Recently, the state government in Victoria, Australia, passed the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Act 2021. The government of Victoria is committed to banning practices that seek to change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. In particular, they had in their sights the practice colloquially called “gay conversion therapy”, which was and is a damaging practice that forcibly tries to change an individual’s sexual orientation from gay or bisexual to heterosexual using psychological, physical, or spiritual interventions. I think most people, regardless of their opinions on human sexuality, can agree that trying to force someone to change their sexual orientation against their will, especially through abusive practices, is wrong and harmful. If that was all this Act sought to do, I suspect it would be rather uncontroversial. But that is not all that it seeks to do.
Section 5.1 of the Act states that any attempt to change or suppress someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity will be illegal, whether with or without the person’s consent. In section 5.3, it states that attempting to change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation or gender by “carrying out a religious practice, including but not limited to, a prayer based practice…” is also considered a violation of this Act. Meanwhile, Section 10.1 states that the maximum penalty for violating the Act is up to ten years in prison, as well as a substantial fine.
This Act goes into incredibly dangerous territory, violating freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, as well as freedom of sexual expression. This is worrying, as the current NZ government has already stated that it wants to pass similar legislation here.
Now, there is already plenty written on how this Act violates freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, and I imagine the NZCN will have much more to say on those violations of religious freedoms in the future. But in this particular article, I want to focus on just one aspect: how this Act actually violates freedom of sexual expression, a freedom which has in recent times become sacrosanct in our New Zealand context.
So how does this Act violate freedom of sexual expression? Remember, the Act states “whether with or without the person’s consent” no attempt may be made, in consultation with others, to change how one expresses their sexuality. With that in mind, consider this hypothetical scenario: if I, as an adult heterosexual man, wanted to get counselling on how I could add gay sex to my life because I am questioning my current sexual identity, and I asked somebody to help me in that pursuit: would that be considered conversion therapy? Given how this legislation is written, yes it would! But I doubt the government would ever enforce it for a questioning heterosexual person. Meanwhile, if a gay man wants advice on how to change his sexual practices, this new Act rules that he isn’t allowed to talk to anyone, even if he wants to! The Victorian government is dictating that by law gay people must remain in their gay sexual practices, even if they feel that is not how they want to express their sexual identity. What an inconsistency! I thought the whole point of giving sexual freedom and choice to consenting adults was so that they could pursue any sexual practice or expression they wanted, as long as everyone consented?
It seems to me that, in this talk about “gay conversion”, what is really happening is we once again have an example of a largely heterosexual majority deciding the sexual practices of gay people in the name of “their protection”. This appears wrong to me, quite apart from the implications for freedom of religion for Muslims, Orthodox and Conservative Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians, and for freedom of conscience for other traditional cultures. The progressive Canadian Prime Minister, the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau, made the salient point, “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.”
It is my hope that the New Zealand government passes a much more careful law than the Victorian one, a law which takes all New Zealanders’ rights into consideration, protecting all individuals, those in the LGBTQ+ community as well as those in various religious traditions or from traditional cultures. For sure, LGBTQ+ individuals should feel safe and free to live in our society, and should be protected from any abusive and coercive conversion therapy against their wishes. But they shouldn’t be forced to adopt or remain in particular ways of living either, especially if they are actually wanting to explore other forms of sexual expression. Gay people should have the same freedom as heterosexual people to pursue or not pursue the sexual practices they desire. Finally, that same freedom should be extended to all those who want to base their sexual expression on their religious, cultural, or philosophical tradition.