Government and Church clash over gay conversion therapy bill

The government and church are at loggerheads over the proposed bill that seeks to outlaw ‘conversion therapy’, a practice that attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation and that is widely acknowledged to be harmful and more-often than not traumatic.

The Church yesterday released a position paper on the bill, which has been met with outrage by many, not least by the Malta Gay Rights Movement which issued a scathing response to the position paper yesterday.

Contacted by this newsroom, a Nationalist Party spokesman said that the party still needs to discuss the issue within its Parliamentary Group, leaving its position on the subject as yet undecided.

A public consultation on the Affirmation of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Gender Expression Act, a Bill that was tabled in Parliament on 15 December, was closed on 15 January.

Conversion therapy, as defined by the policy document, refers to “treatment that aims to change, repress and/or eliminate a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity and/or gender expression.”

In other words, this would make it illegal for a counsellor, therapist, pastor or any form of provider of guidance to attempt to change or limit certain sexual or gender feelings a person might have. In practice, this happens when such feelings go against conventional norms. Many people will, in fact, have read or heard about organisations that seek to change homosexual people into heterosexual ones.

“In practice, nobody will be in a position to exercise freely the right to treat one’s sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression,” the Curia’s position paper, published yesterday, stated.

Use of the words such as ‘treat,’ which implies that there is something inherently abnormal, are not only viewed as offensive, but also further perpetuate the notion that anybody who does not subscribe to classic sexual and gender norms need to be ‘treated’.

The role of therapists and counsellors is also questionable. Should a counsellor be able to imply that an individual’s homosexual or transsexual identification is wrong by assisting them to change or repress?

Even in the case where a person genuinely believes that because they have sexual desires that are different to what society tells them they should have, should not the role of a therapist be limited to helping a person understand, and ultimately accept, their sexual desires and/or gender identification, rather than change them? 

The Curia made reference to the Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act (GIGESC) passed in 2014, which provides for people to legally change their gender orientation without the need for gender reassignment surgery. The Church has claimed that the GIGESC Act and the current Bill are in conflict with each other. However, a statement issued yesterday by the Malta Gay Rights Movement states:

“The Church is also wrong in claiming that the proposed Act is in conflict with GIGESC or the constitutional provisions on non-discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. The GIGESC Act is not about changing one’s gender identity but about having one’s gender identity recognised. The proposed… Act is perfectly in line with this basic principle.”

The Church makes reference to judgements handed down by the European Court of Human Rights, where it stressed that counselling has an important role in gender identity matters.

The Church’s position paper asks: “Why is it imperative to have compulsory counselling about physical gender choices, but a criminal offence to have voluntary counselling about psychology gender choices? What so forcefully applies to the first, should, with equal force, apply to the second.”

Directly responding to this point, the MGRM yesterday said: “It is not quite clear what is being referred to here, but the GIGESC act, while placing an obligation on government to provide appropriate psycho-social services to those who need it, does not require diagnoses or treatment by any professional in order for a person to access gender recognition procedures.”

An argument relating to paedophilia was also tabled by the church yesterday, with the Church unashamedly claiming that it would be illegal to assist people to repress these sexual desires in the case that the “condition [is] manifested in same sex behaviour.” This appalling argument completely dismisses the fact that paedophilia is a crime because of sexual desires towards children, regardless of whether they are the same sex as the paedophile or not.

President of youth and student LGBTQQI organisation ‘We Are’, Mark Josef Rapa, said that the group was “very surprised” at the way this issue has escalated.

“We did not expect the Church to come up with such a position. The Church still believes that one can be cured from homosexuality.

“This law will seek to protect those individuals who are pushed into therapy; it does not place homosexuality on a higher ground as was claimed by the Church. The law does not criminalise a heterosexual person who wants to become gay, so we do not follow their arguments,” he added.

In a section entitled ‘Grey Areas’, the Church fails to take into consideration certain situations such as “in the case of a married bisexual person voluntarily seeking help to curb his or her homosexual inclinations because he or she wants to save their marriage.” 

The implication here, as pointed out by the MGRM, is that bisexual people enter into extramarital relationships because of their sexual orientation. The MGRM said that this “denotes a serious prejudice towards bisexual people and their ability to enter into stable, committed, monogamous relationships and a deep level of ignorance that may have negative repercussions in clinical and counselling interventions.”