The activists uniting across party lines to see conversion therapy banned in Ireland

Grace Butler of the ACTC explains that the practice doesn’t always take the forms we expect

This article contains discussion of homophobia, transphobia and other forms of discrimination.

Like many countries across the globe, Ireland prides itself on being a bastion of freedom, a liberal democracy where it does not matter if you are a gay or straight, man or woman, or “anything in between”, as the classic token phrase goes. When same-sex marriage was legalised by referendum in 2015, many considered this the final chapter of LGBTQ+ activism in Ireland, a mark of equal rights finally being achieved. It’s a nice sentiment, but ultimately a naive one. Homosexuality was only decriminalised here in 1993; when it comes to the history of LGBTQ+ rights in Ireland, the ink is far from dry and there are still huge blank spaces to be filled. This country still has a long way to go to ensure the safety of its LGBTQ+ citizens, and nowhere is this fact clearer than the continued practiced of conversion therapy.

Conversion therapy (CT) refers to any practice aimed at eliminating or repressing an individual’s sexuality or gender identity. Despite being discredited by the World Health Organisation and described as a form of torture by the United Nations, it has only been directly or indirectly banned in seven countries. Ireland is not one of those countries. Conversion therapy is not commonly discussed in Ireland, but it is nevertheless prevalent and deeply harmful to those forced to undergo it.

Speaking to Trinity News, Grace Butler of the Anti Conversion Therapy Coalition (ACTC) debunked the idea that all forms of conversion therapy fall within the stereotypical depictions, especially in Ireland, “The idea that conversion therapy takes place in camps and centres located in the deep countryside or secluded locations, where people are forced to ‘admit their sin’ and sit in circles to talk is a big misconception construed by American media that really downplays the significance and scope of what conversion therapy is.”

“From the stories that we have been told, CT in respect [to] sexuality is taking place mostly in religious settings, however CT is also occurring in clinical settings and is flying completely under the radar. While we don’t have accurate figures, anecdotally this seems to be happening more commonly with people who are experiencing gender dysphoria and are seeking gender affirming treatment..it can start with as little as a person with authority planting seeds in a person’s head and then building on that over time with the view of convincing the person to denounce their sexuality or gender identity.”

“A ban [on conversion therapy] would be an important step towards equality and legal protection for our community on this island.”

The ACTC, which is a coalition of young people from a variety of political backgrounds, was established in April 2021, starting the same way many activist organisations do; tired of going unheard and unprotected, and deciding to organise for action that is long overdue. The group’s petition to ban conversion therapy currently has over eighteen thousand signatures, and they have met with, among many others, Senator Fintan Warfield and Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth Roderic O’Gorman, lobbying hard to ban this “insidious, manipulative [and] wholly ineffective” practice across the entire island of Ireland.

“The significance of a ban is self-explanatory.” Butler explained, “We cannot allow the dangerous narrative, peddled by far-right actors and moving stealthily into the mainstream, that being a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, and being non-binary or transgender in particular, is wrong, unnatural or unhealthy.”

In 2018, Senator Warfield published the Prohibition of Conversion Therapies Bill. Almost twenty senators co-signed the bill when it was first tabled, but it has remained stagnant in the committee stage of the Seanad. Three years later, in April 2021, Minister O’Gorman announced that his department has prepared a comprehensive paper on the banning of conversion therapy and is currently working with the Department of Health to bring forward legislative proposals. There is currently no indication of exactly when O’Gorman and his department will reach the next stage of the process.

While plans remain in this murky phase, the ACTC continues to put pressure on the government due to the significance of the ban and the conversation surrounding it. According to Butler, “a ban [on conversion therapy] would be an important step towards equality and legal protection for our community on this island.”

The ACTC hopes that prohibiting this particular breach of LGBTQ+ rights will also shed light on other areas of injustice and disrespect still faced by the community. Within the current public health system, for example, transgender citizens remain subject to a five year waiting list for their first appointment with the National Gender Service at St. Columcille’s Hospital, Loughlinstown, according to the Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI). TENI also shared reports from patients lambasting the service for the deeply invasive and ignorant questions asked to them by doctors; the ACTC worries that such a lack of care will “talk people out of their gender identity struggle.”

Homophobic attacks continue to make headlines in Ireland, and the hate-filled posters and graffiti that appeared across the country last Pride month served as a reminder that Ireland is not the egalitarian utopia many imagine it to be. Perhaps such discrimination would not occur, such prejudice would not run rampant, if we truly taught ourselves that sexuality and gender are something genuinely intrinsic rather than something that is faked or changeable, and if we finally prohibited practices that try to “cure” people of their true selves.

“Homophobia, transphobia, and biphobia whether internalised or projected is all learned behaviour.” Butler told Trinity News, “We aren’t born hating ourselves or others.”

“Society has beaten it into our heads that if we don’t fit into the neat little box that it’s made for us then we are wrong. If the world would just let everyone be, then nobody would hate themselves for being gay, nobody would want to change their sexuality if it was accepted. The notion that someone’s gender identity or sexual orientation is not conforming to the whitewashed notion of ‘normal’ is a slap in the face to every member of our community that has ever lived, lives or will ever live.”

“Homophobia, transphobia, and biphobia whether internalised or projected is all learned behaviour.”

The ACTC is not the only group to finally take a formal and active stance against conversion therapy in Ireland. In April 2021, Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) passed a motion mandating the union to lobby for the banning of conversion therapy and work with other anti-conversion therapy organisations across the island of Ireland.

Speaking to Trinity News about the importance of this decision, TCDSU’s LGBT rights officer Jenny Maguire highlighted the duty the students’ union has to support and protect each of its members. “It is vital that [TCDSU] is fighting for equality for every student that it represents, and the practice of conversion therapy stands in opposition to the very idea of equality. It exists to abuse LGBTQIA+ people purely because they exist. It targets queer people struggling with their identity and tortures them”.

Maguire is striving to ensure that this motion is not limited to mere outrage and lip service shared across a virtual council meeting, but that the students’ union’s lobbying against conversion therapy will have tangible and positive consequences for LGBTQ+ people across Ireland, student or otherwise, during her tenure. “I plan to have the banning of conversion therapy in Ireland as a focal point of [Trinity’s] Rainbow Week 2021/22, as well as having the Union participate in protests and other events organised by the Anti-Conversion Therapy Coalition”.

This campaign is part of a larger goal to make Trinity a more inclusive and accepting campus in general. “In terms of the union’s plans for the upcoming year when it comes to supporting LGBTQIA+ students” Maguire said. “I as LGBT rights officer plan to ensure that all events are safe for queer people as we all slowly make the move to in-person events. I also plan to highlight the voices of those most often overlooked in the community, playing particular attention to intersectional queer identities during the next Rainbow Week. I also have plans in mapping the gender neutral toilets available on campus so students new and old can easily find the bathrooms they require.”

As government plans to ban conversion therapy pick up speed, the ACTC, TCDSU, and other activists will strive to capitalise on this momentum, and continue to highlight the damage this practice does to vulnerable LGBTQ+ people. This country has seen tremendous social change in recent years, in large part due to the activism and persistence of young people. But the fight for LGBTQ+ liberation is apparently far from over, and, as far as the ACTC are concerned, every day that passes where conversion therapy remains legal is another day where people’s autonomy and identity remain under attack.

Ellen Kenny

Ellen Kenny is the current Features Editor of Trinity News, and a Senior Fresh student of Politics, Philosophy, and Sociology.