Peter Lynas is the Director of the Evangelical Alliance.
The Government has got itself into a pickle on conversion therapy. It has promised to end it, pledging legislation in this year’s Queen’s speech, but also to protect those seeking spiritual support. In reality, those two things are not mutually exclusive, but delivering both objectives will require a much more nuanced approach from the government than has been displayed to date.
Some of the practices carried out under conversion therapy have been abusive and wrong. The Church must also recognise its own failings in this area, and commit to doing better.
The challenge for the Government is that much of what it is committed to ending is already illegal. So it has committed to banning something it is reluctant to define, and ending something that is already unlawful. At the same time, Liz Truss, the Minister for Women and Equalities, has committed the government to protecting those seeking “spiritual support”.
Seizing on the Government’s dithering around definitions, the lobby group Ban Conversion Therapy has argued that “any form of counselling or persuading someone to change their sexual orientation or behaviour so as to conform with a heteronormative lifestyle or their gender identity should be illegal, no matter the reason, religious or otherwise – whatever the person’s age.”
This expansive definition risks criminalising not just counsellors and pastors, but anyone seeking to persuade another person to conform with a heteronormative lifestyle. It raises two significant questions – what is a heteronormative lifestyle and what is meant by persuasion?
The Cambridge dictionary defines heteronormativity as “suggesting or believing that only heterosexual relationships are right or normal, and that men and women have naturally different roles.” This puts orthodox Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality in the frame for being banned – especially as the definition above also makes particular mention of religious settings.
So imagine a youth leader giving a talk to a room full of young people and setting out a traditional Christian sex ethic – sex is best kept for marriage between one man and one woman. If someone is ‘persuaded’ to change their behaviour in response, an offence would have occurred.
The young person might not say anything, and the speaker wouldn’t necessarily know but nonetheless, a crime would have been committed. The Rev Ed Shaw, a gay celibate Christian, has written about the potentially bizarre implications that mean he couldn’t pray with, or pastor, someone like himself.
If a male friend of mine is having an affair and I ‘persuade’ him to end it, my actions might be an offence depending on who he was having an affair with. If it’s a man, it’s an offence because I was persuading him to return to his wife – ie conforming to a heteronormative lifestyle. If the affair is with a women, I might be in the clear – because his actions will have been heteronormative throughout.
The bullish statements from the Government about what it intends to do in this area, combined with its failure to define conversion therapy, has already created a climate of the fear. Everyday practices such as prayer ministry and pastoral support have been put in jeopardy.
The irony is that to turn this into policy, the Government risks discriminating against gay people. To persuade or counsel a straight person to live a celibate life is fine. To do the same with a gay person is likely an offence, because they have suppressed their sexuality. Why can a straight person make that choice and a gay person cannot? Treating people differently based on their sexual orientation is discrimination.
The definition from Ban Conversion Therapy also mentions gender identity. Gender is a complex, psycho-social construction built on sexual biology. For most, our gender conforms to our sex. Some wish to adopt a different gender for a variety of reasons. I may well disagree with their choice, but in a free and tolerant society they should be able to do so.
LGBT and women’s organisations have raised concerns that the current push to ban conversion therapy is being used as political cover to promote an affirmation-only approach to gender identity – something they oppose. The differing views on this aspect of conversion therapy provide a further challenge for the Government.
Conversion therapy is a challenging and emotive topic to discuss because some have experienced significant harm in its name. However, the lack of definition makes meaningful engagement very difficult, threatening to shut down free speech and failing to help the very people it claims to serve.
Confusion also arises because the word conversion is at the heart of the Christian faith. In the death and resurrection of Jesus is the power to change our lives, our attitudes, our hearts and our sexual desires. To think otherwise is to empty the cross of its power.
Those calling for a ban, and those in Government drafting policy on this issue, must articulate exactly what they want to stop, end or ban. If it’s the horrific and coerced treatment of people forced to try and change their sexual attraction, then I for one am with them. If it’s about stopping people choosing how they express their sexuality, and attempting to redefine or limit the faith of others then they should be resisted.
The Government has made two commitments – to end horrific practices linked to conversion therapy and to protect those seeking spiritual support. Its challenge is to find a way to honour both.