“We have the power, we have the pride, trans people united, side by side.”
These were the words that rang through the square outside Sheffield City Hall on Saturday (30 April). As the sunlight blazed down on activists’ placards, hundreds of protestors gathered to demand the government enact a full ban on conversion therapy.
The static demonstration was organised by a group of local grassroots activists, all of whom have asked to remain anonymous.
Underlining the importance of anonymity for protestors, a spokesperson explained: “Many people aren’t out [as queer or trans], many are victim to the hostile environment and may have their migration status compromised, and others may have information used against them as social security claimants.”
However, the organising group does have an active Facebook page under the name Sheffield Against Conversion Therapy. This page has been used over the last few weeks to organise the protest, and to share articles on the inhumane practice of conversion therapy.
Representatives of the Socialist Worker newspaper were on hand to give out copies and stand in solidarity with the trans community, whereas local events space DINA encouraged protestors to hand over their placards and banners to be displayed after the demonstration.
The Sheffield protest has been years in the making
It was back in 2018 that the Tory Party first pledged to ban the “abhorrent” practice of conversion therapy in its LGBT Action Plan. It was one of just a few concrete pledges made in the comprehensive document.
Another key promise was to reform the 2004 Gender Recognition Act (GRA). In 2019, the government launched a public consultation on the GRA. In a nutshell, the public were asked to vote “for” or “against” streamlining the procedure for gender self-identification. Currently, this process is exhaustive and often costly for trans people.
Despite 70 per cent of the public voting in favour of reform, the government scrapped the reform.
It wasn’t until 31 March, 2022 – four years after the initial pledge to ban conversion therapy – that the government made a public announcement on conversion ban legislation.
Despite years of campaigning by solidarity groups such as Ban Conversion Therapy, a coalition of faith group representatives, LGBT+ activists and mental health practitioners, it was announced that the ban would be scrapped.
The backlash was swift, and widespread. MPs, medical experts and outraged members of the public made their outrage known. Just hours later, the government announced it would enforce the ban after all – but only for lesbian, gay and bisexual people, not for transgender people.
Prime minister Boris Johnson has since doubled down on this exclusion, once again describing gay conversion therapy as “abhorrent” but saying “there are complexities and sensitivities when you move from the area of sexuality to the question of gender.” Instead, he argued we should simply show “love and support” to those who transition.
Speakers ranged from LGBT+ activists to members of parliament
Fury over the decision to exclude trans communities from a conversion therapy ban has come from the public and from within the government itself. Equalities minister Liz Truss is said to have been “blindsided” by the decision, according to sources quoted by PinkNews last month.
Sheffield’s protest had a parliamentary presence, too. Olivia Blake, the Labour MP for Sheffield Hallam, who self-identifies as queer and disabled, gave a powerful speech reassuring the crowd that they do have political support within the House of Commons.
“I was absolutely horrified, as a member of parliament to hear the government had U-turned on conversion therapy,” she said.
“I was even more horrified when they decided that they are going to exclude one part of our community from the ban. I think that level of discrimination is abhorrent, and needs calling out.”
Other speakers included university trans welfare officers, Trade Union representatives and local activists such as Heather Paterson, founder of Sheffield-based LGBT+ organisation SAYiT.
Ashley Routh, a Sheffield mayoral candidate for the Green Party, also spoke at the protest, encouraging voters to look critically at the policies of candidates rather than voting for parties.
Speakers underlined the misnomer of conversion ‘therapy’
Blake went on to share the powerful story of a Cassie, a Sheffield-based trans woman who survived conversion therapy.
“At the insistence of her family, she began treatment to ‘cure’ her gender identity,” said Blake.
“Her counsellor, a member of a faith community, began talking therapy, encouraging her to unpick why she was not the gender into which she had been born. It soon turned into accusations that she was mentally unwell, that she had been abused, and that her parents failed her.”
There are various forms of conversion therapy: from pseudo-scientific counselling sessions and religious intervention to corrective rape and exorcism, the scope is wide-ranging.
Blake continued, offering details of Cassie’s faith-based experiences: “She was read Holy Scripture, and enunciations of a ‘transgender lifestyle’.”
These details are important. Currently, a draft version of the conversion ban legislation specifically outlaws the practice amongst licensed healthcare professionals, and forbids it from being practiced on minors. However, it leaves a gap for religious or spiritual providers to continue carrying out conversion therapy, as well as “consenting” adults.
The British Medical Association described attempts to “convert” trans people as unfounded, and describe them leading to “long-lasting psychological harm, substance abuse, or even suicide.” In a comprehensive report, the United Nations declared conversion therapy “may amount to torture.”
The protest was rounded off by the Sheffield Steel Orchestra
In an impromptu, joyous moment during the protest’s closing moments, the Sheffield Steel Orchestra rounded off the protest with Boney M’s “Rasputin”, followed by a Madonna medley.
Activists waved placards emblazoned with slogans like “Goths Against Conversion Therapy” and “Let Trans Youth Bloom.” Protestors danced atop one of the City Hall’s two fountains, draped in a banner reading “Trans Power.”
Protest organisers encouraged leaving the event in groups, acutely aware of the dangers trans people face outside of these carefully-organised, comparatively safe environments.
Draped in various Pride flags, allies and protestors flocked through the city chanting in coalition: “Trans rights are under attack. What do we do? Fight back!”