While we have been addressing a global pandemic, there is another issue which continues to quietly work behind the scenes. One of the Victorian Government commitments is to introduce legislation to ban conversion practices. They reaffirmed their intention as recently as June 2020 in the Discussion Paper for the Victorian LGBTIQ Strategy.
Victoria had a reputation for wanting to be the vanguard for progressive sexual ethics in Australia. In recent weeks both the ACT and Queensland recently pushed through Bills to prohibit conversion practices ahead of Victoria. It is not only the States that are considering the issue.
Last week The Conversation published a piece, Why Australia needs a national ban on conversion therapy, written by Larissa Sandy, Anastasia Powell, and Rebecca Hiscock (all lecture at RMIT). In light of urgency of COVID-19 issues I initially missed the article, but I want to visit it now for a number of important reasons. The piece is calling on the Federal Government to follow the example of the ACT and Queensland, and introduce a national ban on conversion practices. Upon reading, the article is little more than mud throwing and recycling disproven rumours. Unfortunately the narrative is popular and powerful. In today’s world what is true and good has little bearing on socio-political agenda, it’s all about story and spin. For this reason alone the article deserves a response.
Allow me to make these following observations:
Firstly, the authors repeat the untrue claim that conversion practices are widespread in Australian churches. They write,
“There are no studies of the prevalence of conversion therapy in contemporary Australia, but a 2018 Human Rights Law Centre/La Trobe University report pointed to the United Kingdom as a reasonable comparison.
The UK’s 2018 national LGBT survey saw 2% of respondents report having undergone conversion therapy, with a further 5% reporting they had been offered it. People from multicultural and multi-faith backgrounds were up to three times as likely to report being offered it.
As The Age reported in 2018, conversion therapies are commonly encountered in religious settings.
[They are] hidden in evangelical churches and ministries, taking the form of exorcisms, prayer groups or counselling disguised as pastoral care. They’re also present in some religious schools or practised in the private offices of health professionals.”
First of all, the authors admit that no studies exist in Australia that indicate how prevalent or rare conversion practices are. That doesn’t prevent the authors from suggesting it is commonplace in Australian Churches. Citing a dubious survey from the UK is hardly sound and quoting the opinion of a journalist is not what I would call sound reasoning.
Take for example, the UK survey. The authors of the survey did not ask the general population about conversion practice but only those who identify as LGBT. Second, the authors admit that they offer no definition of ‘conversion practice’, it’s whatever people think it to be. Third, only 2% of people said that they had undergone some kind of therapy. Fourth, the survey revealed that while half of the 2% received conversion therapy from a faith group, 49% received the undefined therapy from medical professionals, family members and unstated organisations.
It’s not enough to wrongly suggest that conversion practice is commonplace in churches, in order to build the case of how terrible and horrific conversion practices can be, these authors repeat the words of others, even suggesting that “Even more extreme measures throughout history have included castration, lobotomy and clitoridectomy.”
A person who has no knowledge of Churches would be understandably disturbed by these descriptions, as am I. The problem is, such disgusting things don’t happen in Australian Churches or institutions. Pause for a moment, do you really believe that churches are wanting to engage in chopping off peoples’ penises and breasts in order to cure them of their sexual preferences? Really? If this does occur we already have laws that speak against such abhorrent activity. Certainly there have been in the history of western civilisation some indefensible practices but trying to draw links with Christianity today is grasping at straws. I know that in some Islamic countries, gays and lesbians are treated horrifically but our academics from RMIT are not arguing against what happens in Iran. The examples offered by the RMIT trio are in fact profoundly ironic and sad: The only people in Australia who are today castrating and filling people who hormonal treatments and gender altering surgeries are those believe the current sexual and gender theories.
The reality is, almost no Australian Church practices or has ever endorsed conversion therapies. When I was first interviewed by a journalist on the topic I had no idea what they were talking it. After doing some digging of my own it was obvious that conversion therapy was a marginal and rare occurrence that took place in organisations that had adopted a secular strand of psychology that was practiced in the 20th Century. The authors don’t admit it, but gay conversion practice is something that took place in a psychologist’s room not in a church. The few churches that ever adopted the idea (and put their own religious spin on it), probably had good intentions but they were not in line with Biblical teaching. Did some harmful practices ever happen in religious organisation? Yes. Was it commonplace? No. Is it happening today? Not that I am aware of.
For these RMIT lecturers to suggest conversion practices are commonplace in Australia today is a gross misrepresentation of the reality. Frankly, it is disappointing to see such claims being published on The Conversation, a journal that often produces great material. Sadly, in the world of sexual ethics, if someone repeats a rumour often enough, it soon becomes an accepted truth.
Second, the description of conversion practices is deliberately broad and vague.
“Conversion therapy involves practices aimed at changing the sexual orientation, gender identity or expression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and gender diverse people.
The goal is achieve an exclusively heterosexual and cisgender identity (in other words, where a person’s gender identity matches that assigned at birth).
In Australia, religious-based conversion therapy is most common, and includes things like counselling for “sexual brokenness”, prayer, scripture reading, fasting, retreats and “spiritual healing” .
This description is similar to those espoused by the ACT and Victorian Governments, which in itself is not a problem, except that they each have a habit of blurring the issues. One of the problems is that conversation surrounding conversion practices is highly polarised and doesn’t permit nuance and the real positions that Christians (and other religions) in fact hold. The descriptions are so broad and general that they are simultaneously useless and dangerous. They are useless in the sense that it lacks the specificity and cogency required for law, and it is dangerous in that it subtly drags into question basic and essential beliefs of Christianity. What should be a conversation about rare and extreme activities, has become an assault on core Christian beliefs and practices.
The authors refer to a report from the Human Rights Law Centre in 2018. This is one of two reports that the Victorian Government have relied upon for their 2019 paper outlining their position for banning conversion practices. The Andrews Government is currently defining conversion practice as:
“(i) any practice or treatment that seeks to change, suppress or eliminate an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity,
(ii) including efforts to eliminate sexual and/or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same gender, or efforts to change gender expressions.”
The Government acknowledges that there are narrow and broad definitions available and that they have chosen to accept the a broader definition. To be clear, the proposed definition is so broad that it includes more than a psychologist’s clinic or a counselling room.
The HRLC report wants included under the umbrella of conversion practice,
“pastoral care which includes (or claims to include) ‘counselling’, ‘healing’, claims about ‘curing’, ‘changing’ or ‘repairing’ a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, or claims about improving a person’s mental or physical health, would likely still be classified as a health service, and the above regulations would apply.”
Indeed, the definition is so expansive that it may include sermons, Bible Studies, marriage courses, counselling, and prayer. Before this is denied, let’s allow the HRLC to speak for itself,
Under the heading of, “RELIGIOUS CONVERSION THERAPY IN AUSTRALIA TODAY”, the HRLC report refers to new forms of conversion practice, which include promoting self-control and abstinence.
“Instead, they are beginning to promote activities designed to help same-sex attracted people live chaste and celibate lives, in accordance with the sexual ethics of their religious traditions.”
As one academic in the field of gender studies has said to me in private, according to the above assertion, “self control is conversion therapy”. In one foul stroke, significant portions of the Bible would have to be removed.
The examples don’t end there. According to the same report, affirming the historical and biblical definition of marriage is also considered a form of conversion therapy,
“This ‘welcoming but not affirming’ posture equates to a more sophisticated version of the old evangelical adage, ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’. LGBT conversion therapy is not prominently promoted. However, LGBT people worshipping in communities that present cisgendered heterosexual marriage as the only valid form of gender and sexual expression are positioned to repress and reject their LGBT characteristics and to seek reorientation.”
In other words, the intention is not to prohibit rare and extreme practices, the purpose is to control and change historical beliefs and teaching of Christian churches. I am not yet saying that this is the intention of Governments, but it is a repeated message that is articulated by voices who are agitating to ban conversion practices.
Thirdly, conflating conversion with coercion. I have explained this point on many previous occasions. It is so important (for Christians and non Christian alike) that I want to restate it here.
The aim of Christianity is not to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender. The Bible does however call Christians to sexual purity; this does not mean that a person experiences a change in sexual orientation. The fact is, in becoming Christian many gay and lesbian people will not become heterosexual. When people become Christians, there is however always a change in life. What point is there in becoming a follower of Jesus Christ if nothing changes? In beginning the Christian life, there are newly found desires for sanctification. Let me repeat, this does not imply that people cease to struggle with aspects of their past, including sexual orientation, but it does mean that they now want to be godly in their sexuality. According to the Bible, sanctification includes affirming that sexual practices should remain within the loving, exclusive, mutually consenting, covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.
Without diminishing any of the above, the fact is, some people do change their sexual orientation and gender identity over time. For example, it is a well documented fact that the majority of children wrestling with gender dysphoria overcome it by adulthood and will happily identify with the gender of their birth. There are adults who find that their sexual orientation changes; Rosaria Butterfield is one high profiled Christian who testifies to her own change. Even the Victorian Government now allow people to alter the stated gender on their birth certificate, once every 12 months.
As a Christian Pastor, I gladly speak against coercive practices, unscientific therapies, and unbiblical ideas. Where these things do occur we can have a national conversation. But when academics, politicians, and social commentators, continue to espouse false claims, broad generalisations and caricatures, and to ignore what churches really teach and practice, what we have is not an honest dialogue but a bullish ideologue.
Most Australians are appropriately focusing on how to live with COVID-19, and addressing important issues of mental health, children’s education, and saving the economy from disaster. These matters all require our attention. To prepare for forthcoming legislation in Victoria, we also need to raise awareness of the arguments surrounding conversion practices.
Christians don’t believe in forced conversions. We believe in persuading others of a message that is good and attractive. Christianity is by definition a conversion religion. People become Christians as they are convinced by the truthfulness and goodness of Christianity’s message, the Gospel of Jesus of Christ.
As Christians speak to the issue, take a reminder from the Apostle Paul and speak with grace and gentleness, and always with truthfulness. If a religious group is practicing a genuinely harmful activity, then Christians should be the first to call it out. When we teach the Bible’s portrait of human sexuality do so with clarity and again with grace. Christianity is not a religion for moral purists but for those who are not and who become captivated by the better story offered in Jesus.
The Conversation article is very poor and it is an unjustified call to create a society where there is forced conversion: where religious groups no longer have freedom to teach in line with their religious convictions but where the State dictates what a Church can and can not teach and practice when it comes to human sexuality. This will of course breed a less tolerant and less free society, and it will only add to the sexual confusion and pain that our society is already experiencing.
The original version of this piece had an error in it. I said La Trobe when the university is in fact RMIT. Apologises.