The debate on banning so called Conversion Therapy is not a conflict simply between religious people and secular groups. And we must not let anyone frame it that way.
Some of the most powerful arguments against conversion practices come from people of faith. Powerful because they are deeply resonant arguments, but also because they come from the very people so many of us would least expect. Too often the portrayal of debates like these sets up false dichotomies, and this issue has to be opened up beyond the classic secular vs religious binary.
In this short piece you are going to hear from people of faith. And what they have in common is that their faith inspires them to oppose any attempt to alter a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. You might think, based on the usual coverage of religion and faith, that these people stand with LGBTQ+ people in spite of their faith, that they sort of ‘leave it at the door.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. There are compelling Christian reasons to celebrate the wonderful rainbow of human diversity. And, of course, we aren’t just talking about Christian allyship here, for there are so many LGBTQ+ Christians who make an absolute joke of any attempt to tell them they need to change.
Before we hear from the contributors, it is worth outlining why this article is being written now, why it is important to spotlight these Christian voices for the week that’s in it. Doug Beattie, MLA (UUP) has tabled a motion to the NI Assembly. Motions are tabled on a weekly basis and give Members of the Assembly the opportunity to either agree with, amend or reject the subject of the motion. Even though motions aren’t binding, if they pass (either in substantive or amended form) the Minister responsible (if they support the motion) will usually seek to advance the request.
So that is why Left Side Up are keen to highlight the sheer depth of feeling of so many Christians on this issue. Their voices need heard. And although there are louder, better funded and more visible Christian groups than us, they simply do not represent all Christians. Let’s hear from some of them.
Rev Ian Carton says the following:
'In Romans 13: the apostle Paul says “8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to its neighbour. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law."
The most vital question for Christians when it comes to the consideration of a legislative ban on all kinds of Conversion Therapy is this – “does it do more harm or more good to our neighbours?” The simple, straightforward answer from the 2017 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed by over 20 professional counselling bodies in the UK makes it clear that conversion therapy in relation to gender identity and sexual orientation (including asexuality) is unethical, potentially harmful and is not supported by evidence. There is also a plethora of further detailed anecdotal evidence which describes the profound damage that both “professional” and amateur attempts to convince someone that their sexual orientation or their sexual identity is something that either ought to be or can be changed. The real result of such “treatments” is self-harm, long term mental health problems and in several cases, even suicide.
That the church seems to be more concerned about their rights and privileges than about the evidence of real harm being done to vulnerable people is an appalling dereliction of the responsibility to seek justice for the oppressed and to love their neighbour. Some churches and church members are sufficiently deluded to think that they are acting in the best interests of LGBTQIA people, calling their behaviour “Tough Love”, but the truth is that love that hurts and damages people is nothing less than abuse.'
Lindsay Robinson, mental health campaigner and the lead for mental health with Left Side Up comments:
“As a person of faith and a Mental Health Campaigner, I am fully behind the call to ban the abhorrent practice of Conversion Therapy. We know this practice often takes place in Churches and Faith Communities doing immeasurable damage to lives and leaving individuals struggling with the trauma of such, for years to come. When and how it happens is often shrouded in secrecy and silence, perhaps making it even more dangerous and insidious. We know it is happening in Northern Ireland today. To be clear, praying with someone or offering pastoral support, with the belief or motive (explicit or covert), to change their sexual orientation, whether 'consensual' or coerced, is conversion therapy. I firmly believe all people, but especially those of faith, should support banning a practice that does harm to precious people, all of who are made in the image of God.”
Laura Symon, a theology student, is clear that the very language of the Church demands an inclusive theology. She writes:
Anglicans have a powerful prayer: ‘Almighty God, you hate nothing you have made...’ LGBTQIA+ folk are created as image-bearers of that God, who hates nothing he has made. We must not defend conversion therapy - an act of hatred against God’s beloved. #BanConversionTherapyNI
Michael Ghianni-Wilkinson, a youth worker and the community lead for Left Side Up notes that the question ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ is remarkably easy to answer on this one:
‘As a Christian I believe that all people are made in the Image of God, and we are made with indescribable worth, value, and dignity. I believe that the core of Christianity is the idea that God’s love is unconditional. That God doesn’t class people as insiders or outsiders, and then when God picks a side, it is always the side of the oppressed and the marginalised. To be a Christians means to affirm the Image of God in every person. To declare their value and worth and goodness. And to stand against any attempt to deny the Image of God in any person or group of people. Conversion Therapy is incredibly damaging, demeaning, and devaluing. As a Christian I have no doubt where Jesus would stand on this issue, and it is by the side of LGBQT+ people reminding them that they are loved.’
June Carton, one of the original Left Side Up team and coordinator of Proud Parents, an affirming group for family of LGBTQ+ folks, has this to say:
‘I believe a ban on conversion therapy is absolutely necessary and long overdue. As a Christian, I believe that each person is uniquely loved by God exactly as they are. In particular, I believe that any church or faith group would be going far beyond its remit to try to alter anyone’s sexuality or gender identity. These things are complicated and nuanced and any attempt to interfere can, and often does, cause tremendous emotional and spiritual harm. This is part of a wider issue with faith groups in general. Much damage has been done when a denomination or congregation has made sweeping statements about one issue or another quoting it as absolute truth and trying to enforce it, when in fact it has often been one narrow and ill-informed interpretation of one verse of scripture taken out of context. Our friends in the LGBT+ community deserve more. We need to stop speaking about things we have not experienced and start listening to those who have been damaged.’
We can clearly see that this is not a debate about religious freedom, for freedom to do harm is not a freedom religious groups require any more than any other group. To engage in activity to alter the sexual orientation or gender identity of a person is not an expression of religious freedom, but an abuse of power. And the argument may well be made that some individuals choose to enter into conversion therapies freely and willingly. It is worth reflecting on the atmosphere cultivated here in NI generally, and in churches specifically that make conversion therapy seem like a legitimate option. This is an atmosphere cultivated by a theology that tells LGBTQ+ people that they are unacceptable the way they are, and that to live as an LGBTQ+ person is contradictory to Christianity. To live in such a context would surely make conversion therapy seem appropriate. It is not. We cannot let leaders create the very problems they seek to solve by abusive and harmful means.
Finally, a Northern Ireland in which these practices are outlawed is one that will allow LGBTQ+ people feel a little more at home here. There are hundreds and hundreds of LGBTQ+ Christians here whose lives and faith make a mockery of the harmful theologies that would seek to change them. The Christian faith, on the contrary, holds that all people are made in the image of God. Northern Ireland must be a place where all feel welcome. And in a debate like this, the Christian response ought to be focused on how we love our nieghbour as ourselves.