RE: Legislation on Sexuality & Gender Identity
From Rev Dr John Squires
Presbytery Minister - Wellbeing
Last week the Legislative Assembly of the Australian Capital Territory debated, and passed, legislation which will ban the practice of “conversion therapy” within the territory. The legislation was introduced as the Sexuality and Gender Identity Conversion Practices Bill (2020).
The aim of the legislation is very simple: “to recognise and prevent the harm caused by sexuality and gender identity conversion practice.” The Bill was introduced on 13 August 2020, following extensive consultation with conversion practice survivors, schools, faith leaders and members of the community. After its introduction, the Government engaged further with these groups in order to clarify the Bill’s intent.
The Attorney General, Gordon Ramsay, spoke strongly in support of the legislation. Across the Presbytery, of course, we know Gordon as the former minister of Kippax Uniting, and a one-time Chairperson of Presbytery. Gordon has a policy of not normally reflecting his own personal faith commitment in the debates in the Legislative Assembly. This time, however, he very pointedly made an exception.
“I have led congregations and communities of faith where people have sought refuge after being subjected to conversion therapies that have been done in the name of the church and even at times in the name of God," Mr Ramsay told the Assembly. “Madam Speaker,” he continued, “these are not my stories to tell. But I can assure members, that they are painful and they are traumatic.”
Prior to the debate in the Assembly, a group of Uniting Church Ministers and Chaplains who are serving within the ACT had written to all 25 members of the Assembly, expressing their support for the Bill.
In supporting this legislation, these 16 Ministers and Chaplains drew on their pastoral experiences of working with people who identify in ways other than “straight”, or opposite-sex attracted. Indeed, these leaders wrote knowing that there are people within so many of our Congregations who identify with each of the letters in the LGBTIQ+ rainbow (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, and more).
You can read the full text of the letter at https://johntsquires.com/2020/08/24/sexuality-and-gender-identity-conversion-practices-bill-a-christian-perspective/
The primary intent of the letter was to underline the ongoing commitment of the Uniting Church, to accept, value, and honour people who identify as same-gender attracted. Supporting a Bill that would outlaw “conversion therapy” is one way of making clear this fundamental commitment.
On Church Councils, in Congregational study groups, in local outreach activities, and amongst our ordained ministers, there are such “rainbow people”—each of them faithful disciples, committed participants in the church, willing followers of Jesus in all of their lives.
Our letter to the ACT MLAs was an expression of the joy that we have, in serving together, alongside people of a wide diversity of gender identities, expressing a wide array of sexual attractions. There is absolutely no need to persuade (or worse, force) such people to change in their own identity, or in their sexual preferences.
A representative group from those who had signed the letter were also able to meet online with staff from the office of the Chief Minister prior to the debate on the Bill.
During the discussion amongst ministry leaders within the Presbytery, some expressed caution with regard to the legislation that was being proposed. Whilst not objecting to the intention of the legislation—to ban practices that are deemed to be harmful—some raised questions about whether the legislation had adequately captured a clear definition of “conversion therapy”.
Others questioned the way the letter articulate how we understand ourselves, as human beings: whether we exist across a spectrum of diversity, or in a binary manner (male or female). This reflects the reality within the wider Uniting Church. We have people from a wide range of understandings and commitments in many areas, not the least being in relation human sexuality.
Evidence from survivors of conversion practices in the ACT and across Australia clearly reveals the extent and long-term impact of this harm. Some of us in ministry leadership have dealt directly with the victims of such practices. “Conversion therapy” has been shown to result in outcomes including depression, suicidality, anxiety, decreased sexual function, poor self-esteem, social isolation, and decreased capacity for intimacy.
Indeed, the UN Committee Against Torture has, for some years, held concerns about the practice of “conversion therapy”, and considers it to be a form of torture. Standing against such abusive practices is an important element in our Christian witness in society. They are in no way “therapeutic”. They are damaging and destructive practices.
It has been an important stance for Uniting Church leaders to take during the past ten days, especially since some fundamentalist lobby-group agitators who (mis)use the term “Christian” were arguing that this legislation was fundamentally flawed, that people of faith had a right to persuade (or force) people to change their sexual orientation, and that all of this was consistent with “biblical Christianity”.
For some decades now, in the Uniting Church, we have allowed the possibility that people who are attracted to people of the same gender are not only welcome and valued in our churches, but can exercise leadership in ministry, can be ordained, and most recently, can be married in accordance with the rites of the Uniting Church. See https://johntsquires.com/2018/10/20/seven-affirmations/ and https://johntsquires.com/2018/07/31/a-diversity-of-religious-beliefs-and-ethical-understandings/
I believe that we can be proud that we have had leadership over many years, which has advocated for, offered support to, and worked constructively with, LGBTIQ+ people. Opposite-gender attracted people like myself have, over the years, moved from understanding such people, to welcoming them, accepting them, and valuing them, within our communities of faith, and within the wider society.
With this latest matter we are showing a firm commitment to protecting the vulnerable, advocating for them and working proactively alongside them, and declaring our clear acceptance of the wonderful diversity of humanity. This is the very heart of Christian community. This is the essence of the Gospel.
Rev Dr John Squires
Canberra Region Presbytery
Uniting Church in Australia
0408 024 642
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