Credit: Eduardo Chavez
In most, if not all, societies, people whose sexual orientation or gender identity are different from the heterosexual cisgender majority face a range of discrimination and often violence. That makes them uniquely exposed to torture and other ill-treatment.
IRCT data shows our member centres worldwide treat an average of 1,710 LGBTI+ survivors of torture each year, or around 3% of total survivors treated.
While that figure is broadly consistent with best estimates of the global proportion of persons who are LGBTI+, many LGBTI+ survivors treated at our centres are not recorded as such for their safety or out of fear of violence or recrimination. Thus, the 3% number is a significant underestimate.
One of the least understood, but most harmful, ways in which individuals who are LGBT+ suffer torture and ill-treatment is through the practice of so-called ‘conversion therapy’ – that set of practices that aim to change, ‘repair’ or ‘cure’ the individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
The IRCT has played a small but significant role in what is now a growing global movement to ban the practice. To find out more, read our Briefing below, or watch our video: It’s Torture, Not Therapy
Credit: Jessica Girvan
Read our report: Its Torture Not Therapy
Number of persons treated by IRCT members identifying as LGBTI+
Source: IRCT Global Impact Data 2021
“Conversion therapy is a form of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment when conducted forcibly on individuals or without their consent and may amount to torture depending on the severity of physical and mental pain and suffering inflicted.”
IRCT Briefing: ‘Conversion Therapy’
In April 2020, the IRCT’s Independent Forensic Expert Group (IFEG) released a statement documenting how so-called ‘conversion therapy’ violates the global prohibition against torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. In a further research report, IRCT identified state involvement in ‘conversion therapy’ in at least 68 countries. The IRCT called for a ban on the practice, and its research has since contributed to a growing global effort to speak out and legislate against the practice. During the celebration of WorldPride 2021 in Copenhagen in August, the IRCT hosted a breakout session bringing together key actors working against conversion therapy. In this Briefing we outline the research to-date and progress towards a ban.
What is ‘conversion therapy’?
Conversion therapy is a set of practices that aim to change, ‘repair’ or ‘cure’ an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity. It is premised on a belief that an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity makes them ill or abnormal and that those characteristics can changed, and doing so is a desirable outcome for the individual, family, or community. Other terms used to describe conversion therapy include sexual orientation change effort (SOCE), reparative therapy, reintegrative therapy, reorientation therapy, ex-gay therapy, and gay cure. The practices of conversion therapy vary across different cultural, religious and medical contexts, but can include violent physical acts such as beatings, rape, forced nudity, forced feeding, starvation and electrocution, as well as a range of reputedly therapeutic practices including psychotherapy, group therapy, and hypnosis, sometimes under the guise of spiritual guidance.
Who is subject to conversion therapy?
The arguments made by conversion therapy practitioners is that an individual with a sexual orientation or gender identity that is different from heterosexual orientation requires those characteristics to be ‘converted’ back to the supposed norm of society. As such, individuals who are lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, queer or other variations in sexuality or gender identity (LGBT+) are the most at-risk group for conversion therapy, with children being particularly vulnerable.
Why does the IRCT call ‘conversion therapy’ torture?
The Convention Against Torture defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person” for purposes that include “any reason based on discrimination of any kind” and in circumstances when “such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.” As a group of 42 distinguished independent medico-legal specialists from 23 countries, IFEG’s expertise in the evaluation and documentation of the physical and psychological evidence of torture and ill-treatment is world leading. Having reviewed research into conversion therapy and the testimonies of those affected, IFEG was able to conclude that it was “clear that conversion therapy is a form of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment when it is conducted forcibly on individuals or without their consent and may amount to torture depending on the circumstances, namely the severity of physical and mental pain and suffering inflicted.” “Many conversion therapy practices bear similarity to acts that are internationally acknowledged to constitute torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Those include beatings, rape, forced nudity, force-feeding, isolation and confinement, deprivation of food, forced medication, verbal abuse, humiliation, and electrocution,” said IFEG. “These specific acts as well as the entire period during which the individual experiences them is recognised internationally to subject individuals to significant or severe physical and/or mental pain and suffering […] All forms of conversion therapy, including talk or psychotherapy, can cause intense psychological pain and suffering. All practices attempting conversion are inherently humiliating, demeaning, and discriminatory.”
What about conversion therapy done in private – how is that torture?
The CAT definition of torture does not include acts perpetrated by private individuals. However, the Committee Against Torture, the treaty’s monitoring body, in its General Comment No. 2 established a “due diligence” obligation on States to prevent acts of torture or ill treatment by private individuals where they know or have reasonable grounds to suspect such acts are being committed. In its 2015 annual report, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) stressed that States “have an obligation to protect all persons, including LGBT and intersex persons, from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” and found that conversion therapy breaches this duty.
What progress has been made towards a ban on conversion therapy?
As of end January 2022, and building on research by ILGA, Stonewall, and the UK government, conversion therapy without consent is only banned nationwide in eight States: Greece, Canada, Germany, Malta, Albania, Brazil, Ecuador, and Switzerland. Most of those instituted bans over the past two years only. Spain, the US, Australia and Mexico have regional or state bans, while seven more States (Argentina, Uruguay, Fiji, Nauru, Samoa, Norway and Taiwan) have mental health laws prohibiting diagnosing patients exclusively on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity which act as a form of indirect ban. National Governments and Parliaments in Ireland, New Zealand, Israel, Denmark, Finland, Mexico, France and the UK are all actively considering conversion therapy ban legislation, or are in the process of launching consultations. And in China, although there is no legal ban, the courts have twice ruled in favour of gay men who sued medical practices that attempted conversion therapy, awarding compensation.
The UN Committee against Torture, the UN Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, and the OHCHR have all called upon States to ban the practice. In 2016, the UN Committee against Torture recommended that a States Party to the Convention should take “the necessary legislative, administrative and other measures to guarantee respect for the autonomy and physical and personal integrity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons and prohibit the practice of so-called ‘conversion therapy’.”
Human Rights in Action:
Towards a Global Ban on Conversion Therapy
The progress towards a global ban on conversion therapy is a powerful illustration of human rights in action. In 1999, only Brazil banned conversion therapy. It would take 15 years of speaking out, gathering evidence, and advocacy by civil society organisations around the world before, in 2016, the UN created the position of Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (IE SOGOI). As the OHCHR put it, the position was created because although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, in all regions of the world, there are acts of violence and discrimination committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In 2020, the IRCT’s Independent Forensic Expert Group (IFEG) released a statement documenting how conversion therapy violates the global prohibition against torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. In a further research report, IRCT identified State involvement in conversion therapy in at least 68 countries. Also in 2020, and building on IRCT and IFEG’s work, the IE SOGI, Victor Madrigal-Borloz (formerly IRCT’s Secretary General) published a report evidencing the harms of conversion therapy and calling for a ban. A year later, IRCT hosted a break-out session discussing the harms of the practice during World Pride in Copenhagen, hosting human rights defenders from China, Ecuador and Kenya. As of mid May 2022, eight States now ban conversion therapy outright, there are four regional or state bans, seven States have indirect bans, and eight more are in the process of legislating a ban. “I just had one electric shock treatment six years ago, but I still remember the psychological harm that brought to me,” said a human rights defender from China.