I am a trustee of the LGBT+ rights charity Stonewall, who are part of a coalition calling on the UK government to fulfil the promise it made almost 1,000 days ago to bring in a full legal ban on conversion therapy – a practice that seeks to ‘cure’ or change a person’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
However, I am not just writing this as a trustee of Stonewall, nor am I writing it just as a criminal barrister. First and foremost, I write as someone who has battled a “doctor” who wanted to “cure” me of my gayness. And not in some far-off place a long time ago, but in London in the late noughties.
Coming out to my Pakistani, Muslim father was the most difficult thing I would ever have to do. At least, that’s what I assumed until a week later when the “doctor” arrived at our home wanting to “help me”.
“Who told you that you are gay?” he asked on our walk together in the nearby forest.
I should have responded by asking, “Who told you that you were straight?”. Instead I remained almost silent, my mind repeating the same question over and over – “Is this really happening?”
When we got back to the house, he held up an ointment, instructing that I drink a few drops daily to “cure” my homosexuality. This might seem an odd moment to tell you that I was lucky, but it’s true. Just a few years earlier I would have drunk the whole thing in a single gulp, such was the level of my desperation and self-loathing. But by this time, with the help of loving friends and good counselling, I had already accepted who I was – a young adult with a clear sense of himself and, more importantly, of who I no longer needed to be for others.
My dad looked at that small, amber jar of ointment as if it were the only source of light in a place darkened by my sexuality. “Won’t you at least try, if not for you then for me, my son?” he asked.
Before I go any further, it is important for me to say that my parents love me very much and that, albeit extremely misguided, their actions were motivated by love; their vulnerability exploited by a fraud.
He assured us that he had helped other families and was confident that he could help us too. The thought that this man could tell young people that there was something innately wrong with them made me angry. Angry for the queer people who he inflicted this violence upon. Angry for the parents, like mine, in whom he had instilled the belief that there is a choice in sexuality, and an opportunity to change it. And angry for the countless families that were no doubt torn apart by his lies.
I refused to take the ointment, telling my dad that he was the very reason I couldn’t. “Every day I drink that stuff, dad, is another day that you spend thinking that this can change. But it can’t. So, for you, I refuse to drink it” I told him.
After the “doctor” was gone, I tried to report him. I wanted to protect others who could also find themselves in my position. I quickly realised, though, that, in the eyes of the law, he had done nothing wrong. I felt helpless, like I was failing the young queer people the “doctor” could go on to haunt.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. Sunday 28 March marks 1,000 days since the Government committed to banning conversion therapy in the UK. The Government must act now, and bring in a full legal ban, which protects all LGBTQIA+ people, wherever they are, and in whatever setting it may happen to us.
Aside from protecting individuals and families, banning so-called conversion therapy sends a message loud and clear. In the same way that legalising same-sex marriage was partly about showing young people what’s possible and acceptable, banning these outdated rituals is about telling them what’s impossible and what’s unacceptable.
There is much political rhetoric around Britain being a global moral leader. To date, six countries have implemented national legal bans on conversion therapy, including Germany and Taiwan. Several others are due to follow suit. Our membership of this club is long overdue.