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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

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Opinion: Why do the religious want special rights around conversion therapy?

Many years ago I interviewed a New Zealand author called Noel Virtue. Noel had written a number of books, but one in particular, The Redemption of Elsdon Bird, was partly based on his own experience growing up in New Zealand as part of the Plymouth Brethren.

My interview with Noel was primarily about what happened to him after he acknowledged he was homosexual. This ‘confession’ occurred in the 1960s, a time in New Zealand’s history when homosexuality was still viewed as not only criminal but also a mental aberration. In Noel’s family, the news was greeted with horror.

He was sent to a psychiatric hospital and part of the ‘treatment’ to cure him of his homosexuality was regular applications of electroconvulsive therapy. 

The cure didn’t work, of course, but so hideous was the treatment, Noel lied and said he had been ‘converted’ to heterosexuality. He was released from hospital, and within a short time, fled to the United Kingdom where he has lived ever since.

The thing that struck me about Noel is how humble and gentle he was. When I met him, he was with his partner of many years and had returned to New Zealand for a short visit promoting his latest book. He was open and honest about his experience, and about how long it took him to recover from the so-called treatment. 

The reason I have been reminiscing lately about this is because a piece of legislation is currently before the New Zealand parliament that aims to ban the practice of ‘conversion therapy’. What Noel experienced was a form of conversion therapy, but in reality, it was torture, one perpetrated and condoned by the medical profession.

In 21st century New Zealand, no reputable mental health facility or counselor would dare think such a practice was acceptable.

Yet, the outdated, barbaric idea that somehow, someone’s sexual orientation is abnormal and can be changed is still believed by many in this country and around the world. 

One just needs to look at some of the submissions and responses to the proposed legislation to see how bigoted views of human sexuality and identity still prevail. Predictably many of these views are held by religious people and churches. 

Before I go any further, let me be clear. Not all churches or religious people hold views that are against LGBT people. Many of the submissions from these people are in favour of a law change.

But the ones that are against are illuminating.

Take the ironically named New Zealand Good Neighbour Church. One of their members, Reverend Andrew Moon says that he and his flock would stop at nothing short of violence to stop people living non-heteronormative lives. 

In a breathless paradoxical statement, Moon says:  “LGBT people deserve respect and protection, but likewise, freedom and belief of opposing groups must also be respected and protected.”

Here’s the deal though. The proposed law doesn’t stop someone from having a belief. Mr. Moon and his fellow congregants are free to judge and even criticise anyone who doesn’t fit into their straitjacket views of human morality. 

What they can’t do is discriminate against others.  And they definitely shouldn’t be allowed to force someone to go through a discredited and shameful process to try and change their fundamental nature. 

In case you think this might be a trivial issue, consider the consequences for people who have had this kind of treatment visited on them. There are a myriad of known cases in the USA where young gay people have been killed because of attempts to ‘cure’ them. Countless others around the world have suffered depression and suicidal thoughts and even attempts because of this quackery.

And this is in countries where homosexuality is no longer illegal. In many countries, LGBT people are murdered. 

What many of these religious people and organisations want is the ability to continue prejudice against a minority in this country that they view as undesirable, and often as abhorrent. 

They want special rights to be able to condemn, ridicule, and ostracise. Furthermore, they want these rights while being subsidised by the New Zealand taxpayer. Churches are tax-exempt organisations.

If you want proof of the bigoted nature of the opponents to the bill then simply change the parameters of the issue.

Imagine that instead of ‘converting’ someone who is non-binary, or gay, you wanted to change someone who had a religious belief. Change ‘gay’ to ‘Christian or ‘Muslim, or ‘Jewish or even heterosexual, and the bigotry is plain to see. 

I am aware that there are many religious people who are good people. I suspect they are in the majority. Religious belief can give great comfort to people and give them a sense of purpose. Many religious charitable organisations do a great deal of good in the world.

Sadly, however, the track record of religion over thousands of years is also horrific. When we look back through history, we see endless war, oppression, countless deaths, sexual abuse, misogyny, support of slavery, and innocent women burned as witches. 

Much of the carnage in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries was the result of different interpretations of the Bible. 

So, for those who cling to the view that they deserve to be granted ‘religious freedom’, I say, look at your history, and see what that has done over centuries. 

There was apparently a dude some 2,000 years ago who said something along the lines of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

Seems like it’s still a relevant statement today.

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