The Chair of Ban Conversion Therapy tells us why harmful prayer “must be banned, and will be banned”
As a Government consultation on gay conversion therapy gets underway, one prominent evangelical group has been urging their supporters to oppose any ban in principle. They say pastoral ministry is a private consensual conversation and the law should not interfere with it.
But for Jayne Ozanne, a change in the law is much needed, and long overdue. The campaigner went through over 20 years of conversion therapy herself and “suffered significant harm” as a result of treatment from her fellow Christians.
“I ended up in hospital twice with my body really cracking under the strain, both times having a full blown breakdown, and looking at a very dark abyss where I felt the only option I had was to take my life,” she says.
This experience “fuelled her” to call on the Church of England’s General Synod to condemn gay conversion therapy (which they did, saying it had “no place in the modern world”). Next, Ozanne took the fight straight to the government, seeking a change in the law. But three years after being appointed to a Government advisory panel, she was concerned progress was too slow. Following an “out of touch” speech by equalities minister, Kemi Badenoch, Ozanne resigned in March. “I hoped the Prime Minister would take note and intervene…and shortly after that we did have commitments to a ban.”
This Government U-turn felt like a significant moment. And the fact that the Government has pledged to ban gay conversion therapy must feel like a huge achievement for the campaigner. But Ozanne is reserving judgement: “The devil is always in the detail,” she says.
We spoke to her to find out exactly what she is – and isn’t – proposing.
You’ve said a conversion therapy ban must include “religious practices”. What sort of practices would those be?
Conversion therapy is any practice - something that happens, not what you believe - that looks to change, cure (you have an intent of trying to heal someone), or suppress a person’s sexual orientation and gender identity. It needs to be aimed at a specific individual or group of individuals. And it must have a predetermined purpose.
I’m a Christian, and I believe powerfully in the wonderful gift of prayer and how God communes with us in that way. But that can turn into something that Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner has called “hate prayer”, when it has a predetermined purpose of trying to change you, suppress you or cause you to be something that you’re not with regards to your sexual orientation or gender identity.
A lot of people seem to think [about prayer], oh, what’s just a few words? It comes from a loving place. But my testimony, and thousands of others like me, know that it’s the years of believing that who we are is sinful, unacceptable, that something must have happened to us that needs healing, that we need to suppress who we are. And it’s that constant engagement with people who are trying to make you into something that you’re not that causes such deep psychological harm and trauma, which is well documented now.
Do you think there’s a scale where some elements of gay conversion therapy, such as forced exorcisms, are worse than the well-meaning gentle prayers of fellow Christians?
There’s no second class. Any practice that aims to seek to change cure, suppress [is wrong]…
When I talk about conversion therapy, I tend to talk about it in three stages. The first stage is the private hell that many of us live in for many years not talking to anybody about it, because we think we will be ostracised or rejected. In my case that led to my body, sadly, really cracking under the strain and my being rushed into hospital trying to work out what on earth was going wrong with me.
Then I started reaching out and I spoke to people within my church group and my prayer and Bible study groups. This is done by loving, kind, wonderful friends who wanted what I wanted, which was for me to be changed to become “normal” - settle down, have a family and get married. Those prayers were done with the best of intentions, but had a horrendous impact on my psychological wellbeing.
The third phase is when you look for specialised ministries - people who believe they’ve got special gifts, who I would pay quite a lot to spend some time with. I subjected myself to all sorts of treatments there. But that was just as damaging as the prayers from kind, loving, well-meaning people.
Some people might be surprised to hear you say that the more ‘extreme’ kinds of gay conversion therapy is - to quote your words - “just as damaging” - as well-meaning prayer. Is that what you’re saying?
It’s the impact on the individual. And what I’m absolutely shocked and, frankly, horrified by, is the lack of engagement and lack of remorse from any senior Evangelical Alliance leader, who refuses to recognise the evidence – of which there is almost a library full now - of the harm that this does. I think that religious leaders need to recognise spiritual abuse, and that they themselves can be just as guilty of it.
Christians are told by their leaders that what they are is sinful and their desires, which are innate, are ungodly – that level of internalised pressure is huge. So yeah, there is no such thing as a simple, little, loving prayer because it comes from a place of saying that who you are is unacceptable. You would not be doing that to try and change someone’s skin colour, or to change them being left-handed or right-handed.
Are you trying to ban prayer? Because that’s what some of your critics are saying.
Of course not. And of course, they’re going for massive headlines. I’ve been told that I’m trying to ban the Lord’s Prayer, which is ludicrous. And frankly, every time they say that, it pushes the government right towards us [onto our side], because they know that this is all hype.
No, I’m trying to ban harmful prayer that has a predetermined purpose that is directed at an individual with an aim to change, cure or cancel. Prayer that looks to support an individual, to give them a space where they can explore and come to a point of peace with who they are, is to be welcomed and encouraged.
So you believe it’s possible to only ban harmful prayer, and not general prayer, because you’ve clearly defined what ‘harmful’ means?
You know, the people making these claims [against me] are just fear mongering because they’ve got no leg to stand on. Because they know the harm they’ve done and the lives that they have ripped apart. It makes me really angry. And you want a balanced argument - you want to put me up against somebody…? Well we don’t do that with domestic abuse. No, you need to call them out for the harm that they do.
But when it comes to any legislation around prayer, do you understand those who say they have such a high regard for religious freedom that the very principle of any government telling any person of faith what they can and can’t pray is wrong?
I understand that many think that the Church is above reproach, and it’s exactly that attitude which led to the heavy levels of sexual abuse that we saw happening in our churches, because we didn’t think it would happen. If we understood the harm that we did, and actually want to engage with that conversation, there wouldn’t be need for legislation. But I don’t see this as prayer, I see this as hateful rhetoric coming from an internalised, homophobic or transphobic point of view. It is not, in my mind, biblically based. It causes harm and the whole point of law is to intervene to safeguard and protect people, especially in areas where people do not accept the harm that they do.
So for you, this is not about two opposing theological camps who are disagreeing with each other. For you, there are those who are being abusive and those who are not.
No it’s nothing to do with theology. Again, one of the pieces of fake news that’s being put out is that I’m trying to ban preaching or ban people’s beliefs. No, of course not.
So if a preacher were to say on Sunday, “The Bible says homosexual sex is a sin” you’re not saying that should be banned?
No, I never said that. I’ve constantly said the exact opposite but is fascinating that people want to twist and not hear that.
There are some Christians who will say: “I was gay and I was prayed for, and now I’m not”. Those people feel very strongly that any form of prayer on this issue should not be banned. How would you address their concerns?
The law is clear that when a significant number of people are at risk of harm, the law has to act, even if one per cent of people think it might work. The risks to the majority means that they have to work for the greater good. That’s why we have seatbelt laws. Many of us think we drive particularly well and carefully. But we have laws to protect the majority.
What I would say to those people is that I, too, thought it had worked. I spent a couple of years believing, and desperately wanted it to work - until I met somebody who I fell in love with again, and realised that it hadn’t. We play psychological games in our head because we desperately want it to work but I’m afraid to say it’s a paper tiger, and something that too often ends in tears. The number of people I know who married someone of the opposite sex in good faith, only to find out years later the whole thing was a lie, and the harm that does because they weren’t honest and up front is huge.
There are Christians who identify as gay, but believe the Bible prohibits same sex relationships. These Christians are therefore choosing to live celibate lifestyles. They may be seeking prayer not to change their orientation, but prayer that encourages and strengthens them in their commitment to celibacy. Where would they stand on this legislation?
There’s various things that you’ve said which I take issue with. Celibacy is a gift; it’s a calling and because that’s what God wants for you, you’re happy with that. But what you’re talking about is abstinence.
That’s not how these people would refer to themselves. I’m only using the language they would use of themselves.
But what they preach to young people is that you’ve got to suppress who you are, and that you have to be abstinent for life. And that is just as damaging, just as psychologically harmful, and it’s actually what has led at least one teenager to take her life. So that is a lifelong prison sentence with no hope of love, intimacy, or natural desire. And must be banned, and will be banned.
You think it’s just as damaging for a Christian to receive a prayer that encourages them toward what you call abstinence – as a prayer that seeks to change someone’s orientation?
I’ve been constantly clear. Any practice that seeks to change, cure or suppress is damaging, and must be banned. Celibacy is different, because that is a calling which you are not suppressing. That’s actually being true to yourself. And there are heterosexual celibates and homosexual celibates. And that’s very different.
But you have people saying: “my deep religious conviction, as a same-sex attracted Christian, is to live…” (what they would call) “a celibate life.” And you’re saying prayers in that regard are to be made illegal?
Yes, because it is damaging and lives are at stake.
Even if people want it?
And of those who want it, I know the vast majority end up having breakdowns and end up having secret lives where they go online and find other ways of satisfying themselves. It is deeply psychologically damaging.
If we were talking about another religion or another practice, we wouldn’t have a problem at all. But I cannot understand how people don’t want to put the wellbeing of young people first.
Premier Christianity is committed to publishing views from across the UK Church. For an alternative perspective on this story, see here.
The Government consultation is open until 10 December and can be accessed here.