The United Kingdom Council on Psychotherapy (UKCP) has issued a bold statement on the need to recognise the rights of gender critical therapists within its organisation, and by implication, to acknowledge the value of exploratory therapy with clients experiencing gender dysphoria. This is a very significant development within the ongoing, bitterly contested debate over gender identity therapy and the appropriate therapeutic response to clients identifying as trans.
The UKCP is one of the main leading professional associations of therapists within the UK, together with the British Psychological Society (BPS), and the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP). The UKCP is a federal organisation, bringing together over 50 training and practitioner associations, grouped together in 10 colleges based on therapeutic modality, such as existential, psychodynamic, humanistic, etc. Federal structures usually entail a good deal of organisational and policy autonomy at the level of member organisations, hence the puzzle of this dramatic change of orientation signalled by this new Guidance. The Guidance has presumably been agreed at senior policy level within the UKCP, and is further endorsed by a statement by the Chair of the UKCP, Dr Christian Buckland. Whether there will be significant resistance to the Guidance from within the colleges or specific training member organisations is unclear.
Up until now, the UKCP has been a leading supporter of the Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy (BACP, 2022), which calls for a criminal law ban on attempts to ‘convert’ clients from their preferred sexual orientation or chosen gender identity. The MOU makes only limited provision for exploratory therapy, ie only with clients unhappy about their situation, and makes none of the standard safeguarding distinctions between adult and child clients. The MOU was interpreted by the Tavistock Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS), as endorsing the use of gender identity affirmative therapy with clients. Up until now, some therapists who use exploratory approaches in their practice, or who raise safeguarding issues in relation to trans-identifying clients, have been summarily dismissed from their positions, or in one case expelled from their UKCP modality training associations.
Factors leading UKCP to change direction
So why this abrupt change in direction for the UKCP? The guidance references two major factors. Crucially, the Guidance is introduced as “a statement on the law regarding gender-critical views and its implications for the practice of psychotherapy and psychotherapeutic counselling” (emphasis added). The first factor is the developing case law at employment tribunal level, which has consistently drawn attention to the need to protect the legally recognised rights of gender critical employees and avoid discrimination against them (Jenkins, 2023). The UKCP has a history of involvement in complex, messy and ultimately unsuccessful legal wrangles, which are embarrassing, costly and damaging to its reputation for professionalism and good governance (Keter, 2002). UKCP leaders (or perhaps its lawyers?) have clearly seen the iceberg looming ahead and has decided to change course, in order to avoid yet another inevitable legal catastrophe.
The second factor cited is the definitive shift in NHS policy over trans medical care which has been signalled by the Interim Cass Review and the planned closure of the Tavistock GIDS (2022). The Cass Review drew attention to the GIDS and its collapsing of therapeutic responses to children with gender distress into unquestioningly affirmative responses, in the complete absence of any robust supporting evidence base. UKCP (or perhaps some senior leaders of UKCP) are now taking note that the policy debate on gender distress within the NHS is changing direction. For the UKCP to hold fast to a fixed position on this contentious issue would potentially put it at odds with a major employer of psychotherapists within the NHS. It would therefore seem politic (and more importantly ethical) to build in some policy flexibility for the UKCP at this point.
Key points of the Guidance
The Guidance makes a number of key points worth highlighting:
- The law requires that gender critical therapists must not be discriminated against for their views;
- Exploratory therapy :
– is not to be equated with conversion therapy;
– is appropriate for gender critical therapists and for other modalities/approaches;
– is appropriate for a wide range of client issues (eg eating disorders), not just gender;
– needs to be consistent with the UKCP Code of Ethics and Professional Practice;
– is particularly important when working with children;
– should be provided to enable discussion of potentially irreversible medical interventions.
The Guidance may appear rather like a bolt from the blue, given that it does not seem to have grown out of any widespread, sustained process of internal debate and discussion within the UKCP, or its component member organisations. Perhaps the Guidance will trigger such a necessary debate, or signal that it is possible to hold gender critical views without being labelled transphobic, or simply being dismissed as a practitioner in thrall to bigotry.
The UKCP has 11,000 members, compared with BACP’s 60,000, with possibly a third of UKCP’s members also having joint membership with BACP. This overlap in membership is important in terms of likely future developments within BACP. So far, the BACP seems to be holding tightly to the party line that no debate is necessary or possible over the alleged role of exploratory therapy as a covert form of conversion therapy. UKCP’s dramatic policy shift undermines this rigid defence of a highly questionable policy in a rather spectacular manner. UKCP members who are also members of BACP, perhaps for employment purposes, will experience and begin to challenge the dissonance between their freer experience within the UKCP and the apparent lack of open debate within the BACP. This, in turn, will increase the pressure for BACP to begin to relax the internal Iron Curtain regime apparently restricting debate within its own ranks, or risk the growing likelihood of the BACP’s fragmentation and increasing irrelevance in the coming future.
British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) (2022) Memorandum of understanding on conversion therapy. https://www.bacp.co.uk/events-and-resources/ethics-and-standards/mou/
The Cass Review (2022) Independent review of gender identity services for children and young people: Interim report. https://cass.independent-review.uk/publications/interim-report/
Jenkins, P. (2023) Free speech victory in UK for critic of Critical Race Theory. Critical Therapy Antidote. https://criticaltherapyantidote.org/2023/09/29/free-speech-legal-victory-in-uk-for-critic-of-critical-race-theory/
Keter, V. (2002) “The implications of the Human Rights Act 1998 for counsellors and psychotherapists”, pp. 165-172, In P. Jenkins (Ed) Legal Issues in Counselling and Psychotherapy. Sage: London.
By Peter Jenkins who is also a member of Thoughtful Therapists, whose scoping survey for the UK government consultation on conversion therapy can be found here: https://thoughtfultherapists.org/scoping-survey-pdf/