Carolyn Mercer, a 73-year-old trans woman, has spoken out about her horrific experience of conversion therapy under the NHS in the 1960s, in a desperate plea for the UK government to finally ban the practice.
Mercer was born in 1947 and grew up in Preston, Lancashire, and said she experienced “gender confusion” from the age of three or four.
“To all intents and purposes, I was male, and yet I wanted to be female,” she told PinkNews.
“I used to dream about somebody inventing a brain transplant, which would put my brain into a more appropriate body. They still haven’t managed that yet. So I make the best I can of it.”
When she was 17 years old, she opened up to her vicar for the first time ever about how she felt.
She said: “My vicar told me that he knew psychiatrist, and I went to talk with the psychiatrist. The psychiatrist then referred me to an NHS hospital. So the treatment that I had was NHS treatment at the time.”
I was a freak, I must have been, that’s how I saw it. Now, I look at it and say, well, all you had to do was to tell me that it was part of me, and that it was acceptable.
Although her parents knew she was receiving “treatment”, but didn’t know what it involved, and Mercer didn’t tell them.
“They I was trying to be cured, because I was wrong,” she said. “Because society, medics, everybody said it was wrong. We’re going back 1964 or 1965, there was no internet. Then, I didn’t know anyone else who felt the way that I felt.
“So I was a freak, I must have been, that’s how I saw it. Now, I look at it and say, well, all you had to do was to tell me that it was part of me, and that it was acceptable.”
“Aversion therapy was the type of conversion therapy that I was given, was inflicted on me, that I suffered from,” Mercer explained.
“What happened was that I was taken into a darkened room, I strapped to a wooden chair by one arm.
“Electrodes were soaked in salt water, attached to my arm, and then pictures of women were shown on the wall opposite me.
“It showed one picture, then another picture and another picture. And seemingly randomly, the switch was thrown, and the electric shock shot through my arm and my body. My hand, I remember, shot up in the air.
“But, of course, my arm didn’t because it was strapped to the chair. I was asked by the psychiatrist: ‘Why you crying?’ I was biting back the tears, it hurts.”
It didn’t work in the way that they wanted it to work. It worked in the way that it taught me to hate myself. I have spent a lifetime hating myself.
Mercer emphatically pointed out that as well as being “barbaric”, the conversion therapy was not at all successful in erasing her trans identity.
She said: “Look! It didn’t work. It doesn’t work. It’s an intrinsic part of me that they tried to destroy.”
Or, she added: “It didn’t work in the way that they wanted it to work. It worked in the way that it taught me to hate myself. I have spent a lifetime hating myself.
“And the only way that I’ve managed to cope with that is by suppressing positive emotions. Even now, 50 odd years on, I’m now 73.
“That has lasted a lifetime, and I think it will continue until my death.”
Remembering the “treatment”, which took place over months and months, she expressed her confusion that while doctors would never have subjected her to permanent physical harm, they were prepared to inflict lifelong psychological damage.
She said: “Although I agreed to that treatment, because I wanted to be ‘cured’, because society and the medics told me it was wrong, it was evil to feel the way that I did, why were they prepared to damage me emotionally?
“[It] drove me close to suicide, and I did attempt suicide, but fortunately I wasn’t successful. What a waste that would have been… by attacking a key part of my identity, they were attacking me, and teaching me to hate myself. The only person in life I’ve ever hated is myself.”
Despite her traumatic experiences with conversion therapy so early on, Mercer has achieved a lot in her life: “I’ve had a pretty incredible professional career, I was head teacher of a secondary school for close to two decades, got a loving family, great friends.
“But all the time inside, I was screaming out, you know? All the praise that you give me, if you knew the real me, I’m evil.”
One of the lines I use is to say that I didn’t just survive, I succeeded. But, certainly, it was a close run thing on occasions.
She began seeking help in 1989, when she visited the gender identity clinic in London’s Charing Cross. It took until 2000 for someone to tell Mercer for the first time: “I will help you deal with this in the only way that you can deal with it. And that’s to align your gender identity and your gender expression.”
Finally, Mercer said this affirmation of her gender “stopped me physically shaking when I remembered the the treatment that I’d had”.
But she said: “The mental and emotional damage, I don’t think will ever go away… One of the lines I use is to say that I didn’t just survive, I succeeded. But, certainly, it was a close run thing on occasions.”
This week, a campaign was launched by a a coalition of LGBT+ organisations, mental health professionals and faith communities, organised by Stonewall, who are calling for action on conversion therapy almost 1,000 days after the UK government vowed to ban it.
Mercer said: “There are people suffering now because of the 1000 days that the government have wasted since announcing publicly that [conversion therapy] is torture, it’s barbaric. We need to ban it. It still hasn’t been banned.
“And through that 1,000 days, you’ve got three years of people going through the sort of torment and torture that I was put through. It’s wrong. It’s got to stop.”
A ban on the horrific practice, she said, would mean that a generation of young LGBT+ people would “grow up with a very clear understanding that how they see themselves matters to other people, that they are not wrong and that they don’t need curing”.
“Partly through the acceptance of others, we learn to accept ourselves,” she added. “Learning to accept yourself enables you to to function properly, and feel the sorts of emotions that I believe that I’m entitled to.”