THE Scottish Government’s aim to ban conversion therapy practices is set to face major opposition from gender-critical campaigners, the Scottish Conservatives and, according to some reports, more than a dozen SNP MSPs.

However, Scotland is no pioneer in attempting to ban conversion therapy – a process the Government defines as having the intention to change or suppress the sexual orientation or gender identity of another person.

In 2016, Malta became the first country in Europe to ban all treatment “that aims to change, repress and, or eliminate a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity and, or gender expression”.

Germany, too, banned advertising or offering conversion therapy to children under-18 in 2020, with adults also being protected by the law if they are coerced or exhibit a “lack of will power” in the decision-making process.

The National spoke to two campaigners from Malta and Germany to understand how the ban has impacted their prospective countries and whether there are lessons to be learned for Scotland.

A different politics

Malta was the first country in Europe to pass a ban.

“Everyone knew conversion therapy was happening in Malta,” said Alex Caruana, a senior programs officer for the Malta LGBTIQ Rights Movement.

“But we’re lucky in that we really don’t have the ‘gender war’ you have in the UK.

“Our basis for campaigning for LGBT+ rights has always been about family, which is hugely important in Mediterranean countries.

The National: Campaigners against LGBT+ conversion therapy attend a protest in London. Photo by Mark Kerrison/In Pictures via Getty Images)

“For example, when it came to equal marriage, we pushed the idea that your straight son being able to marry while your gay son couldn’t was discrimination against your children.

“Parents understood that. It was the same with conversion therapy.

“Of course, it’s really difficult for parents when the son you had all these plans for suddenly becomes your daughter. Everything changes and they need time to process.

“But, ultimately, we found that they were far more interested in attempting to understand their children than trying to change them”.

The country’s parliamentary political landscape also ensured that the ban didn’t become a polarising topic.

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“We don’t have this stark separation between right-wing conservatives and left-wing parties.

“We have centre-left and centre-right but both are quite in the centre.

“And while those on the centre-right are certainly more conservative in other regards, they are not anti-LGBT.

“We don’t see politicians publicly demonising trans people and I believe that really made all the difference.”

Has anyone been prosecuted since the bans came into force?

As of yet, no fines or jail time have been handed down to anyone for breaking the conversion therapy ban in Malta or Germany.

However, former X Factor Malta contestant and “ex-gay” evangelical Matthew Grech is currently being prosecuted under the legislation in Malta.

The two founders of PMnews Malta – an “uncensored” news site – interviewed Grech about how he “left” homosexuality and broadcast it online.

All three now face charges of promoting conversion therapy practices.

Caruana did not wish to comment on the live case but said that a lack of prosecution did not mean the law had failed to achieve its aim.

“Banning conversion therapy in law will not change everything,” he said.

“We know there are still organisations being supported by money from religious groups in the United States who still wish to practice conversion therapy in Malta.

The National: Germany's parliament passed a conversion therapy ban in 2020Germany's parliament passed a conversion therapy ban in 2020

“But there has been a change in mentality. The law is a statement. Firstly, it tells LGBT+ people that there’s nothing wrong with you. You don’t need to change.

“Secondly, it says that if someone is forcing you to change, you can go to the police.

“And, ultimately, we believe it results in fewer parents even considering taking their child to conversion therapy.”

Hartmut Ras, an expert on “ex-gay” movements for the Lesbian and Gay Federation in Germany, said the law had resulted in many organisations relocating.

“Some groups have changed their name or moved out of Germany entirely,” he said.

“They don’t advertise anymore. They don’t host events like they used to. This may be a very young law but just because nobody has been prosecuted doesn’t mean it hasn’t had an impact.

“It sent a clear signal to German society."

The rights of parents

One of the main concerns expressed by those against the current legislation in Scotland is that it risks the criminal prosecution of parents who refuse to immediately validate their child’s gender identity.

Prominent gender-critical campaigner Helen Joyce believes “ethical therapists” and “loving parents” risk being criminalised for not validating a child’s feelings of gender dysphoria

While the Catholic Church in Scotland claims it could have a “chilling effect and may criminalise advice or opinion given in good faith”.

Ras said that this hadn’t been the case in Germany where parents and legal guardians were also subject to the law.

He said: “In practice, we haven’t seen prosecutions against parents. But the law needs to acknowledge that parents aren’t like other providers as they can be victims, too.

“Families, particularly religious ones, can spend money on a practice that doesn’t work and tears them apart from their children.

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“But, in principle, it’s correct to say that parents should not have the legal right to force their children into conversion therapy. Prosecutors just have to understand the complexity of those cases."

He added that there is a clear distinction between appropriate interventions for those questioning their sexuality or gender identity and the practice of conversion therapy.

“Conversion therapy has a goal,” he said. “It wants to make the patient ‘normal’ again.

“The professional approach to someone questioning their sexuality or gender is to help them find out whether they’re gay or not, or whether they’re trans or not.

“That’s a process, sometimes a difficult one. But it’s not attempting to force people in one direction. That’s the key difference”.

'It makes me proud to be Maltese'

Political parties in Scotland appear to agree that conversion therapy being used to try to change the sexuality of lesbian, gay or bisexual people is wrong and should be outlawed.

Instead, the debate centres around the very legitimacy of transgender identity and whether it should be permissible to prosecute parents who don’t believe in it. But Caruana said that the basis of both the Maltese and Scottish legislation was simple and shouldn’t be sidetracked.

“I won’t claim to understand everything about Scottish politics but when it comes to conversion therapy it’s easy,” he added.

“Politicians have to represent everyone, even the smallest minorities and those facing marginalisation. Yes, including trans people.

“The point of banning conversion therapy is to say that it’s okay to be you.

“If parents have a problem with their child’s sexuality or gender identity, then it’s the parents and not the children who are at fault.

“And, honestly, banning this practice makes me proud to be Maltese. I think my life as a trans person is much better here than it would be in the UK.

“There’s no reason Scotland shouldn’t feel that same pride.”

A public consultation on Scotland’s proposed ban on conversion practices will close on April 2.