Cypriot lawmakers and activists are pushing to criminalize “gay conversion therapy,” which has traumatized members of the island’s LGBTQ+ community through “medieval” practices like exorcisms.
A recent report by activist group Accept-LGBTI Cyprus surveyed around 100 people and revealed the extent of widely discredited practices that claim to be able to change sexual orientation or gender identity that are still being carried out on the Mediterranean island.
“A victim was forced by a priest to kneel in front of a statue of Jesus Christ and apologize for his sin,” said Stefanos Evangelides, attorney and member of Accept.
“Another was forced by an endocrinologist to go on a testosterone (male sex hormone) regimen because the doctor said he was too feminine.”
And yet another “was exorcised by a priest,” added Evangelides, noting that some people had attempted suicide after the so-called therapies.
The Cypriot Orthodox Church continues to exert significant influence on the island, which joined the EU in 2004.
Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1998, but while same-sex civil partnerships are legal, gay marriage is not.
“Protecting the rights of the LGBT community” only began to emerge about a decade after decriminalization when Accept was founded, said psychologist Margarita Kapsou, a founding member of the organization.
The activists’ report has sparked an outcry and debates in Parliament over the need for legislation to ban these practices.
A Communist Party lawmaker has introduced a bill that, if passed, would sentence those who practice conversion therapy to two years in prison, or three years if the victim is a minor or is considered vulnerable.
“We must protect young people and adolescents from medieval, degrading and illegal practices,” said lawmaker Giorgos Koukoumas.
“Members of the LGBT community are not sick people in need of treatment – and that too is the message we want to convey to society,” he added.
The debate comes as the UK government also grapples with proposed legislation that would make it illegal to offer conversion therapy to minors or dissenting adults, but campaigners say it doesn’t go far enough.
A UK government source said the legislation, first promised in 2018, would now “cover only gay conversion therapy, not trans(gender)”.
The UK government is reportedly looking to limit any ban so doctors can counsel children who think they have gender dysphoria.
The Cyprus Psychiatric Association is now among those supporting calls for conversion therapy to be criminalized on the island.
Its leader, Lambros Samartzis, said his professional community was “in shock” after the report’s release.
“Sexual identity, sexual orientation … are not pathologies. This is not a disease,” he said, emphasizing the trauma associated with such practices.
Despite progress on equality issues, more legislation is needed to protect the LGBTQ+ community, said Costa Gavrielides, the Cyprus President’s adviser on diversity.
“The bill can put an end to discrimination,” he said, but noted that some taboos like same-sex marriage and parenthood still need to be addressed.
The influential Cypriot Orthodox Church declined to be involved in discussions, including the issue of conversion therapy exorcism.
“It is incomprehensible why the Church should again be allowed to spread its well-known and very unchristian opinions on homosexuality and ridicule Cyprus abroad,” the Cyprus Mail newspaper said in an editorial.
A number of countries, including France, Germany and Malta, as well as some regions of Spain, have already criminalized the so-called therapy.
Supporters of Cyprus’ LGBTQ+ community hope Parliament will soon vote to end the practice.
“We need to be protected by law in order to be included in society and enjoy the same rights as everyone else,” Evangelides said.