A transgender woman who underwent electro-shock treatment as a teenager has described conversion therapy as “torture”, as Rishi Sunak faces pressure to follow through on a ban.
The prime minister has said he plans on banning conversion therapy in the upcoming King’s Speech on 7 November, but after five years of inaction, the LGBT+ community is sceptical.
The government, then led by Theresa May, first pledged to ban conversion practices in July 2018, with Ms May saying it had “no place in modern Britain”. But more than 40 Tory MPs signed a letter demanding that Mr Sunak does not include the draft bill in the King’s Speech, amid fears that the plans are set to be dropped by No 10 altogether.
Trans woman Carolyn Mercer, 76, has said the practice should be described not as therapy, but as torture.
She told The Independent: “I refuse to acknowledge that so-called ‘conversion therapy’ is therapy in any way. It is mental and physical abuse. Some would call it torture.
“As prime minister, Rishi Sunak has a responsibility to do what is humane, kind and beneficial. If that means being bold and rejecting the venomous dinosaurs who seek to punish instead of healing – then yes, he should be bold.”
After a teenage Ms Mercer confided in her local vicar about wanting to be “cured” of her gender dysphoria, he directed her to a psychiatrist who suggested “gender aversion therapy”, during which she was taken to a dark room, strapped to a wooden chair and given painful electric shocks.
Images of women were projected on the wall in front of her as she received the shocks at her local hospital.
“I still remember clearly the pain of those shocks and the tears that ran down my face,” she said. “The doctors were convinced that, if I learned to associate my gender with physical pain, I’d stop having those feelings.
“It was 60 years ago but its effects are still being felt by me with the stark and vivid memories distressingly raw. The electro-aversion practice meted out to me those years ago within the NHS isn’t used today.
“But, although less obviously barbaric, current practices which are intended to make anyone hate themselves because of one aspect of their character have lifelong deleterious effects.
“I needed someone to talk with me – someone who would listen and explain options and offer support for my eventual decisions about my life.”
Ms Mercer eventually got married, had two children and gained national attention after becoming one of the youngest headteachers in Lancashire.
It was only when she retired early, aged 55, that she felt she could live openly as herself and began hormone treatment.
She said: “I didn’t understand why I felt the way that I did about myself, and the eventual dawning that I didn’t have to understand, merely accept, was eye-opening and life-changing.
“I’m often asked, ‘You’ve been a well-liked, highly respected headteacher leading a successful school – how could your life have been better?’
“My reply is simply, ‘I could have been happy.’ Nothing can undo the lasting damage imposed on me those years ago.
“No financial compensation can make up for the sadness, depression, suicidal thoughts and attempts inflicted on me.
“However, it will be some comfort were I able, by sharing my thoughts and experiences, to make it better for those who come after me.”
Cleo Madeleine, 33, is one of those who came after Ms Mercer.
As part of Gendered Intelligence, Ms Madeleine and charity colleagues provided expert advice to the government’s consultations on a potential ban.
She told The Independent: “You are in a vulnerable mindset, you want to trust medical professionals and the people around you. You are desperate for answers. For people who suffer more serious abuses, it can lead to lifelong impressions.”
She added that the charity was moving in a “different direction” and no longer working with the government.
“There is a spirit of pessimism among the queer community, particularly because we think Rishi is offering this as a peace offering for LGBT Tories who were unhappy with him after the conference speech,” she said. “Morale in the queer community is very low, as well as faith in the government. If a draft bill was published it would be a token effort that the government was trying to mend bridges with us. But we haven’t seen anything.
“I would just say, if the prime minister is serious, we need action now – no more loopholes, no more delays, just get on with it.
“We want a watertight bill that will do work to prohibit these practices before anyone starts celebrating.”
Mental health charity Mind offers a comprehensive list of organisations and helplines that can help if you are worried about your gender identity.
If you are experiencing feelings of distress, or are struggling to cope, you can speak to the Samaritans, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email email@example.com, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.
If you are based in the USA, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Helpline on 1-800-273-TALK (8255). This is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
If you are in another country, you can go to www.befrienders.org to find a helpline near you.