Thursday, 19 September 2019

Christian activists are spreading misinformation to influence religious anti-discrimination outcomes

Christian activists are spreading misinformation to influence religious anti-discrimination outcomes

A little over a week ago the Freedom For Faith group held their Freedom For Faith Conference at Sydney Parliament House. The point of the conference was to discuss a review of religious exemptions to anti-discrimination legislation at a Commonwealth, state and territory level. An intense focus on health service delivery and models of practice that support transgender children is ramping up at the same time as religious anti-discrimination legislation is being finalised by the federal government: including legislation that has the power to over turn existing state anti-discrimination laws.  It’s no coincidence: religious leaders and faith-based activists are louder and more prominent in the media than they have been for a considerable time. They are in effect doing everything they can to make LGBT children’s health and identities—and in particular transgender children’s health and identities—a rallying point to bend the religious anti-discrimination legislation in their favour. 


Such is the degree of misinformation around transgender therapy and at such a crucial time that last Thursday the Australian Psychological Society (APS), Australia’s national peak health body took the remarkable step of issuing a statement in support of transgender people. In particular the APS refuted the claim promoted by organisations such as Freedom For Faith that a transgender identity was somehow a social contagion that might be ‘fixed’ through psychological, medical or spiritual conversion therapies. The APS’ response comes at the same time that Australian published its 26th anti-trans articles in less than 40 days— an unparalleled level of hostility and vilification levelled at transgender and gender diverse people, and in particular children.


But it hasn’t gone all the religious right’s way. On last Sunday’s Sixty Minutes, Sarah Abo broke a story on the prevalence of below-the-radar conversion therapy groups in Australia and the harm they do to LGBT people. According to the APS religious conversion therapy in Australia, is a toxic and unregulated quasi-religious conversion process with no known therapeutic benefit.  Martyn Iles, director of the Australian Christian Lobby, defended conversion therapy in Abo’s story, claiming that conversion therapy is a necessary part of Christianity that did not cause psychological harm. Specifically, Iles claimed that any steps to criminalise conversion therapy would be the same as, “criminalising a significant part of the Christian faith and hugely concerning for the Christian community.”


Iles position is a version of the kind of statement put out by chairperson of Freedom For Faith, Law Professor Patrick Parkinson who along with other more extreme Christian activists seeks to frame the issue of religious anti-discrimination and human rights around gender identity as an ‘us vs. them’ zero sum game.  Parkinson continues to argue, not only that religious schools should retain the right to discriminate against LGBT staff and students but that as a matter of freedom, public schools also need to be able to reject the identities of transgender students. He has published an article, “Is Gender Identity Discrimination a Religious Freedom Issue?” that is the rallying cry for religious activists want to promote a more aggressive position on religious freedom. Namely, that the right for religion to discriminate must take precedence, and specifically at the expense of the LGBT communities to access the same rights and services at everyone else in society. 


Parkinson and Iles unfortunately represent an extremely vocal minority of anti-trans activism. One that is uninterested in therapeutic models of care, or the overwhelming international consensus from professional bodies about best practice. Perhaps not surprising, both Parkinson and Iles arguments frame religious belief as either/or, dismissing the existence of an LGBT tolerant Christianity and the beliefs of those who make up the more tolerant majority. 


There should be no place for these kinds of reductive positions. Religious leaders and advocates should be free to promote the place of faith in all aspects of life. However, there are deep concerns when activists like Iles and Parkinson promote positions that place the importance of their version of Christianity before scientifically supported, best models of care for vulnerable children and young people.


But it’s easy to see why they’re doing it now and with such intensity. The federal government’s draft religious anti-discrimination bill has already drawn criticism, and especially from conservative Christians. Sections of the religious right see this as their do-or-die moment. In light of their losses during marriage equality some conservative Christians are looking to change the outcome in their favour, even if it means harm for transgender children. Exactly how the complexities of religious anti-discrimination plays out between religious groups, civil liberties groups and business is hard to know for sure. One thing is certain though, expect to see a continuing deluge of anti-trans rhetoric and hatefully reductive opinions around the lives of transpeople and children for some time yet to come.