'Culture war' of gay conversion therapy

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Media captionThe BBC's Benjamin Zand was the only broadcast journalist to gain access to the "gay conversion" conference

Gay conversion therapy is a fiercely contested topic - advocates claim it's not harmful but it has been condemned by UK health organisations. Here two men who have undergone treatment outline their opposing views.

Modern gay conversion therapy, according to organisations that promote it, can enable people to change or reduce their "homosexual tendencies" through "standard psycho-therapeutic and counselling techniques".

It is legal in the UK, but in January 14 health organisations - including NHS England and the Royal College of Psychiatrists - signed an agreement that described the treatment as "potentially harmful and unethical".

In 2009, journalist and gay rights activist Patrick Strudwick underwent conversion therapy while filming undercover.

He told the Victoria Derbyshire programme there was a "preposterous and offensive" basic notion that "homosexuality is a pathology, an illness, and that it can be cured".

The psychotherapist that treated him, he explained, asked him whether he had been sexually abused as a child. When he replied "no", she thought he was wrong and "prayed to God to bring those memories to the surface".

He says the therapist - who had her accreditation to the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy suspended following the secret filming - later inferred that it was "very likely" that the abuse was committed by someone in his family.

"In other words," Mr Strudwick says, "a therapist, who is with a potentially very vulnerable person, is suggesting to them that a member of their family has sexually abused them."

On another occasion, he adds, "I was advised to have regular massages with a male masseur as a way of having non-sexual contact with another man, therefore fulfilling the side of me that craves that kind of intimacy with men."

Mr Strudwick views gay conversion therapies as a representation of "a culture war... between fundamentalists who seek to eradicate an entire minority, and that minority itself.

"I'm afraid to say everyone who I have met with, who has been through any form of conversion therapy or aversion therapy, has been severely affected for a long time."

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'Free will'

But Andrew Comiskey thinks differently.

He has been speaking at a conference this month in London, called Transformation Potential, designed to promote the merits of gay conversion therapies.

Mr Comiskey believes his own therapy has been successful in removing much of his "homosexual inclinations," even if some remain.

"I think this side of heaven we are all flawed and if [the remaining inclinations] are an aspect of my flawed humanity, I'm okay with it. I think weakness is different from volitional sinning."

Mr Comiskey believes conversion therapy is the answer for those who wish to resolve their "moral conflict".

"Due to their faith commitment, [these people] cannot in good conscience assume a gay identity and act on that with other members of their own gender.

"I think it's the role of therapy to help a young person who is seeking help to sort out what his or her options are, and to make clear that there are options for looking at homosexuality in ways other than just saying 'You're born this way, make peace with it'."

Mr Comiskey says that those entering the treatment do so in "free will", and that the therapy is being wrongly viewed by politicians and professionals.

Earlier this month, Barack Obama condemned the practice, with a White House adviser saying the US president "supports efforts to ban the use of conversion therapy for minors".

Mr Comiskey, however, says he does not agree with the way in which Mr Obama and "perhaps some therapists in the UK" are portraying the treatment as "this aggressive, almost proselytising act on the part of a set of Christian therapists".

'No evidence'

In the UK, conferences such as Transformation Potential - organised by pro-therapy groups Core Issues Trust and Christian Concern - are not banned from taking place.

For the Royal College of Psychiatrists' Professor Michael King, the government is "wise" to take this stance.

"There are lots of kooky therapies out there for all sorts of things and we don't ban them, we warn against them.

"I think it was better to put the evidence out there and to say that any therapist worth a respected association would not undertake these treatments because they're harmful."

His greatest objection is held towards the claim that "sexual orientation can change, and that people are broken and they need therapy.

"There's just no evidence that that is true."

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