When Liz Truss confirmed that the government was committing itself to banning LGBT conversion therapy, there was some bemusement: is the middle of a pandemic really the time for this? The decision was announced back in May, and Truss – who serves as equalities minister – conceded that 'many forms of the practice are already prevented under current legislation'. But this 'new ban', she added 'will ensure that it is stamped out once and for all.'
Let’s be clear: coercive and abusive practices need rooting out. But if existing laws doesn’t work, will new ones really help? Or could they have unintended consequences?
James Esses – a trainee psychotherapist – worried that normal therapeutic practices could get caught in the net. He petitioned the government not to criminalise essential, explorative therapy, especially regarding gender dysphoric children. He was surely right to do so. After all, the landmark Keira Bell case exposed the folly of uncritical affirmation.
While the government offered assurances that a consultation would take place to ensure that free speech would be defended and religious freedom upheld before new conversion therapy legislation was introduced, the thought police have been brutal to Esses.
Following complaints about his social media activity, he was expelled from his training course. Three years into his five-year degree – which has cost him thousands of pounds – Esses claims that the Metanoia institute cancelled him by email.
'I was simply told I had brought them into disrepute,' he says. Heaping further pressure on Esses, Metatonia went public. In a tweet shared with their 2,000 followers, the charity said:
'Whilst we do not publicly comment on our internal processes, today we have terminated a students’ membership to Metanoia Institute.'
His volunteering contract with Childline was also subsequently terminated.
Esses told The Spectator that he thought his treatment was because of his beliefs about sex and gender; 'sex is immutable, binary and biological, but gender is a question of identity,' he says. Surely most people would agree with those thoughts, but are those views now beyond the pale?
The NSPCC, which is Childline's umbrella charity, said it does not recognise Esses' account. In a statement, it said: 'Volunteers cannot give the impression that Childline endorses their personal campaigns'. Professor Weston of the Metanoia Institute said: 'When he was a student Mr Esses made a series of public pronouncements. In doing so he brought the institute into disrepute and made his position on the course untenable.'
But whatever the reason for his dismissals, there is no doubt that what happened to Esses, who has invested time, energy and money to retrain as a psychotherapist, amounts to a personal tragedy. His future has been put on hold. He is currently fundraising so that he can seek legal redress from Metanoia. But the implications of this messy row on freedom of speech – and freedom of belief – should surely worry everyone.
Esses explained that 'I am very keen to have respectful and honest dialogue with those that disagree with me.' But he finds himself in a world where those ideals are too often eschewed:
'I have found the conversation shut down by others before it can even begin but, if we as humans were unable to work with those we disagree with, I think we would have failed as a species.'
Truss talked about banning coercive practices, but it seems that, in Britain today, we are being coerced into a new orthodoxy over sex and gender. Esses is not an isolated case. Before him, Maya Forstater lost her position at a think tank after she said – quite rightly in my view – that transgender women cannot change their biological sex.
But it seems that what were once absolute truths that we could all rely on, are now opinions that can be derided and shamed. The wider picture here is terrifying. Language is being turned on its head. Metatonia’s tweet, which denounced Esses in all but name, linked to their statement on LGBT+ history month. They claim to oppose 'all forms of discrimination', but was Esses shown the door for thinking differently?
'Had I been engaging in activism arguing that 'trans men are men' or that 'sex is assigned at birth', I imagine I would have been backed and celebrated by both Metanoia and Childline,' he says.
In this brave new world we have stumbled into, disagreement from the orthodoxy is not viewed favourably. At her original employment tribunal, Forstater was told that her views were 'not worthy of respect in a democratic society'. Who decides which views are worthy of respect is in a very powerful position indeed. Who are those people and who gave them the power to control society?
Both Forstater and Esses have discovered the hard way that putting your head above the parapet on this issue can end badly. Where once we discussed policies and new laws to deepen understanding about them and their impact, we are now under pressure to accept what we are told or face the consequences. The implications of that should worry us all.