Targeting gender identity for conversion therapy is just as wrong as targeting sexual orientation

From Medium:

Florence Ashley
November 17, 2018

In a recent article, philosopher Dr. Kathleen Stock expressed concern over the definition of conversion therapy put forward by Stonewall and major UK mental health organisations because it includes both sexual orientation and gender identity.

Her article raises two primary arguments against the inclusion of gender identity within the definition of conversion therapy. Firstly, she implies that gender identity isn’t unchangeable or harmless, unlike sexual orientation. Secondly, she argues that affirming gender identity would be tantamount to conversion therapy by omission with regards to sexual orientation.

Both arguments are unfounded. Her first argument is empirically mistaken, as available evidence doesn’t support the claim that gender identity is patently more malleable than sexual orientation. Even if it were that would not make conversion therapy ethical, as no evidence supports the claim that being transgender is harmful. Her second argument is theoretically mistaken, as it relies on a confusion between sexual attraction and sexual orientation labels. Although those who transition may change the label they use for their sexual orientation, it doesn’t make their sexual attraction vary: their sexual attraction remains the same.

Gender identity can’t be changed

She claims, correctly, that rejections of anti-gay conversion therapy are grounded in the beliefs that there is “little convincing evidence that a homosexual orientation can be changed after late childhood” and that “homosexuality isn’t harmful, either to the individual or wider society, so there’s no need to try.” The implicit message to readers is that this isn’t the case for gender identity and therefore that the parallel between anti-gay and anti-trans reparative therapy is illegitimate.

Contrary to her suggestion, we have good reasons to think that, gender identity can’t be changed after late childhood either. In a 2011 study from the Netherlands, all 70 youth who undertook hormonal puberty suppression continued to be transgender into adulthood. The World Professional Association for Transgender Health also explains that reparative treatments have “been attempted in the past without success, particularly in the long term.” Indeed, even practitioners whose practices have been likened to conversion therapy no longer attempt to alter gender identity after puberty because evidence suggests that it is fixed by that age. Even evidence that pre-pubertal youth’s gender identity can be altered has significant flaws and limitations, raising doubts as to whether gender identity is ever malleable.

Being trans isn’t harmful

Even if gender identity was malleable, altering it wouldn’t be ethical. It is morally objectionable to seek to change harmless traits which faced historical and ongoing stigma. Trying to make people straight would still be wrong if it was possible. Why would trying to make people cisgender be any different?

Though not expressly stated, I suspect that Dr. Stock’s suggestion here is that it is different because being trans is harmful to oneself and to others.

Although she doesn’t outright state it, her writing on the Gender Recognition Act reform come to mind when it comes to potential harm to others. Given how extensively this reform has been debated in the media, I won’t rehash it. Suffice to say, evidence that being trans harms others is far from forthcoming. On the contrary, a recent study published in Sexuality Research and Social Policy found no increase in criminal incidents in gendered spaces following laws granting trans people access based on their gender identity.

That being trans is harmful to oneself is no more evident. According to recent studies, supporting trans youth’s gender identities makes them as mentally healthy as the rest of the youth population. This confirms what trans scholars and advocates have been saying all along: stigma is the primary determinant of trans wellbeing.

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