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Who pays the Bill? The dangers of Victoria’s Conversion legislation

Thursday, 4 February 2021  | Gordon Preece


Note: This article has been republished with minor edits by permission of The Melbourne AnglicanAn article on the Victorian Bill from a different perspective by Anglican minister Angus McLeay was also published in The Melbourne Anglican and reproduced by Ethos here.

By the time you read this article, the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020 to prevent and penalise practices such as gay conversion therapy, ‘praying the gay away’ or questioning Transgender therapy and surgery for teens will almost certainly have been passed by the Victorian Parliament. But the issues raised are very serious and need addressing, even if the horse has bolted.

Some see this bill as the most significant threat to religious freedom in memory. Others see it as positive and progressive or have been quietly indifferent or ignorant.

Let me give some context for why this legislation, for all its important intentions to relieve LGBTI+ suffering, is a dangerous form of State overreach and ideological indulgence threatening civil society, parental and religious liberties, and vulnerable youth, including LGBTI+ patients and their psychiatrists/counsellors, as some note.

Synod rejects Conversion Therapy

Let’s examine Motion 19 on ‘Conversion Therapy’, passed in a close 2018 Melbourne Synod vote, with my bracketed and following comments comparing the Government’s Conversion Therapy Bill:

That Synod

a) Acknowledges that all people are made in the image of God, regardless of sexuality or gender identity.

[My note: Agreed affirmative Creation anthropology. God loves all people.]

b) Acknowledges the Australian Psychological Society [APS] that “strongly opposes any approach to psychological practice or research that treats [LGBTI] people as disordered, and … attempts to change an individual's sexual orientation”.

[My note: b) follows from a) if in talking about LGBTQI+ people only, being intrinsically disordered or in the Government’s bill ‘broken’, wrongly implying more broken than heterosexuals. But ‘we all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Rom. 3:23), while still bearing God’s image. Further, APS’s professional standards are for paid members’ practices, not informal, pastoral and voluntary examples of consensual, uncoerced prayer or counsel asked e.g. from a Bible study or youth leader or minister by someone struggling with ambiguous sexuality or gender, which the bill may punish.]

c) Calls Church members to be sensitive to diverse expressions of sexuality and gender identity, to accept, validate … those … seeking to live … biblical[ly] and in union with Christ and his calling [i.e. Conversion], and to not recommend “Conversion Therapy”;

d) and calls on the state government … to ban … “Conversion Therapy”.

Points c) and d) need unpacking. In short, let’s be careful what we ask for as the Government’s legislation goes way beyond Synod’s request. It risks conflating outdated, abusive ‘conversion therapy’ or coercive, non-consensual practices, with normal practices of Christian conversion, and risks outlawing ‘prayer’, counsel and ‘suppression’ (e.g. counselling celibacy).

Gender not Birth Sex Certificates

Another Government bill effectively suppressed biological sex as the basic determining factor of male or female public and legal identification. The Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Amendment Act 2019 removed the requirement for a person to have undergone ‘sex affirmation surgery’ in order to alter a birth sex registration. Such gendered post-modern Gnosticism, where sexuality is all in the mind, has immense implications for physically male use of women’s only spaces such as sports facilities, toilets, pools and domestic/family violence refuges. Many feminists, from J.K. Rowling to the Victorian Women’s Guild, even some transgender persons, are gravely concerned about this denial of people’s, especially women’s, physiological reality and needs for privacy, security and equality. These need careful negotiation along with transgender needs, lest they both pay a high price.

Why is Transgender Conversion not Conversion Therapy?

Having noted the literally mind-bending and body-erasing state of sex identification revealed in the reworked birth registration laws, we return to the Conversion Therapy banning legislation and the Government’s ideologically blinkered refusal to include Transgender Conversion practices within it.

Melbourne University philosopher Holly Lawford-Smith cites evidence

that youth who claim a trans identity are often LGB, autistic, struggling with mental health issues, or have been exposed to gender identity ideology through social media or peers. If … affirmed … in their claimed gender identities — which … the bill demands, … lest [dissenting adults] be accused of “conversion therapy” — the result could be the “conversion” of these categories of kids ‘to identify as trans, … on a path toward puberty-blockers, cross-sex hormones, and surgeries,… which can lead to loss of sexual function and infertility, and other long-term health risks.

These practices remain experimental, as the UK High Court recently determined in a case brought against Tavistock Clinic by detransitioner Kiera Bell, which found that under 16-year-olds are likely to lack the competence to consent to medical transition.

The Bell decision cited numerous studies linking trans identification with autism, e.g. 45 per cent of patients in Melbourne youth gender clinic. The high and lasting health stakes of misleading trans identifications means ‘there is good reason for adults involved with trans-identifying kids to approach them with caution, rather than unquestioning “affirmation”’.

Lawford-Smith notes that the conversion therapy bill would eliminate the possibility of a more patient, questioning approach. Counselling a child that they may not be trans will be legally deemed a ‘change’ or ‘suppression practice’ subject to costly criminal charges, heavy fines and possible jail. ‘That should be reason enough for LGB groups, feminist groups, parents, and anyone else concerned about … unnecessary medicalisation of children struggling with a variety of personal, social, or mental issues to support amendments to the legislation’.

But sadly, concerned, cautious parents may also pay for the Conversion Therapy Bill, such as the Australian parents whose 15-year-old was taken from their care, for wanting her to wait before undertaking hormone therapy.

An Ideological bill for a largely now non-existent problem

No sane or humane person now supports outdated and abusive methods to change sexual orientation, such as the largely secular psychiatric electro-shock or other aversion therapies of the 1950s to ’70s. They are long gone, as are most of the ‘pray away the gay’ or exorcising approaches of a minority of Pentecostal churches and charismatic ministries in the 1970s to 1990s.

Remnants of these practices would best be restricted by not driving them underground but by government, professionals and religions disciplining their own, wherever a small minority of possibly coercive practices still operate, as Synod sought to do. Much clearer specification of outlawed practices and required informed permission forms (used by the Australian Psychological Society) and required professional standards training could be helpful.

So what is the bill’s goal? Why is such a State sledgehammer being used to crush not only coercive physical and mental (even spiritual) harms but potentially basic religious and therapeutic practices? It boils down to the broad-brush definition of ‘change or suppression practices’ as a form of emergency or crisis thinking justifying an undemocratic ‘cancel culture’, something I’ve warned of in previous articles.

Hence, Premier Daniel Andrews labelling any other views as ‘bigoted’, especially religious views, or those questioning the rush to gender transitioning (from six in 2009 to 336 cases in 2018 in the Melbourne Youth Gender Centre), or those upholding traditional Christian and religious sexual practices.

Therefore, counselling someone to remain chaste may be regarded by the bill as a ‘change or suppression practice’, regardless of their informed consent and initiative. Preaching against same-sex practices or encouraging celibacy may be allowable according to the bill’s advisory notes. But it leaves open the possibility it could be banned in the fourth piece of legislation, a mid-year revision to Racial and Religious Vilification legislation. Religious and ethnic community leaders with strong interests in these proposed changes should be consulted in good time and not ambushed as in these earlier bills. Civil society should be consulted.

The Government’s bills have gone far beyond what the 2018 Synod thought it was supporting. They are dangerously flawed, not only for religious people but for young people negotiating stages and shades of sexual ambiguity. They should not be left as isolated individuals between competing ideologies in the culture wars. Wise, patient and non-coercive counsel should be available, along with objective research regarding transgender treatments. Well-meaning but zealous politicians and therapists risk treating young people as guinea pigs in a socio-sexual experiment, where they will bear potential life-long costs of these bills. And others, seeking change of orientation or celibacy by their own will, will be deprived of the opportunity, consenting or not, thus infantilising them, ‘suppressed’ by the Nanny State. For a believer in non-binary gender Premier Andrews has a very binary my-way-or-the-highway approach.


Gordon Preece is Chair of the Diocesan Social Responsibilities Committee and Director of Ethos: EA Centre for Christianity & Society. This article represents his views alone. 


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