A STRANGE trend is emerging in Scotland whereby policies which every political party in Holyrood proudly backed in their election manifestos suddenly become “controversial”.

Not because concerns were raised on the doorsteps when the politicians campaigned on that platform, nor due to any loss of seats as a result of it.

No, the new definition of “controversy” in Scotland, it appears, is when an increasingly right-wing UK Government decides it doesn’t like an idea (even one it previously supported), the Scottish Tories have to U-turn as a result, and journalists clamber over each other to publish the first piece on how the Scottish Government should’ve seen this coming and probably just not bothered to try to introduce any policies anyway.

This is the narrative that some are already taking great pains to establish around the plans to ban so-called “conversion practices” in Scotland.

Two-and-a-half years ago, a petition to implement such a ban was put forward to the Scottish Parliament and the new-found attention this brought to the issue led every party across the political spectrum to commit to ending conversion therapy.

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And why wouldn’t they? In an inclusive, forward-thinking country in the 21st century, it’s common sense and common decency that nobody should be manipulated and abused into changing such an integral part of who they are as their sexual orientation or gender identity.

But culture wars are all the rage right now, especially as a means of exaggerating and leveraging political divides, and some have observed that these proposals could make excellent fuel to keep the fires blazing now that gender recognition reform in Scotland is currently dead in the water.

Since the Scottish Government published its consultation on ending conversion practices last week, Conservative MSP Rachael Hamilton has described the plans as “deeply troubling”, while her colleague Stephen Kerr MSP tweeted that the SNP and Greens should “leave Scotland’s children alone”.

It’s an interesting choice of words because while the legislation is not age-specific, it is a sad fact that too many LGBT children and young people have been left alone to suffer with no recourse for harm inflicted upon them by trusted adults, nor even the language to understand that what they’ve experienced is wrong.

Protecting those who are less able to advocate for themselves – those who have less power and independence – and are therefore more vulnerable to abuse and coercion should be a central aim of any ban on conversion therapy.

Children and young people would certainly fall into that category, and this is an outcome which should be welcomed by anyone concerned with children’s wellbeing.

But strange ideas about what adults should be allowed to do to children are not a new thing in certain quarters of Scottish politics.

Although the law granting equal protection from assault to children as adults already had – aka the “smacking ban” – passed easily in 2019, it generated quite the fuss from Christian Right campaigners and Conservative MSPs who claimed it infringed upon “parental rights”.

The echoes of these, quite frankly, embarrassing arguments can be heard in the objections to banning conversion therapy today.

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Earlier this month, SNP MSP Fergus Ewing warned his party against pushing forward with a “controversial law” to end conversion practices, citing “concern that it will inevitably impair and impinge upon parental rights”, as well as the rights of teachers, doctors and “men and women of the cloth”. Somehow, the one group whose rights are missed from this list are the actual victims of these practices – the very people to whom the proposals seek to give a voice.

Ewing mentioned that “several voices in the churches” had spoken out against the plans.

Perhaps one of those voices he was thinking of was The Christian Institute, an evangelical organisation which has campaigned against just about every progressive policy the Scottish Parliament has sought to introduce and is now threatening to take the Government to court if it bans conversion practices.

Like Ewing, the Institute has said it is concerned that the law would “criminalise innocent parents”. It’s a consistent position on their part, at least, as the group has stated elsewhere that parents have a “God-given authority over their children”, and it was one of two organisations behind the cutely named “Be Reasonable” campaign to keep the smacking of children legal in Scotland.

This is worth remembering because rest assured there will be some cute slogans and confusing rhetoric coming from those who want it to remain legal to try to bully the gay or trans away. But it all comes down to the same thing: a belief that a person’s position of power – be that of parent or pastor – grants them the right to inflict harm on another human being.

I don’t subscribe to that belief, and it’s not one that’s reflected in various existing laws which protect people (including children and young people) from harm. As shocking as this news might be for some people, parents can already be criminalised for how they treat their children. This law would not be unprecedented in that regard, and it would be just as specific and limited in scope as other such laws.

The Scottish Government consultation sets out a definition of conversion practices for the purposes of the legislation. To meet the criteria, a person must be engaged in a) the provision of a service or a coercive course of behaviour, which has b) the intent to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity and c) the effect of causing either physical or psychological harm to the individual.

Expressions of opinion, advice, or prayer would not be included unless they meet each of these grounds, and even then there are exemptions if the behaviour could be considered “reasonable in the circumstances”.

The notion that there is something intrinsically polarising and controversial about this – a recurring theme in some sections of the media – would be laughable if it wasn’t so depressing.

According to the Sun newspaper, up to 15 SNP MSPs could “rebel” against the plans. A reminder to those MSPs (and to any inclined to prevaricate under pressure on this issue) of the words of Conservative MSP Meghan Gallacher, spoken just last spring on behalf of her party: “We continue to support a ban on conversion therapy, including trans conversion therapy, and we will vote for that ban if the legislation comes through the Scottish Parliament.”

Only time will tell if those words are proven true, but what they should tell us is that, in the absence of politicking and fearmongering, this is a unifying policy. Most people, regardless of their political views, can recognise that inducing shame and self-hatred in LGBT people in an effort to force them to change is neither possible nor acceptable in a modern society.

A plea, if I may, as we embark upon a nearly three-month consultation period and who knows how long before an actual bill is introduced: from the parliamentary chamber to the pages of newspapers, let’s keep the discussion focused on the evidence and on our shared humanity.

Self-fulfilling controversy and disinformation deluges may be the order of the day, but every one of us has the power to take a breath and reach for something better than this for those who have endured trauma just because of who they love or how they feel. Let’s aim for that, at least.