Well ahead of yesterday’s Queen’s Speech, moves were already afoot both in Stormont and among opposition MPs in Westminster to see it criminalised in NI, and in both cases the outcome could be more far-reaching than what was proposed yesterday by the Tories.
The whole issue of “conversion therapy” has long been mired in vagueness, with a wide array of politicians and lobbyists supporting a ban, but with no clear and agreed definition of exactly what it is they are trying to outlaw.
For example, during a Stormont debate last year, DUP MLA Pam Cameron said her party supports a ban on “unsafe and coercive practices”, but that “we are concerned about the absence of any clear or evidence-based definition” of what conversion therapy is.
Once again, the Tory government’s post-speech statement today offered no firm definition of the term (though the party has previously characterised it as an “attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation, or to change them from being transgender”).
Since violence and threats are already illegal, today’s announcement did clarify that the government’s objective is now to ban “non-physical conversion therapies” and to increase sentencing for existing violent crimes if they can be linked to such “therapy”.
However, the Tory proposals omit two key things.
Firstly, they would apply to England and Wales only.
And secondly, they apply to “conversion therapy” which aims to alter someone’s “sexual orientation”... but not someone’s “gender identity” – a crucial distinction.
Transgender activists have long tried to include “gender identity” in such a ban.
One of their core beliefs is that someone can be born male but their true self – their “gender identity” – is actually female and so they must be regarded as such, irrespective of their anatomy or genes.
As such, a ban on conversion therapy which includes “gender identity” could mean, for example, that if a teenage boy decides that they are really a girl, trying to persuade them otherwise may be a crime.
And regardless of the government’s Queen’s Speech today, there are indications that a wider ban along these lines can be expected in Northern Ireland.
About six weeks ago, LibDem MP Wera Hobhouse had brought forward a Private Members’ Bill in the Commons “to prohibit sexual orientation and gender identity conversion therapy”.
If successful, this would apply across GB and NI.
And in April last year, UUP leader Doug Beattie had tabled a motion at the Assembly calling for “the Minister for Communities to commit to bringing forward legislation before the end of the current Assembly mandate to ban conversion therapy in all its forms”.
The motion passed 59 to 24 (with the TUV and DUP objecting).
During that debate, Mr Beattie repeadly referred to both sexuality and gender identity too, suggesting that both will each be included in any ban drawn up locally in Stormont.
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