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Meet the woman leading the fight to ban trans conversion therapy

A petition to include trans people in a proposed ‘conversion therapy’ ban has been signed by more than 140,000 people.

A petition calling for trans people to be included in any ban on ‘conversion therapy’ has received over 140,000 signatures.

It comes after a series of government U-turns earlier this month on their proposed conversion therapy ban, which will no longer apply to trans people.

The decision outraged many in the LGBTQ+ community, with hundreds of protesters gathering outside Downing Street to oppose the move. Some 125 LGBTQ+ organisations also boycotted the government’s inaugural LGBTQ+ conference in protest, prompting the event’s cancellation.

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The petition’s author, Sammantha Harris, says she felt moved to act because she saw friends struggling with the government’s decision.

Harris began her activism in 2016, after she came out as trans at her workplace. “We work in an open office, and there’s about 4,000 people,” she explains. “So coming out on day one, I’m exposed to 4,000 people.

“At that point it was like: ‘Well, there’s no point in hiding’.”

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Harris says she’s in relatively privileged place, so wanted to support those who weren’t.

“I have a decent job, I have a relatively supportive family, so I started looking into what I could do to make things better for people who don’t have that,” she says.

Initially, Harris “kept reasonably anonymous”, quietly feeding into parliamentary reports.

“I’ve never been one to say: ‘This is me and I want to be out there’,” she says. “That’s changed recently.

“The petition was very much born out of frustration. It was me saying: ‘There’s real lives here, and if the government are doing this, I’m going to do what I can to ensure it doesn’t happen quietly and without pushback’.

“I could just see friends despairing, struggling, constantly feeling like they have to look over their shoulders for what’s coming next. There’s been a constant drip of negativity that takes a toll.”

Harris says the last few years have seen “a pushback against trans people simply existing, coming from both the current UK political and media landscape”.

Sammantha Harris pictured at Pride in 2019
Harris at pride, in 2019.

“Things that trans people had taken for granted for decades have suddenly once again been raised as issues,” she says. “For example, there were cases in the ’90s that I had thought clearly settled access to facilities, such as toilets, and yet they are now being rehashed again.

“We’ve also seen healthcare for trans people slowly degrade over the same period. As a trans person you’re now waiting five to 10 years to get access to even start transition-related care, while the media portrays it as rushed.”

She believes the U-turn on conversion therapy was orchestrated.

“This is something that in the government’s own words is a ‘coercive and abhorrent practice’, that ‘can cause long lasting damage to those who go through it’,” she says. “For them to turn around and say that trans people shouldn’t be protected from it, was as if they were clearly saying that our lives are less worthy of that protection.”

When she discusses so-called conversion therapy, Harris makes sure to stress just how damaging it is.  

“I don’t like using the word ‘therapy’, because ‘therapy’ is meant to be a healing word”, says Harris.

“These aren’t therapies where you are freely exploring; these are situations and practices where there is already a predicated outcome.”

She pauses, and takes a long, deep breath. When she does speak again, her voice trembles slightly.

“They are always coercive, abhorrent, and it’s very clear from pretty much all medical literature, all sort of qualitative studies, that they don’t work in the long term.”

It is an “insidious practice” which “weaponises” homophobia and transphobia “in a way that erodes the victim’s self-confidence, their self-esteem, and their very sense of self”, says Harris.

As well as excluding trans people, the proposed conversion therapy ban will permit some conversion practices for over-18s who give informed consent. Critics argue that meaningful consent is not possible, as practitioners are unlikely to admit that there is no medical evidence that conversion works, or that patients risk profound psychological damage.

Harris also points out that fears of harassment, ostracisation and abandonment are often used “to shame, guilt or frighten the victim into participating”, alongside “covert types of emotional abuse”.

“Can you consent to something where you are shamed into it?”, she asks.

In some cases, people may not even realise that what they are going through is conversion therapy, Harris says. She refers to talking-based conversion practices – often opaquely advertised as ‘exploratory therapy’ – which co-opt the language of psychotherapy, and often do not explicitly state conversion as a goal.

Victims are often told that “their identity is a result of trauma, and in order to ‘heal’ from it they also need to heal from their sexuality or gender identity”, Harris explains.

“This often ends up with the victim feeling significant shame and conflict over core parts of their identity, impacting on their sense of self.”

The National LGBT Survey found that one in five people who underwent conversion therapy did so at the hands of a healthcare provider.

“For trans people especially, some practitioners will promise referral to onward treatment after reaching certain, ever lengthening, milestones”, Harris says. “This is often conducted as a delaying tactic to prevent the person attempting to access reputable care that would benefit them for as long as possible, while also giving the practitioner time to carry out conversion practices over a prolonged period.”

Trans people are particularly vulnerable to these practices, Harris tells me, because of a “general lack of access to trans healthcare” on the NHS. Although “every major UK medical body is against ‘conversion therapy’”, Harris says practitioners do sometimes advocate these practices, and can obstruct patients asking to be referred to a gender identity clinic (GIC). The National LGBT Survey found that 7 per cent of trans people had changed GP due to negative experiences.

Once referred by a GP, trans patients in England can expect to spend at least three years on waiting lists before receiving care. This all pushes trans people to seek private care, says Harris, and “can result in trans people being unknowingly forced into financing their own abuse until they realise and find actual care.”

“I wasn’t expecting the response that the petition has got”, says Harris. Four days after launching, it had already received 100,000 signatures.

“I was expecting it to take weeks”, she says, adding that she has been moved by the solidarity the community has shown trans people.

“I think my feeling of frustration is shared across the trans community”, she says. “The problem has been people just don’t know where to put that frustration, and it can easily turn to despair, especially as we see things get steadily worse. 

“We need to use this frustration to try to make something positive out of it, and use it to collectively advocate for ourselves.  The petition is one of the ways I’m trying to do that.”

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