Britain abandoned on Wednesday plans to hold a flagship conference designed to promote LGBT+ rights around the world following a dispute over conversion therapy for transgender people that prompted charities and organisations to boycott the event.

Britain had been due to host the Safe to Be Me conference in London in June to urge governments to tackle inequality and discrimination, and enable people to live free from prejudice.

But a decision to ban conversion therapy for gay or bisexual people in England and Wales, though not for transgender people, prompted charities to pull out of the event and the country’s first LGBT+ business champion, Iain Anderson, to quit.

Anderson said in a public letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday that it was wrong to create dividing lines. “Now – more than ever – we need tolerance and respect in our national conversations,” he said.

Conversion therapy (or ‘cure’ therapy or reparative therapy) refers to any form of treatment or psychotherapy which aims to change a person’s sexual orientation or to suppress a person’s gender identity. It is based on an assumption that being lesbian, gay, bi or trans is a mental illness that can be ‘cured’. These therapies are both unethical and harmful

Johnson said he was saddened by the reaction.

“We will have a ban on gay conversion therapy, which to me is utterly abhorrent, but there are complexities and sensitivities when you move from the area of sexuality to the question of gender,” he told broadcasters.

The government said it had cancelled the conference.

“It is disappointing to see partners withdraw from an international conference that focused on the fundamental human rights issues facing LGBT people around the world, and as a result it will not be possible to proceed with the Safe To Be Me Conference,” a spokesperson said.

Johnson’s government had come under increasing pressure on conversion therapy after his predecessor Theresa May vowed in 2018 to eradicate a procedure that aims to change or suppress someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Some campaigners had argued against a ban for transgender people, however, because they said it could complicate discussions about gender identity with parents or health officials.

Johnson said that the issue “wasn’t something I thought I would have to consider in great detail”, adding that while he was sympathetic to people who wanted to change gender, he worried that children were not mature enough to consent to treatment without parental involvement.

“These are complex issues, and I don’t think they can be solved with one swift, easy piece of legislation,” he said.

“It takes a lot of thought to get this right.”

A lawmaker in Johnson’s Conservative party, Jamie Wallis, said last week that he planned to change his gender identity to become Britain’s first openly transgender member of parliament. He said he was bitterly disappointed at the conversion therapy decision. 

Other lawmakers were dismayed about the conference.

“We had such a huge opportunity to prove the UK (and the Conservative Party) is a defender of freedom. As a Conservative member of the LGBT+ community, it is so wrong it has come to this,” Dehenna Davison said on Twitter.