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 have 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 the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology). 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:
First, the authors repeat the untrue claim that conversion practices are widespread in Australian churches.
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.
The authors admit that no studies exist in Australia that indicate how prevalent or rare conversion practices are. That doesn’t prevent them from suggesting it is commonplace in Australian Churches
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 them from suggesting it is commonplace in Australian Churches and quoting the opinion of a journalist is not what I would call sound reasoning.
There are also problems with the UK survey.
The authors of that survey did not ask the general population about conversion practice but only those who identify as LGBT.
The authors admit that they offer no definition of ‘conversion practice’—it’s whatever people think it is.
Only 2% of the respondants said that they had undergone some kind of therapy.
The survey revealed of that 2%, nearly half received the undefined therapy from medical professionals, family members and unstated organisations.
If this careless scaremongering weren’t bad enough, the authors repeat the words of others, darkly murmuring of “even more extreme measures … castration, lobotomy and clitoridectomy.”
None of these disgusting things happen in Australian Churches or institutions. Pause for a moment, does anyone really believe that churches are wanting to chopping off peoples’ penises and breasts in order to cure them of their sexual preferences? Even if it were true (rather than laughably untrue) we already have laws that speak against such abhorrent activity.
What Australian church has ever done any of these things? I know that in some Islamic countries, gays and lesbians are still treated horrifically (and clitoridectomy is clearly a non-western practice) but our academics from RMIT are not arguing against the customs of other cultures and religions.
Conversion therapy was a marginal and rare occurrence that took place in organisations that had adopted a strand of secular psychology … here we have secularists criticising Christians for an essentially secular practice.
When I was first interviewed by a journalist on the topic I had no idea what they were talking about. After doing some digging of my own, I learned that conversion therapy was a marginal and rare occurrence that took place in organisations that had adopted a strand of secular 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.
So here we have secularists criticising Christians for an essentially secular practice. And, of course the irony is double, because the list includes castration. Is anyone doing that? Yes—along with other mutilations—it happens amongst those who promote chemical and surgical solutions to gender anxiety.
For these academics 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 authors’ description of conversion practices is deliberately broad and vague.
Here is how they describe them:
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” .
The descriptions are so broad and general as to be simultaneously useless and dangerous—conflating extreme and unusual practices with basic and essential beliefs of Christianity.
This description is similar to that used by the ACT and Victorian Governments, which in itself is not a problem, except that they share a habit of blurring the issues. The descriptions are so broad and general as to be simultaneously useless and dangerous. They are useless in the sense that they lacks the specificity and cogency required for law, and it is dangerous for conflating extreme and unusual practices with basic and essential beliefs of Christianity. What should be a conversation about rare and extreme activities, verges on 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 relied upon for their 2019 paper outlining their position for banning conversion practices. Here the definition is equally vague:
(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.
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 fell stroke, significant portions of the Bible been deemed illegal.
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 certainly the goal of many who are agitating for the ban on conversion practices.
Third, the authors conflate conversion with coercion.
I have explained this point on many previous occasions. But 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 is a new desire 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 will now want to be godly in their sexuality. And, according to the Bible, this includes affirming that sexual practices should remain within the loving, exclusive, mutually consenting, covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.
When academics, politicians, and social commentators, continue to trade in false claims, vague generalisations and caricatures—all the while, ignoring what churches actually teach and practice—then what we have is not an honest dialogue but bullying bigotry.
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 also adults who find that their sexual orientation changes; Rosaria Butterfield is one high-profile 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 need a national conversation. But when academics, politicians, and social commentators, continue to trade in false claims, vague generalisations and caricatures—all the while, ignoring what churches actually teach and practice—then what we have is not an honest dialogue but bullying bigotry.
At the present time, most Australians are simply focusing on how to live with COVID-19. They are concerned with issues of mental health, children’s education, and saving the economy from disaster. These matters all require our attention. Yet 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, rather in conversation—in persuading others of a message that is good and attractive. People become Christians as they are convinced by the truthfulness and goodness of Christianity’s message, the Gospel of Jesus of Christ.
We Christians must work hard to speak about these matters 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, we must do so with patience, clarity and again with grace. Christianity is not a religion for moral purists but for those who are not—for sinners captivated by the better story offered in Jesus.
Meanwhile, it is a shame (and an irony) that The Conversation has failed to promote good conversation on this occasion: that it has promulgated poor scholarship and given air to misinformation that could lead to the suppression of religious liberty by a totalitarian state. Failures such as this breed a less tolerant and less free society, and add to the sexual confusion and pain that our society is already experiencing.
First published at murraycampbell.net
 This is not to deny that such things have ever occurred in any Australian church. But the few churches that adopted such practices (and put their own religious spin on them) were not operating in line with Biblical teaching.