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France's parliament takes aim at 'conversion therapy'

Curto de la Torre, AFP | So-called conversion therapies remain difficult to quantify in France.

France’s National Assembly (lower house) began hearings this week on a draft law that would prohibit any practice aimed at “curing” homosexuality. The two MPs behind the project hope to submit a final bill by early 2020.

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Also known as "conversion therapies" and "reorientation therapies", such practices claim to be able to alter an individual’s sexual orientation. Young gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals have been subjected to all sorts of questionable methods aimed at “reorienting” them toward heterosexuality.

A parliamentary information-gathering mission was launched this summer with a view to outlawing such practices. Leading the charge are Bastien Lachaud, an MP from the far-left France Insoumise (France Unbowed) party, and Laurence Vanceunebrock-Mialon of President Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche (LREM). The two intend to submit a bill by early 2020 that would outlaw any practice that alters the physical or mental health of a person, punishable with up to two years in prison and a €30,000 fine, according to France Inter.

According to Vanceunebrock-Mialon, such therapies fall into two main categories: religious groups that put young people through "stages" of sexual reorientation and doctors who "cure" homosexuality with the aid of, among other things, anti-anxiety treatments. In recent years, activists have increasingly sounded the alarm, denouncing an insidious practice that is nevertheless on the rise in France.

This week’s hearings on "practices claiming to alter a person's sexual orientation or gender identity" will bring together LGBTQ+ associations, the National Council of French Evangelicals as well as some of the victims of the controversial practices.

Evangelicals on the rise in France

Conversion therapy is more prevalent in the United States, where almost 700,000 adults have received such treatments at some point in their lives, according to a study by the Williams Institute.

But such "therapies" remain difficult to quantify in France, where they rely more on what are called "internships" or "seminars" mixing speeches, readings and prayers, but which sometimes lead to the total isolation of an individual.

Although France does not use electroshock therapy or hormone injections as in the United States, LGBTQ+ activists have been sounding the alarm for years about the psychological consequences that can result from attempts at conversion. In 2017, a petition was launched calling for a ban on such practices that has garnered more than 92,000 signatures in France to date.

Hailed particularly by Christian and Evangelical Protestant groups, the use of such "therapies" has increased with the explosion of the evangelical movement in France over recent years, according to Anthony Favier, president of David & Jonathan, a Catholic LGBT association.

"It is a modern movement in form but very conservative at its foundation,” Favier told FRANCE 24 in March. “There is no interpretation of religious texts; they take the Bible literally, notably regarding its condemnations of homosexuality."

>> Evangelical churches gaining ground in France

‘No manipulation’

The MPs have singled out two Christian associations in particular: Courage and Torrents of Life.

No therapeutic work is explicitly mentioned in their brochures. But Torrents of Life says on its website that "confusion and breaks in our relational and sexual identity can lead us into sin and make us incapable of loving".

Its "programme" aims to "help homosexual Christians, who feel uncomfortable in their identity, to find resources in Jesus". For €300, the person can pursue a week of "restoration" in the countryside, according to the group’s prospectus.

Such programmes are conversion therapies in all but name, says Vanceunebrock-Mialon. These are "seminars that no longer use the term, but which, under their surface, are well known to be linked to 'conversion therapies'," he told Têtu, a French LGBTQ+ magazine.

But the National Council of French Evangelicals (CNEF) says it offers such programmes in good faith, without applying any kind of pressure.

"These stays are offered to adult believers and volunteers to begin a reflection on their sexual identity. There is no manipulation," CNEF told FRANCE 24.

“We cannot stop someone from thinking about his identity if he wants to."

'Deadly therapies'

But behind the benevolent facade, these seminars offer an arena for "destructive religious propaganda", according to PsyGay, an association of psychotherapy professionals that pledges respect for all sexual orientations.

Such movements believe homosexuality “is synonymous with vice, with perversion”, the association’s Joseph Agostini told FRANCE 24.

“These 'therapies' are, in themselves, deadly, especially since many young homosexuals are already suffering a huge moral crisis,” he says.

Although the mission to outlaw such treatments has been met with some enthusiasm from LGBTQ+ associations, others argue that current French law should already offer sufficient protections. In an article published in Libération, Jimmy Charruau, a doctor of public law, notes that French legislation already contains prohibitions against “acts of barbarism, violence [and] moral harassment" that could be used to outlaw these treatments and protect those victimised by religious groups.

The PsyGay association underscores the importance of raising awareness of the challenges that “potentially fragile” young people may be facing and the dangers of treatments claiming to “cure” homosexuality. If the bill succeeds, France would join the 18 US states that have already outlawed such practices, as did the island nation of Malta in 2016.

And in a sign that other countries could soon follow suit, the European Parliament voted in 2018 to approve a text calling on EU member states to ban the controversial practices.

This article was translated from the original in French.

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