'Gay cures' are a sham, but a ban not the answer
Being gay isn't an illness, so it stands to reason that it doesn't need a cure. But what if you're gay and you don't want to be? What happens then? It's a question that's rarely asked, let alone answered.
The notion of homosexuality as an affliction, rather than something to be affirmed and even celebrated, is an offensive one to many people, especially those who are happily gay themselves. That's why organisations like Core Issues Trust, a NI-based Christian charity which offers "therapeutic support" for people with unwanted same-sex attraction, come in for so much criticism.
The Trust "upholds the right of individuals to seek professional assistance in attempting to reduce or eliminate unwanted sexual feelings". But to some, the very existence of the charity - and others like it - is a dangerous affront, and that view is quickly gathering pace.
Last month, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan said that such therapies must be "stamped out". This week, during a Westminster debate on the issue, the Conservative MP Mike Freer called for an outright ban. Freer claimed that "it remains possible for people within the UK to be referred by an NHS professional to a psychotherapist for a so-called 'gay cure'."
Although the NHS's official position is sceptical - it states that there is "little evidence that gay conversion therapy works, and some evidence that it is harmful" - research by the gay rights charity Stonewall found that one in 10 health and social care workers had witnessed a colleague declare a belief in a 'gay cure'.
I oppose public funding for any kind of therapy which purports to change an individual's sexual orientation. Not for ideological reasons, but for scientific and ethical ones: quite simply, as all the UK's main professional counselling organisations have stated, there is no credible or demonstrable evidence that it works.
But should such therapies be banned outright? I'm not so sure. If you go down the route of actively outlawing therapies which can't be proved to work, then by the same logic you're going to have to ban a heck of a lot more than 'gay cure' practices. Homeopathy - memorably described as "rubbish" by Professor Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer - would definitely have to go, as would kinesiology, reiki, acupressure and other obscure remedies.
Look, I'm no fan of the Core Issues Trust and their supporters in hardline organisations like Christian Concern. I object to their use of nasty terms like "sexual brokenness" to describe homosexuality, and I profoundly disagree with their belief that "science suggests that most [gay people] became that way as a result of real or perceived traumatic experiences in early life".
While I do believe that sexuality can be complex, shifting and fluid, I think the likelihood of anyone being able to shift their orientation from gay to more-or-less straight, with any degree of comfort, consistency and success, is infinitesimally small. Borderline impossible. What's far more likely, I fear, is increasing confusion, fear, shame and distress.
But here's the thing. Who am I - or anyone else - to tell others how to live their lives? If someone wants to waste a great deal of money on private homeopathy treatments, which are so diluted that they contain not a single molecule of the original substance, then I consider that is up to them. Bonkers, ill-advised, deluded - yes, whatever. But still up to them.
Likewise, if someone wants to seek help for unwanted gay feelings, then I'd recommend they approach a neutral, suitably accredited therapist who could help them come to terms with their difficulties and resolve any internal conflicts.
If they chose to go off and seek out a practitioner who prayed with them, or laid hands on them, or suggested all sorts of bizarre techniques for lessening their same-sex attraction, I'd think they were bonkers, deluded, ill-advised - all of the above. But still, essentially, it would be up to them. It wouldn't be my choice, but it might be theirs.
Professor Michael King, from the Royal College of Psychiatrists, has the right idea. "There are lots of kooky therapies out there for all sorts of things, and we don't ban them, we warn against them," Mr King says. He thinks that it is "better to put the evidence out there and to say that any therapist worth a respected association would not undertake these treatments because they're harmful." Exactly. Then, as adults, we are free to make up our own minds, and to live with the consequences.