With the Victorian State Government’s Change or Suppression [Conversion] Practices Bill soon to be debated in the upper house, TGCA Council member Neil Chambers explains some of the serious problems with the legislation and why all Australians should be concerned about its assault on religious (and personal) liberty.
The bill raises serious concerns about its conflation of issues relating to gender identity and sexual orientation … its criminalisation of therapy that is not in line with affirming gender transitioning.
I have been asked to comment on the Change or Suppression [Conversion] Practices Bill 2020 which is currently before Parliament and has been a cause of concern for many. The origin of the bill is the conviction that LBGTI people have been harmed and are still being harmed by the continuation of ‘Change or Suppression Practices.’ This has to be acknowledged and we should be grieved at coercive and cruel practices based in ill-informed understandings of the origin of sexual orientation, especially where people have been pressured to participate in these against their will. Nevertheless the bill raises serious concerns about, amongst other things, its conflation of issues relating to gender identity and sexual orientation, its definition of change or suppression practices, its reach into private and voluntary conversations, its criminalisation of therapy that is not in line with affirming gender transitioning, and its enshrinement of gender ideology in law.
The bill combines both sexual orientation and gender identity in its scope and seeks to embrace them both in its prescriptions. But these are distinct issues and have different responses. It is the inclusion of gender identity in the bill and the insistence that the only response permissible to gender dysphoria in young people is affirmation of change to the desired gender that has provoked the most concern amongst professionals. Gender re-assignment treatment has recently been described in the recent English High Court judgement in Bell vs Tavistock [1/12/2020] as experimental.
We express that view for these reasons. First, the clinical interventions involve significant, long-term and, in part, potentially irreversible long-term physical, and psychological consequences for young persons. The treatment involved is truly life changing, going as it does to the very heart of an individual’s identity. Secondly, at present, it is right to call the treatment experimental or innovative in the sense that there are currently limited studies/evidence of the efficacy or long-term effects of the treatment. [paragraph 152]
To preclude the exploration of other treatments of gender dysphoria, to insist that only one line of response can be pursued, would seem to go beyond the scientific evidence and potentially do harm. On professional concerns see the public letter addressed to the Victorian Attorney General by the National Association of Practicing Psychiatrists.
It is also clear that the only response that is allowed to someone revealing a same sex or bisexual orientation is affirmation and strengthening them in that identity. Doubt about whether it is fixed or might change, grief at what that might mean for them and for their family, or the desire for distance out of a sense of distaste—all human reactions—will fall far short of what the government is mandating and in the complexities of family relationship may well be used against those who express them.
In addition the definition of change or suppression practices, the behaviour that is being criminalised is intentionally both broad and ill defined.
Section 5 of the Act states:
(1) In this Act, a change or suppression practice means a practice or conduct directed towards a person, whether with or without the person’s consent—
(a) on the basis of the person’s sexual orientation or gender identity; and
(b) for the purpose of—
(i) changing or suppressing the sexual orientation or gender identity of the person; or
(ii) inducing the person to change or suppress their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Sexual orientation is further defined to include sexual practice “”sexual orientation means a person’s emotional, affectional and sexual attraction to, or intimate or sexual relations with, persons of a different gender or the same gender or more than one gender;”. [Part 5:59:3]
Thus encouraging someone who is same sex attracted to abstain from sexual activity outside of marriage of a man to a woman would be seeking to suppress someone’s sexual orientation.
Section 5:3 gives examples of prohibited practices.
(3) For the purposes of subsection (1), a practice includes, but is not limited to the following—
(a) providing a psychiatry or psychotherapy consultation, treatment or therapy, or any other similar consultation, treatment or therapy;
(b) carrying out a religious practice, including but not limited to, a prayer based practice, a deliverance practice or an exorcism;
(c) giving a person a referral for the purposes of a change or suppression practice being directed towards the person.
The Explanatory Memorandum [page 5] adds:
These examples are illustrative only and do not narrow the definition in subclause (1) which is intended to capture a broad range of conduct, including, informal practices, such as conversations with a community leader that encourage change or suppression of sexual orientation or gender identity, and more formal practices, such as behaviour change programs and residential camps.
There is a real possibility with this wide definition that conversations with a Pastor, or a youth group leader, or a student worker, where the biblical teaching that same sex activity was sin, was being outlined to help someone understand the cost of following Jesus, would be breaking the law, even if those conversations were taking place (as they would) voluntarily (“whether with or without the person’s consent”). Further, prayer with someone that he or she would be strengthened to resist temptation and live a chaste and godly life would also potentially be construed as breaking the law. This is deliberate.
There is a real possibility that conversations with a Pastor, or a youth group leader, or a student worker would be breaking the law, even if those conversations were taking place (as they would) voluntarily.
One of the reports that has informed the Government’s development of this law (Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice, by the Human Rights Law Centre and La Trobe University) makes it plain that it considers the teaching in faith communities of homosexual practice as a sin (or of gender to be binary) to be a harmful suppression practice which develops a culture which is unhealthy for LGBTI people. The government leaving the definition broad leaves open the possibility that this teaching itself will be banned under this legislation, despite a mention of religious freedom in the Victorian Charter of Human Rights.
Another of the disturbing features of this bill is its reach into private and voluntary conversations. This legislation will make people reluctant to talk with those who might be troubled by their same sex attraction or their discomfort at their gender if they cannot be wholly supportive, if they have doubts or reservations. Yet it is helpful to people to be able to explore their feelings and responses with those they know and trust, and helpful to families to be able to speak openly about these matters. One sided conversations do not help understanding but the fear that what is now a welcome conversation may become later a resented conversation will cause many to hold back.
The Bill and its Shortcomings
Others have written about the bill and its shortcomings, and links are at the bottom of the transcript. While the prevention of harm to others is a worthy goal, and while we should not minimise the distress of gender dysphoria or the cost of living a celibate life, this is a bad bill with significant implications for our freedoms. And it is a bad bill because it is based on false beliefs.
One is the idea that gender identity is fixed. The letter of the National Association of Practicing Psychiatrists says:
The Bill is premised on the idea that gender identity is fixed and unchangeable, making attempts to change or suppress it futile. The press release accompanying the legislation put out by the Department of Justice and Community Safety makes this explicit. It says: “there is no evidence that…gender identity can be changed.” This is an extraordinary proposition and is contradicted by a large body of medical and scientific evidence.
The more fundamental problem is the false gospel of salvation through defining your own identity that runs through the bill
It is an extraordinary proposition where one of the goals of the Bill is to support people making a gender transition, and where there are a growing number of de-transitioners. The letter cites some of the evidence and you can pursue the issue of gender fluidity further there.
But the more fundamental problem is the false gospel of salvation through defining your own identity that runs through the bill, which is in truth an expression of that ideology clothed in prevention of harm.
That gospel is expressed in the ‘objects’ of the Bill. 3:1[c] states one of the objects of the Bill is:
… to ensure that all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, feel welcome and valued in Victoria and are able to live authentically and with pride.
This means it is the intention of the Parliament to
(b) to affirm that a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity is not broken and in need of fixing; and
(c) to affirm that no sexual orientation or gender identity constitutes a disorder, disease, illness, deficiency or shortcoming.
only just falling short of declaring no sexual orientation or practice to be a sin.
The important thing is that people can live ‘authentically and with pride’ for that is the vision of life found in the secular gospel. We are to be true to ourselves, and that means finding identity and purpose in ourselves and being free to express that in fulfilling our desires, in a context where sexual identity is central to personal identity. Salvation, the life of human flourishing, is found in sexual authenticity. Any gospel therefore that calls for authority to be found outside ourselves, or says that life is found in denying yourself, is an alien gospel in our society.
Responding to this Bill
So how should we respond to this Bill.
It is possible to respond politically—to lobby politicians to ensure amendments that protect private conversations and our freedom to teach and preach the truth. There is a place for that, for the freedoms threatened by the overreach of this bill—freedom of speech, freedom of association [defining on what basis people can belong to voluntary associations], freedom of belief—are vital to the functioning of our society.
This bill will also, if it prevents the exploration of alternative treatments other than gender re-assignment for gender dysphoria, do harm to young people. Such action though must be done in love, not anger, and in humility not a spirit of offended entitlement, acknowledging the reality that some have been hurt in the past by responses to same sex attraction that have been coercive.
The best way to respond to a false gospel is with the true gospel.
But the best way to respond to a false gospel is with the true gospel, proclaiming Jesus is Lord and life is found in denying ourselves, taking up our cross and following Him, for He is the one with authority to judge and to forgive. In love we want to be able to call people of all sexual orientations and all gender identities to follow Christ, to tell them that He is worth everything. But that means we must also tell them the cost of following Him, and the Scripture is clear that all sexual immorality, and that is all sex outside the marriage of a man and a woman, is sin, and continuing in sin is inconsistent with inheriting the kingdom of God [1 Cor. 6:9-11]. We need to show the goodness and the greatness of Jesus, and we need to be in truth a community of forgiven sinners who love one another, including believers called out of and tempted by sins we might find confronting.
To respond to the false gospel with the true gospel will now take courage. As others have observed the broad nature of the offence is meant to create a climate of fear in which we will self-censor, become less clear and bold in teaching what God has given us for our good, the sexual morality of Scripture. But our Lord Jesus has told us that we should ‘not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul, but rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” [Matt. 10:28]. And He has warned us that He did not come to bring peace but a sword (Matt 10:34-39) and that anyone who does not love Him more than all is not worthy of Him.
Now is the time for we ourselves to remind ourselves of and build ourselves up in the truth and goodness of Jesus, to remember that what is at stake in being faithful to Him is eternal life, and that our Lord has all authority, including over governments, and will work all things for our good and for the glory of His Name. We will need to do this together, to know each other’s encouragement in a community of love as we face the hostility of a society seduced into believing a lie. The Lord Jesus is not less Lord because the Victorian Government is seeking to bring in a piece of legislation that may test our faithfulness. We must look to Him, and not expect allies either in free speech advocates or civil libertarians. And we should not be discouraged when people who claim to be Christian come out in support of affirming same sex sexual orientation as acceptable to God. In writing to the seven churches in Revelation our Lord warned his people that there were those who taught that God’s people could share in idolatry and practice sexual immorality (Rev. 2:14, 20). His condemnation of them and those who follow them is clear, as is our Lord’s expectation that we have nothing to do with them (Rev. 2:21-24).
The Lord Jesus is not less Lord because the Victorian Government is seeking to bring in a piece of legislation that may test our faithfulness.
And we should pray. Pray for our government, that they would encourage and reward good, and shun wickedness. Pray that in His mercy the Lord would continue to allow us to ‘live quiet and peaceable lives, godly and dignified in every way’ (1 Tim 2:2), where we are free to preach the gospel. Pray especially that this legislation would not be used to exclude Christian groups from campuses or chaplaincy. And pray especially for those most threatened—Christian counsellors and health professionals, Christian teachers and chaplains in schools, our own youth leaders, evangelists on our university campuses—that they would be sustained in love of the lost, in trust in the Lord to keep them, and in hope, the hope that tells them that the work of the Lord is never in vain, and worth the cost. And yes, pray for your pastors too. I do not think for the moment we are as much at risk as those others I have mentioned for we work in a more explicitly religious context, but we always need prayer for boldness in preaching the gospel.
Censoring ourselves would just embolden the opponents of the gospel. Worse, it would deny to lost people the Saviour who is seeking them, to dying people the Lord who can give them life. So hear the Saviour’s call to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him. The path of faithfulness to His Father cost Him His life but was the path of exaltation over all, and one day every knee will bow and confess Him Lord.
First published by Bundoora Presbyterian Church (audio also available)
Editor’s Note: Interested readers can find out more about legal concerns regarding the Bill from (Newcastle Law Professor) Neil Foster on his Law and Religion blog. Additional non-religious concerns—including the suggestion that the bill itself supports a kind of conversion program with regard to young lesbian women—can be found in this interview with (lawyer) Nina Vallins from the Victorian Women’s Guild here.