November 8, 2021 - 7:00am

“Would you rather have a happy son or a dead daughter?”

That is the terrible proposition that is put to parents of children who, in increasing numbers have been suddenly declaring themselves to be transgender over the past few years. If children and young people are not “affirmed” as being “born in the wrong body”, and given drugs that stop puberty and change their secondary sex characteristics, they are supposedly being put at risk of suicide.

The latest scientific sounding backing for this ominous claim comes from Dr Adam Jowett of Coventry University, whose new study into “conversion therapy” was commissioned by the Government Equalities Office. He told Radio 4 last week that there is a “growing body of evidence that exposure to Conversion Therapy is associated with poor mental health including suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts” — and defines conversion therapy as “any efforts to try and change somebody’s sexual orientation or gender identity.”

The government proposal is to make it a criminal offence for anyone to deliver a talking therapy to a child “with the intention of changing them to or from being transgender”. Those found guilty would face up to six months in prison or an unlimited fine. But the campaign seeks to make use of justifiable opposition to abusive gay conversion therapies to ban potentially important explorative therapy for children with gender dysphoria.

While the government says therapists would still be allowed to undertake exploratory therapy with children who are “questioning” their gender, this is slim protection. If a child of any age declares that they are definitely trans, then a therapist, teacher, parent, social worker or anyone else who engages in a talking therapy that doesn’t affirm them as the opposite sex would face the threat of prosecution. 

At Sex Matters we have analysed the Coventry University study. Dr Jowett claims that they found “increasing evidence” that attempts to change a person’s gender identity “can cause serious harm”. But despite undertaking an extensive review of the scientific literature Jowett and his team found no robust evidence of what they call “conversion therapy” in relation to gender identity; no evidence that it happens in the UK; and no detail of its nature or proof of its impacts. Its claim of harm rests on a single question in a non-representative, self-reported survey done by a US Transgender advocacy organisation.

In addition to searching for published studies, his team interviewed just 30 people — of these four were transgender and two identified as non-binary. None of these six reported childhood conversion therapy. One middle aged male living in a religious community reported being encouraged to go to counselling after adopting female clothing. One person with a diagnosis of schizophrenia and another with PTSD complained that a psychiatrist had suggested that feelings of gender dysphoria might be related to other mental health factors. 

Dr Jowett meanwhile behaves more like an activist than the author of an unbiased review of evidence. Just last week he attacked comments by Malcom Clark of the charity the LGB Alliance that the proposed new bill is too extensive as part of an “anti-trans agenda,” and imputed the views of his research subjects to support his own agenda. It is perhaps less surprising when you learn he is the Chair of a group that has been campaigning for a ban on conversion therapy. In May, as Chair of the British Psychological Society’s Sexualities Section he welcomed the announcement of the legislation saying: “It is vitally important that a ban is implemented as soon as possible” and pledged to “hold the government to account on this issue”. 

All of which suggests that the Government Equalities Office is not the right department to be commissioning research into the therapeutic treatment of children with mental health issues — and Dr Jowett is not the right person to conduct it in any case.

The Department of Health on the other hand has commissioned Dr Hillary Cass to undertake an Independent review of gender identity services for children and young people. She and her team are carefully considering evidence without a predetermined outcome. The Government should resist the LGBTQIA+ lobby’s encouragement to rush to criminalise therapists who refuse to tell parents they have a choice between a “dead daughter and living son”. Instead it should be patient and allow the Cass Review team to do their job.

Maya Forstater is an international development researcher and Director of Sex Matters.