‘This is not a debate’

Sometimes you can say that once you’ve built a settled consensus. Otherwise, you’ll lose the debate you tried to spurn

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© Can Stock Photo / vlatko2002.

From cringe to confidence

By 1994, as MPs argued over whether to reduce the age of consent for sex between men to 18 or 16, advocates sounded bolder. Even then, some described their opposition in terms I won’t include here. (And 18 won that time. Equality had to wait until 2000: the House of Lords had to be overruled under the Parliament Acts.) But Tony Banks made the point — pretty basic, we’d say now — that homophobia was homophobes’ fault, not gay people’s:

From making the argument to trying to ban it

But all of these changes had to be argued for. Their advocates had to deal with their critics — in the media, in Parliament, and among the public at large. Which is why I was struck by the social media reaction when the House of Commons Petitions Committee tweeted to seek views on banning the practice of so-called conversion therapy a few weeks ago. (A petition to ban it had received enough signatures for a debate, but coronavirus has put paid to Westminster Hall debates for the time being. The Committee sought views to inform its report on the topic.)

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Twitter thought debating the issue was very bad.

Changing the law is complex

The point becomes even clearer when you look at the details of different conversion therapy bans. Vancouver in Canada has one of the widest-reaching bans: its bylaw bans businesses from offering conversion therapy at any age. Germany’s ban only covers minors and adults where consent was obtained by coercion, threat, deception or error. The German Greens called for an age of 26; the Left Party wanted 27. Taiwan’s ‘ban’ stems, in effect, from a letter from the Ministry of Health clarifying that conversion therapy is not a legitimate medical treatment meaning existing criminal law applies to its provision. This seems to draw a similar line to Germany’s.

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‘Conversion practices’ as defined in Maltese law.

You can’t close a debate down before you win it

Judging from the hue and cry, lots of people thought MPs should enact their demands in silence, sackcloth and ashes. I’m afraid that isn’t how representative democracy works. Parliament hasn’t seen fit to change the law yet, and I suspect most people haven’t thought about the issue very much. Like it or not, the discussion is not over.

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