Germany bans conversion therapy for minors

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday May 13, 2020
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German Health Minister Jens Spahn arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany in January. Photo: AP Photo/Markus Schreiber
German Health Minister Jens Spahn arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany in January. Photo: AP Photo/Markus Schreiber

Germany is the latest country to ban conversion therapy for minors.

The country's parliament passed a bill May 7 outlawing the practice of attempting to change a person's sexual orientation or gender identity for minors and for adults who have been forced, threatened, or deceived to undergo the controversial treatment.

Conversion therapy has been widely debunked by major medical associations in the U.S., U.K., and elsewhere.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union joined the Social Democratic Party of Germany and the Free Democrats in voting for the ban.

According to Equal Eyes, the U.N.'s Free and Equal Campaign's online newsletter, the far-right Alternative for Germany party mostly abstained from the vote, as did the Left Party and the Greens. Only one member of the Alternative for Germany voted against the law. The Left Party and the Greens wanted to strengthen the law, claiming it didn't go far enough to protect young adults.

Last year, OutRight Action International published a groundbreaking report on conversion therapy titled "Harmful Treatment: The Global Reach of So-Called Conversion Therapy."

Germany's move comes as a new major report about conversion therapy will be released later this month as part of the U.N.'s independent sexual orientation and gender identity expert's forthcoming LGBT human rights report.

"Homosexuality is not an illness," gay German Health Minister Jens Spahn told reporters. "Therefore, the term 'therapy' is already misleading.

"Young people are being forced into conversion therapies," he continued, "and so it is very important that they should find support in the existence of this law: a clear signal that the state does not want this to happen."

Individuals and organizations convicted of advertising or practicing conversion therapy could face a fine up to $33,000 or a year in prison.

Parents who force their children into conversion therapy can be charged with violating their "duty of care" under the new law.

In good company

Germany is in good company. It joins Brazil, Ecuador, Malta, and Taiwan as countries that have banned conversion therapy nationwide.

In the United States, 20 states, including California and most recently Utah, along with the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico (a territory), and more than 70 localities have passed laws protecting minors from conversion therapy, the National Center for Lesbian Rights' Born Perfect campaign stated in a May 7 news release.

Additionally, survivors of conversion therapy have successfully sued their former therapists under state laws that prohibit consumer fraud, the release noted.

Other nations could follow Germany.

In March, Canada introduced legislation that would end conversion therapy nationwide. Other countries have proposed laws banning conversion therapy that are at various stages of the legislative process, reported the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association, also known as IGLA World, and OutRight.

IGLA World researchers compiled and examined laws banning conversion therapy in its 130-page report, "Curbing Deception: A world survey on legal regulation of so-called 'conversion therapies,'" published in February.


Global LGBT rights and queer youth activists applauded Germany's new law, calling it a powerful example.

Mathew Shurka, a conversion therapy survivor and co-founder of the Born Perfect campaign, and Sam Brinton, vice president of advocacy and government at The Trevor Project, an LGBT suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization, applauded Germany. They pointed out how susceptible LGBT people who have experienced conversion therapy are to depression and suicide.

"According to The Trevor Project's first-ever National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health in 2019, LGBTQ youth who had undergone conversion therapy were more than twice as likely to attempt suicide as those who have not," Brinton said in a May 8 statement. "Germany's bold action will save lives and send a message to LGBTQ young people around the world that they deserve love, respect, and support."

Shurka added, "Especially during this time, when many LGBTQ people are feeling more isolated and alone than ever, Germany's leadership is a powerful example of how governments can stand up for LGBTQ youth."

"The German Bundestag took an incredibly important step today — by banning conversion therapy it sent a powerful message that LGBTIQ people are not in need of change or cure," said Jessica Stern, executive director of OutRight.

Sean Howell, 40, the CEO of the LGBT Foundation in the U.K. and chairman of the board at Hornet, a gay social app, told the Bay Area Reporter that it's "especially important in Europe."

Doctors and psychologists who practice conversion therapy "need to be seen as quacks and unrespected by their peers in Europe," Howell, a gay man, said.

Howell co-wrote a new report about conversion therapy with Tyler Michael Adamson, the lead author of "The Global State of Conversion Therapy — A Preliminary Report and Current Evidence Brief," that is being used by the U.N.

Adamson, 29, is a gay Latino man who is a health policy and management expert specializing in epidemiology and human rights.

"I hope that people and countries and leaders around the world will be inspired by it," Adamson told the B.A.R., referring to Germany's action. "Everyone else should follow suit because at the end of the day we are only causing harm to our citizens and some of our most already vulnerable populations."

A Hornet conversion therapy survey serves as the basis for the forthcoming U.N. report.

A 14-page brief of the report was given to the B.A.R. It gives an overview of the widespread problem of conversion therapy practices, perpetrators, and the long-term damage it inflicts upon its victims.

"There is no shortage of the impacts of [the harm] ... this has caused people," Adamson said in a phone interview from Baltimore last week. "Recognizing that what may seem remedial at the time has long-term impacts.

"That's concerning in terms of the breadth and the widespread use of this," he continued, which builds upon "existing evidence to indicate that this is harmful, and we need to do something about it."

Adamson referenced the OutRight 2019 report on the topic.

Victor Madrigal-Borloz, a U.N. independent expert on violence and discrimination based on SOGI and a senior visiting researcher at Harvard Law School, told the B.A.R. that he immediately understood the implications of what the report demonstrated about the reality of conversion therapy.

"My report to the Human Rights Council of the United Nations this year will be solely focused on the issue of conversion therapy," said Madrigal-Borloz, a 50-year-old gay man from Costa Rica.

Adamson's research was "absolutely important for me," he said. It's difficult to obtain information about the practice because it is often shrouded in shame and stigma.

"I've received evidence from all corners of the world that this is a pervasive practice that ... is probably affecting hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people every year," he said. "That is deeply damaging and that is absolutely unjustified from any perspective."

Madrigal-Borloz said there's nothing to correct in LGBT peoples' lives regarding their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The study

The report is unique not only because of its size of respondents, but also because it takes an epidemiological perspective instead of a human rights framework, said Howell.

Howell is also the board chair for the Center for Public Health and Human Rights at Johns Hopkins University.

Adamson received his master's degree in public health policy and management specializing in epidemiology and human rights from Johns Hopkins.

The survey is a collaboration of Hornet, the LGBT Foundation, and the Center for Public Health and Human Rights at Johns Hopkins.

Adamson's team was able to tap into Hornet's more than 30,000 users in April to capture the biggest response ever to conversion therapy. More than 8,000 Hornet community members ages 18 to 85 from more than 100 countries responded to 44 questions about conversion therapy.

A majority of the users were gay and bisexual men, but transgender people also responded, including transgender men, which Adamson said was important.

Adamson's team was able to create a broad overview of the global issue of conversion therapy from the data culled from the app-based survey.

Another unique aspect of the survey is that it is ongoing. Adamson and Howell plan to dive deeper by continuing to translate the survey into different languages — it was translated into 10 languages in the first survey — and by revisiting questions with users raised by the initial findings.

"The volume of papers that will get published from this will be large," said Howell.

The researchers' initial findings discovered a range of terms used to describe the practice of conversion therapy, who is practicing and promoting it, and the harm it causes.

"Evidence clearly shows this is still an issue and this is only a glimpse of what sort of the true burden of the practice is around the world," said Adamson.

The initial snapshot of conversion therapy highlighted that it operates under the guise of more than 22 terms, including "reorientation therapy," "reparative therapy," and "support for unwanted same-sex attraction or transgender identities."

What Adamson found concerning was that there were a percentage of respondents who selected "other," which means there are apparently unknown terms in addition to the 22 already recognized that are being used to describe the practice, he said.

Adamson is most alarmed by governments and schools practicing conversion therapy, which was one of the key findings.

"Schools are supposed to be a place of safety and security for children," he said, and "if these practices are being implemented against young kids like that, that is unconscionable in my opinion."

Adamson hopes that the report will help people understand that conversion therapy is still a problem that is broadly practiced beyond religion and family.

"I think that often leaders will say, 'no that doesn't happen here.' But clearly this evidence says otherwise so sort of pressuring and putting more of the burden on leaders to recognize that yeah, this is happening in the Middle East and parts of Africa and all over the world so you can't use that as an excuse," said Adamson, referring to the report being utilized by the UN.

Howell hopes that someday victims will be able to potentially obtain compensation.

"I just dream of the day when someone who was forced into conversion therapy has some form of restitution and they can go sue a deep-pocketed church," said Howell.

Got international LGBT news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp: 415-517-7239, or Skype: heather.cassell, or [email protected]

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