a gay activist who pretended to be a Christian seeking reparative therapy and then secretly recorded his sessions with Pilkington.
Commenting on the lack of support or safe spaces for other conversion therapy practitioners, she told the conference: "Where do you go now?"