Civil liberty concerns over Assembly vote to ban ‘gay conversion therapy’

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The Assembly is to vote on a motion against gay conversion therapy on Tuesday which critics claim could have major ramifications for freedom of speech and religion.

UUP MLAs Doug Beattie and John Stewart have proposed a non-binding motion that the Assembly “rejects the harmful practice widely referred to as conversion therapy”.

The motion calls on the Minister for Communities to bringing forward legislation before the end of the current Assembly to ban conversion therapy “in all its forms”.

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Aisling Twomey, Policy and Advocacy Manager with the Rainbow Project, is part of the Ban Conversion Therapy (BCT) campaign which is lobbying MLAs on the matter.

Aisling Twomey is Policy and Advocacy Manager with the Rainbow ProjectAisling Twomey is Policy and Advocacy Manager with the Rainbow Project
Aisling Twomey is Policy and Advocacy Manager with the Rainbow Project

“Conversion therapy, reparative therapy and all other so-called interventions are rightly condemned by reputable mental health, counselling and psychotherapy bodies around the world as unethical and harmful to the people who are subjected to these practices,” she told the News Letter. “Over 400 faith leaders have joined the campaign globally to call for an end for this type of practice.”

Legislation should protect those subjected to conversion therapy based on sexual orientation or gender identity, she said, and this must apply across public and private spheres “whether within healthcare, religious and cultural or traditional settings”.

She noted that over two thirds of respondents to the Ozanne Foundation research in 2019 said that they had suffered suicidal thoughts after going through conversion therapy with faith-based organisations - with one third attempting suicide; so special exemptions for churches or faith groups would leave LGBTQI+ people “at risk of further harm” she added.

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“Any Conversion therapy practice that starts with the assumption that the person either questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity has a mental disorder or is abnormal is harmful. This assumption leads to high levels of exclusion, stigma and prejudice experienced by the LGBTQI+ community, which academics and leading psychotherapy bodies have shown can lead to long term mental health issues.

Dr Mike Davidson of Core Issues TrustDr Mike Davidson of Core Issues Trust
Dr Mike Davidson of Core Issues Trust

“There is a vast difference between religious practice and prayers which allows supportive exploration of someone’s sexuality or gender identity, without a pre-determined outcome. Compared to the practices in which views LGBTQI+ people as needing to be ‘cured’ or change who we are, and there should be no place in our society for any so-called therapy or interventions which seek to erase our existence.”

She acknowledged that World Health Organisation (WHO) policy affirms the right of consenting adults to seek such therapies under the term ‘Ego-Dystonic Sexual Orientation’, but pointed out that in 2014 a WHO working group recommended that this diagnosis be dropped.

However Co Down man Dr Mike Davidson of Core Issues Trust, who describes himself as “a former homosexual”, disagrees.

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“The motion is misleading in that the ‘exotic’ therapies it seeks to ban are either long abandoned or renounced by current mental health bodies,” he said.

“In fact there are a wide range of very standard counselling methods which benefit people with unwanted same sex attraction”.

Mr Davidson also said that those who have been pleased with the results of such therapies are usually screened out of any research on the issue.

“Hard science consistently rejects the ‘born gay myth’” he said, adding that the motion is “not in the interests of people who experience their sexuality as fluid”.

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He also noted that the BCT briefing notes to MLAs call for “intelligence gathering and tracking systems to identify individual and groups that are continuing to carry out conversion therapy”.  

He adds: “Could this lead to a mole in every church and classroom? I believe this motion is a fundamental denial of basic freedoms of speech, belief and conscience.”

Independent MLA Jim Wells also has concerns about civil liberties from the motion. “I have spoken to clergy across a number of denominations who fear that such a law would see them jailed for giving traditional guidance on marriage and sexuality from the pulpit or in private with parishioners,” he said.

Mr Wells expects the motion to be passed by a significant majority in the Assembly on Tuesday but noted that further measures by MLAs will be required to begin turning the motion into legislation.

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Simon Calvert of the Christian Institute said his organisation is not opposed in principle to a ban on “if that simply means protecting people from dangerous quack medical practices”.

“But a founder of the Ban Conversion Therapy campaign is on record as saying ‘Spiritual guidance is really just religious speak for conversion therapy’ and that “the pernicious power of prayer must be dealt with”.

Mr Calvert added: “A ban on spiritual guidance and prayer would be tyrannical and unworkable. Do they expect police, prosecutors and courts to decide which kinds of prayer are criminal and which are not?”

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Alistair Bushe