Religion, law and the constitution

Balancing beliefs in Britain

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The forthcoming film ‘Boy Erased’ has already attracted a significant degree of attention.  Based on the memoir of Garrard Conley, it portrays his experiences as the son of a Baptist Minister in a small US town, pressured into attending a residential gay conversion therapy program.  Given the title of the film, and also the nature of the ‘counselling’, we are not giving away too many spoilers by revealing that this was not a positive episode in the life of the protagonist. As might have been anticipated, Conley has drawn a barrage of attack from religious conservatives in his native Bible-belt, and from other quarters as well.  Both the book and the film have been criticised for over ‘humanising’ Conley’s fundamentalist parents, and effectively making them seem too sympathetic.  Furthermore, some journalists have expressed frustration that the young Conley was not quicker to reject the oppressive religious outlook which he had inherited.

These responses are unhelpful in human terms, as telling someone to hate their parents is not likely to be conducive to their emotional wellbeing and mental health.  Moreover, they are as strange as complaints go in terms of Arts, because it is rather unusual to make a plea for less nuanced and complicated characters, insisting that two-dimensional monsters would have been preferable.  Human-munching, lake-dwelling creatures of shadow are allowed to be straightforward in sagas like Beowulf, but in the real world, deeply damaging actions are often carried out by very ordinary people, who happen to be caring in many ways.  In addition to this, for reasons rooted in all of these considerations, this kind of black and white thinking is a hindrance in relation to law and policy surrounding human rights.

All too often, different interests or identities are presented as inherently opposed, which is challenging for the individuals who carry both within themselves.  Telling a person to ‘get over’ being religious is no more productive or appropriate than telling them to ‘get over’ being gay or transgender.  Also, suggesting to individuals that it is easy, or necessarily desirable, for them to simply walk away from their families and wider community is misguided.  Certain Muslim voices, for example, express concerns that they feel excluded by the ‘militant secularism’ of events like London Pride.  Clearly for some, a venture intended to promote inclusivity and social integration has the polar opposite effect, because of an implicit message that one identity is opposed to another.  It must be stressed, however, that this feeling is not universally shared, and prominent Muslim LGBTQI groups like Imaan are supportive of Pride, in London and elsewhere.

The complexity of these issues cannot be air-brushed away, and from a legal point of view there are a number of recurrent dilemmas.  Firstly, there is the collision of individual and group rights.  How far do we allow faith communities and families the freedom to manage their internal affairs?  When do we step in to protect the interests of the vulnerable, children or adults who have not fully consented to the demands or restrictions being placed on them?   Should public authorities be allowed, or indeed required, to step in where a teenager is being told by their parents and faith community that their sexuality is a sin?  Why or why not?

Bound up with this, are questions about autonomy and freedom.  For instance, should individuals be free to access gay conversion therapy if they want to do so, however unwise this might seem to third parties?  A memorandum of understanding has been signed by all mainstream organisations offering counselling and psychotherapy in the UK, including the NHS, that such “treatment” is unethical and harmful, but it is still not illegal.  There were renewed calls for a ban earlier this year (supported by the Church of England) but no progress has been made.  Are individuals who claim to want this kind of service really making a free choice?  If we conclude not, how does this relate to other forms of alternative medicine and spiritual therapy, or questions of other minorities within minorities?  Should healing with crystals or homoeopathy also be outlawed, as they may turn vulnerable people away from seeking the help of evidence based medicine? What about gender roles within religiously conservative communities?  How do we, on the one hand, avoid dishonouring individual autonomy, just because it is being exercised in a way which offends majoritarian values, and yet safeguard against abuses, on the other?

None of these dilemmas have easy answers, and legal systems need to be nuanced in their responses.  In pragmatic terms, achieving this requires a willingness to listen to difficult and conflicting narratives.  People may identify themselves as Evangelical Christians or Muslims and gay, or Charedi and feminist, and they may also value people or communities, even if they do not fully share their worldview.  On the other hand, there are equally uncomfortable narratives from groups like the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and, who feel that their experience of religious faith was oppressive and coercive, and for whom escaping their community involved personal sacrifice and risk.

In finding a collective way forward, it is important to listen to perspectives which challenge our mental categories and default assumptions.   The position of minorities within minorities is always going to be especially difficult, but if our legal system is serious about human rights, there is no excuse to ignore them.   For instance, a gay Muslim in contemporary Britain must cope with the seemingly still rising tide of Islamophobia in society generally, and also homophobia and discrimination, both inside and outside his/her faith community.  Given this double vulnerability, the situation of minorities within minorities deserves more attention, not less, than that of other citizens.


Related Articles

Boy erased author Garrard Conley on surviving ‘gay conversion therapy’ (BBC News 20/6/18)

A Al-Kadhi Like many gay Muslim people, I have no faith in pride (The Guardian 19/6/18)

Fresh call to ban gay conversion therapy (BBC News 25/18)

Is now a prime opportunity to resolve the LGBTQI-Muslim divide (Imaan 16/7/17)

Boy erased: Minister’s son trapped between his religion and his sexuality (Washington Post 10/5/16)

Memorandum of understanding on conversion therapy in the UK (UK Council for Psychotherapy November 2015)

R Dawkins “To place an LGBT parade [in a Muslim area of Sweden] is an expression of pure racism” sums up the pathetic left 23/7/15

Muslim drag act gets death threats for his London act (BBC News 6/1/15)

Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain