Criminalising conversion therapy: Northern Ireland must avoid – not mimic – Canada’s new law says transgender writer

One of the most prominent transgender commentators in the UK has said that, far from copying Canada’s new ban on “conversion therapy”, Northern Ireland must not “make the same mistakes”.

Monday, 10th January 2022, 8:28 am
Updated Wednesday, 19th January 2022, 1:17 am
Dr Debbie Hayton (backed by a transgender flag, from Creative Commons user National_Progress_Party, licence CC BY SA 3)

Debbie Hayton was responding to a renewed call for MLAs to pass a law criminalising conversion therapy – something which has become a central demand of gay and transgender activists over recent years.

The SDLP says that Stormont should emulate the example of Canada, which has just enacted its own ban.

Last April the Assembly passed a UUP motion deploring such “therapy” and calling for it to be outlawed.

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But whilst conversion therapy is generally taken to mean an attempt to change someone from gay to straight, it lacks a firm, precise definition.

As a result church groups fear that a vague new law could mean acts of prayer or quoting the Bible may become crimes.


Last week the SDLP issued a statement denouncing the fact that Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey has not yet drawn up a ban at Stormont.

Conor Houston, the party’s Strangford candidate in the coming election, said: “I understand the practical difficulties in securing an agreement on the definition.

“But the hard truth is that a perfect definition is impossible to find.

“The minister should instead look to Canada where new legislation will become effective this week that bans this insidious practice and protects their rainbow community.”

Canada’s new law was called Bill C4.

Although it seems to have attracted little attention, its provisions are quite wide-ranging.

Whereas activists tend to talk about conversion therapy largely in terms of how it affects homosexuals, Canada’s new ban also limits people from questioning somebody who describes themselves as transgender or “non-binary” (meaning, those who say they are neither male nor female but belong to some new gender like “neutrois”, “two-spirit” or “genderfluid”).

In Bill C4, conversion therapy is defined as – among other things – “a practice, treatment or service designed to change a person’s gender expression so that it conforms to the sex assigned to the person at birth” (full definition at end of article).

In other words, if a boy announces one day that they are really a girl, any “practice” which seeks to deny this would be a crime.

There is an exemption which (for example) allows therapists to “explore” patients’ identities with them.

But this is only legal so long as it is “not based on an assumption that a particular sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression is to be preferred over another”.

The penalty for breaking this law is up to five years in jail.


Dr Hayton (a teacher from northern England who was born male but underwent hormone treatment and surgery) is a regular contributor to media outlets such as The Spectator on transgender matters – often taking issue with the claims of LGBTQQIA+ activists.

She told the News Letter: “The SDLP is calling for a ban on conversion therapy. But why do they and others use the word therapy?

“It is unclear if there is any conversion therapy being conducted in Northern Ireland, or indeed anywhere in the UK.

“Conversion practices may be happening, perhaps within families and religious groups, but that is not any sort of therapy.”

She added that such “a proposed ban on ‘conversion therapy’ would inhibit professional counsellors engaging in normal exploratory therapy, and so deprive children and adolescents of the support they need in order to understand themselves”.

“That is hardly a progressive step for any party who claims to care about children.

“Citing legislative change in Canada is merely an appeal to authority.

“We do not need to make the same mistakes as the Canadians.”


The SDLP press release from Conor Houston suggests that people – the young in particular – could die if a law banning conversion therapy is not passed.

He said: “The failure to introduce an effective ban on so-called ‘conversion therapy’ is devastating for LGBT+ young people who are put at risk by those preying on their vulnerability.

“The Assembly voted almost a year ago for the communities minister to bring forward robust legislation before the end of this mandate. It is clear that the minister will now miss the deadline set by MLAs and more young people will be put at risk as a result ...

“This is an issue that should be dealt with quickly by Stormont.

“For LGBT+ young people in turmoil and trauma it is quite literally a matter of life and death.”

More from this reporter:

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320.‍101 In sections 320.‍102 to 320.‍104, conversion therapy means a practice, treatment or service designed to

(a) change a person’s sexual orientation to heterosexual;

(b) change a person’s gender identity to cisgender;

(c) change a person’s gender expression so that it conforms to the sex assigned to the person at birth;

(d) repress or reduce non-heterosexual attraction or sexual behaviour;

(e) repress a person’s non-cisgender gender identity; or

(f) repress or reduce a person’s gender expression that does not conform to the sex assigned to the person at birth.

For greater certainty, this definition does not include a practice, treatment or service that relates to the exploration or development of an integrated personal identity — such as a practice, treatment or service that relates to a person’s gender transition — and that is not based on an assumption that a particular sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression is to be preferred over another.

320.‍102 Everyone who knowingly causes another person to undergo conversion therapy — including by providing conversion therapy to that other person — is

(a) guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term of not more than five years; or

(b) guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction.