Two recent posts in Eternity about the Victorian Conversion Therapy Bill show contrasting reactions to its passing. The first reported on a message that Presbyterian Moderator-General, Dr Peter Barnes, sent to churches. He emphasised the need to obey God rather than people when the two are in irreconcilable conflict. Nathan Campbell, a Presbyterian pastor in Brisbane, writing together with celibate gay Christian and student minister, Matthew Ventura, took a different position, asking us to reflect on the stories told to justify the legislation, stories of serious hurt caused by Christian therapists and prayer groups.
Listening to different positions
'It is our task to keep on keeping on' - Presbyterians to defy Victoria's conversion bill
What would happen if we believed them? (The stories that led to the Conversion Bill)
Victoria's Conversion Practices Bill - detailed answers from the Victorian Commissioner for LGBTIQ+ Communities
Dear Daniel Andrews, please change your conversion bill
Both perspectives are really important for us to weigh carefully. On the one hand, we may well find increasingly that governments see it as appropriate to control what happens in churches through regulation, bureaucratic investigation and surveillance, in the name of protecting people from harm – even when the prayer or counselling is requested by the individual. This is in stark contrast to the position taken in relation to other harms where prohibition would restrict people’s liberties. Victorian law does not prevent alcoholics buying alcohol, or addicted gamblers continuing to gamble. Nor does it prohibit people engaging in potentially dangerous sado-masochistic orgies in private, although it is likely that prosecution will result if someone dies. Yet it prohibits chosen “change or suppression practices” that could include adults seeking prayer for an unwanted same-sex orientation or problems with their internal sense of gender identity.
On the other hand, Campbell and Ventura ask us to reflect on whether what we are asking to do is to continue to harm people. They argue that the stories that people have been told about negative past experiences are blinking lights on the dashboard which ought to alert us that something is wrong. Much has indeed been wrong in our attitudes and lamentably deficient in our pastoral care. Christ, after all, did not die that 97% of the population could be saved (John 3:16).
Pretty much all the stories used to justify the legislation were about attempts to change same-sex attraction, and this was the focus of Campbell and Ventura’s article as well. There is a widely held view among psychiatrists and other mental health professionals that therapies aiming to change same-sex attraction are unethical and ineffective. Some past practices, such as aversion therapy, were undoubtedly very damaging.
When it comes to spiritual counselling, the golden rule, as for doctors, ought to be “first, do no harm”. There are lessons which must be learned from the accounts of people who report significant harm from the well-meaning attempts of Christians to help them.
The overreach of the Victorian legislation
That said, the Victorian law goes very much further than banning the kinds of practices that can demonstrably be shown to have caused harm. This is true also of the law passed in the ACT in 2020. The 2020 law in Queensland is less problematic as it only applies to health professionals and allows for clinically appropriate practice.
There are three issues with the Victorian Bill which are so serious that churches and others should maintain their opposition to this legislation and seek reform.
‘Suppressing’ sexual orientation and celibacy
The first is that it effectively prohibits face-to-face prayer with an individual to “suppress” a sexual orientation. What then, of the same-sex attracted person who comes to a pastor or Christian friend for prayer seeking help to live a celibate life?
A criminal offence would not be committed unless it could be proven to cause injury, but that is actually quite a low bar, because injury includes harm to mental health, including temporary harm, and that involves a large degree of subjectivity. If someone, years later, says the prayer they requested had caused them to be depressed, and this causal link is supported in evidence from a mental health professional, it will not be a sufficient defence to show that the accuser already suffered from depression or had other mental health issues. Nor will it be sufficient to show that there are numerous other adverse life experiences that may have caused him or her to be depressed. It will be enough that the court is persuaded that the prayer was a cause of mental harm, if not the only cause.
Furthermore, the legislation allows for investigation by government bodies of prohibited practices. Chillingly, in responses to Eternity, the Victorian Office of the Commissioner for LGBTIQ+ Communities did not really deny that praying with a same-sex attracted person – at their request – to live a celibate life could trigger an investigation by the bureaucracy.
People who are bisexual
The Victorian Government also took no account of bisexuality. The whole debate in the media and Parliament these days assumes that sexual orientation is binary – gay or straight, heterosexual or homosexual. The reality is far more complex. The B in the acronym LGBT accounts for a lot of people who, at some stage of their lives at least, are both same-sex and opposite sex attracted, or may shift between these orientations.
An Australian study found that 9 per cent of men and 19 per cent of women had at some stage experienced some same-sex attraction or experience; but a very much smaller number identified themselves as being gay or lesbian. Sexual attraction and experience is particularly fluid for women. Data from the US National Survey of Family Growth indicates that women aged 18-44 are three times as likely as men to report any same-sex contact, with more than 17 per cent reporting that contact compared with 6 per cent of men. Mixed sex attraction appears to continue for many women well into the adult years, much more so than for men.
So the question must be asked, is there anything wrong with a person who is attracted to both sexes seeking help, including, for example, prayer, to address a same-sex attraction when their beliefs, values and aspirations dispose them to want to form a stable and happy marriage with a person of the opposite sex? This is not just an issue of religious freedom. It is an issue of personal freedom.
Therapy for gender identity issues
The other great concern about the legislation is that it applies to ban therapeutic interventions to address gender identity issues. The evidence that people can be ‘born in the wrong body’ is very limited indeed. It is possible that eventually, some neuro-biological explanation will be found, but so far it has eluded researchers.
In contrast, there is a large body of evidence that young people presenting at gender clinics wanting to transition to another gender presentation have a range of mental health issues.
Disproportionately, they are likely to be on the autism spectrum, and many have had adverse childhood experiences, including child abuse. A recently published study by researchers from the Children’s Hospital at Westmead in Sydney has found a strong association between gender confusion and disordered child-parent attachments, as well as high rates of unresolved loss and trauma. Young people have been shown to benefit from therapeutic interventions that lead them to decide not to go down the path of cross-sex hormones and surgery.
There is no reliable evidence that anyone seeking help from a mental health professional has been harmed by such therapeutic exploration of the reasons for their gender incongruence.
That makes it all the more tragic that the Andrews government, and members of Parliament who voted for the legislation, ignored the strong representations of bodies representing psychiatrists, the Australian Medical Association and other experts seeking changes to the Bill to exclude clinically appropriate practices of mental health professionals. Leading psychiatrist Dr Philip Morris and I warned publicly that the law would have a chilling effect, deterring risk-averse mental health professionals from taking on any patients presenting with gender dysphoria. Ideology and political considerations trumped science. Government ministers and a majority of Legislative Council MPs refused to make amendments to address the experts’ concerns.
Already, the effects are being felt. A mental health professional in Victoria told me a couple of days ago that numerous colleagues have said they will not be willing to treat anyone coming with gender identity issues. The most vulnerable people in our society will suffer. Young people will needlessly go through major medical interventions which they will later deeply regret. This will not turn out well.
Standing with Jesus against unjust laws
Jesus cared for the most vulnerable in his society, and Christians must stand with Jesus, whatever the cost. That means not resting until this legislation, and similar laws elsewhere, are substantially amended, if not repealed.
Patrick Parkinson AM is a professor of law at the University of Queensland.