Forced marriage as conversion therapy has been happening to LGBT+ folk for centuries, and it’s still happening today, especially among religious communities.
Eve Sacks is a chartered accountant, co-chair of trustees of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance UK, and board member for Nahamu, an organisation which works to oppose religious extremism within the Jewish community.
While conducting research for a paper on forced marriage in Charedi (also known as Ultra-Orthodox) Jewish communities with Nahamu founder Yehudis Fletcher, Sacks noticed a concerning trend.
She told PinkNews that although forced marriage can be under physical threat, it can also be forced by social coercion.
“By that we mean, the person goes along with it willingly at the time, and they give the normal legal definition of consent, but it’s because of the circumstances in their life at that point that they have agreed to it,” she said. “And we don’t think that’s full consent.”
Sacks continued: “A disproportionate number of the people we spoke to who had suffered were LGBT+, and they pretty much all said that they were going to be cured if they went through with the marriage.”
Young people in Charedi communities are so ‘sheltered’ that they have no language to describe queer identity
Charedi communities practise the shidduch system of arranged marriage, and Fletcher and Sacks were careful to differentiate between forced marriage and arranged marriage in their paper, pointing out that the latter “has brought joy, satisfaction and belonging to many Jewish couples and enriched their lives”.
Children in Charedi communities are brought up in entirely single-gender environments, with often no access to the internet, modern media or sex education, and part of what makes identifying forced marriage as conversion therapy in these communities difficult is that young people may not have to language to even describe their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Sacks explained: “Education is totally separate for boys and girls from age three, and they’re likely, after puberty, to have no contact with family, friends or cousins of the opposite gender.
“So the only children of the opposite gender they’ll ever speak to are their own siblings.
“They don’t attend mainstream schools, they attend Charedi schools, so the only children they will ever come into contact with are other Charedi children.
“In these schools, anything remotely problematic to their way of thinking is taken out.”
This doesn’t just include LGBT+ issues, she said, but also “carbon dating because that indicates the age of the world, reproduction and evolution, plate tectonics because again that indicates the age of the world, in English literature, romance would be redacted”.
“So the children are growing up, they don’t have access to TV or social media, so their only point of reference for marriage is these arranged marriages,” Sacks added.
It’s hard for people to understand, she said, the “ridiculous proposition” that an 18-year-old would “agree to marry somebody that they met once for half an hour”, but “they don’t see any other alternatives in childhood, that is the way that marriage works in their community”.
This “sheltered” upbringing of course also extends to language surrounding LGBT+ identity.
Undergoing forced marriage as conversion therapy is leaving young LGBT+ people desperate and trapped
“One of the people that came to us, she had no language for [her sexual orientation] at all,” Sacks continued.
“She got engaged to this young man, and then the week before the wedding, there was a final lesson and sex was described to her.
“She were told that she would lie on her back and the man would lie on top of her, and there was just something in her which she knew she couldn’t do that.
“She didn’t have any words or language to say ‘lesbian’, or anything like that.”
The woman, Sacks said, ran away and even planned on taking her own life, but luckily was taken in by someone who was able to help her.
Others are told that their feelings are only there because they have been raised in a single-gender environment, and that their “evil inclination will pass” once they are married.
“That’s a form of conversion therapy,” said Sacks. “When a person’s promised a cure, that’s just evil. Whether the cure comes through prayer, whether the cure comes through a forced marriage, whether the cure comes from other awful therapies.”
One way that forced marriage differs from other forms of conversion therapy is its “permanency” – following the traumatic experience of getting married, staying married is still expected.
Sacks said: “One person we spoke to, this was somebody who was transgender, said every time her wife had another baby, the parents would be like, ‘Oh, I’m so happy about that baby. Because now you’re more trapped into this.’
“However hard it is to leave with one child, it’s harder to leave with two, and it’s harder to leave with three.”
A UK conversion therapy ban needs to explicitly include forced marriage
While the UK flounders over banning conversion therapy, prime minister Boris Johnson said last month that a ban on the horrific practice would not apply to adults who seek “pastoral support” from religious institutions.
“I’ve got massive concerns about any sort of religious carve out,” said Sacks.
“You may as well just not bother with the ban at all… Because who else is doing it apart from the religious groups?”
She said that she wanted to see forced marriage included in a ban on conversion therapy, but also to see conversion mentioned in forced marriage legislation, either within the legislation or on the guidance.
Although Sacks’ expertise is in Jewish communities, it’s clear that using forced marriage as conversion therapy is a practice that is used within other faith groups.
“It’s a problem in other faith groups, with very, very similar dynamics,” she said.
“It’s not just a Jewish thing, it’s a wider point about conversion therapy that I’m just surprised nobody is talking about.”
She said she has heard of forced marriage as conversion therapy happening in Muslim and Christian communities, “even more so in Christian fundamentalist communities like Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses”.
“If you’re brought up in those communities, the whole thing is just seen as being so awful and shameful that you’re clinging to something that might cure you… I don’t think that’s unique to the Jewish community at all.”