I beg to move
That this Assembly rejects the harmful practice widely referred to as conversion therapy; notes that the UK Government National LGBT Survey in 2018 reported that 2% of respondents had undergone conversion therapy, with a further 5% having been offered it; acknowledges the damage that this practice causes to the mental health of those who are subjected to it; further acknowledges that this practice has been widely rejected by medical professionals; declares that it is fundamentally wrong to view our LGBTQ community as requiring a fix or cure; and calls on the Minister for Communities to commit to bringing forward legislation before the end of the current Assembly mandate to ban conversion therapy in all its forms.
The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one and a half hours for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. One amendment has been selected and is published on the Marshalled List.
I thank the Minister for Communities for being in attendance and look forward to hearing her response to the debate. Although this is an Ulster Unionist Party motion, I accept that a lot of parties have fed into the debate on the issue, not least the Alliance Party and Paula Bradshaw, who only a number of weeks ago brought forward a petition asking for a ban on conversion therapy. Everybody therefore has a vested interest.
I have always been told that, when you open a debate, you should say something profound to engage everybody in the room. I do not have anything profound to say, but here is what I will say: I am a straight man. I was born straight, and there is no fix or cure for me or any therapy that will make me a gay man. Why on earth therefore would we say that a gay man was not born that way? Why would we say that a gay man can be fixed or cured? Why would we say that there is a therapy to change a gay man into a straight man? There is not. It is ludicrous. If you believe that being gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans or gender-diverse is a lifestyle choice, there is nothing that I can say to you today that will change your mind. If that is what you believe, that is what you believe.
Conversion therapy is humiliating and harmful, and having listened to testimonies of individuals who have undergone conversion therapy, it is clear that it has far-reaching negative mental impacts. The continual promotion that somebody is broken or wrong leads them to feel that they are worthless, and extremes lead to suicide. The British Psychological Society for Northern Ireland chairperson said that conversion therapies are unethical and unsupported by psychological evidence and that her society is committed to ending the practice. She said that sexual orientation and gender identities are not mental health disorders. However, those subjected to exclusion, stigma and prejudice may well experience mental health issues as a result. She went on to say that it is important that the public are made aware of the risk and the harms of conversion therapies.
The UN independent expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity said:
"actions to subject lesbians, gay, bisexual, trans or gender-diverse persons to practices of ‘conversion therapy’ are by their very nature degrading, inhuman and cruel and create a significant risk of torture."
"A significant risk of torture", "inhuman", "cruel": those are words that should shake us all to the core when we think that some of our people here in Northern Ireland — our brothers and our sisters, our sons and our daughters, our teachers, our policeman, our nurses and our doctors — are subjected, or could be subjected, to that. It should shake us all, yet it is happening here in Northern Ireland.
We have a charity, with charitable status and everything that goes with that status, conducting conversion therapies here in Northern Ireland. It is part-funded by the International Federation for Therapeutic and Counselling Choice, which says that witnessing domestic violence or suffering sexual abuse can make you gay. My word. So, if you are subjected to domestic violence or sexual abuse, it can make you gay.
I have to say to everybody here and to anybody listening that this needs to be stopped, and I will keep saying that. Those are inhumane, cruel practices that are detrimental to people's mental health.
We have issues of faith, and I do not want to get into a theological debate with anybody in the Chamber, as that would not be helpful. However, last year, just under 400 leaders of the world's main religions called for an end to conversion therapy, and every main political party in the Chamber has stated that it wants to ban conversion therapy.
Many have tried to frame this debate as an attempt to stifle religious freedom. That is not the case. The right to preach, pray or counsel somebody who seeks support should not be diminished. The intent of the motion is not to limit anybody's faith or belief or their ability to express them. I do not believe that private prayer about sexual identity, conducted in a supportive, affirming way, is conversion therapy, unless it is subversive and harmful. I do not believe that pastoral care is about changing someone's gender identity, unless it is deliberately targeting the young or the vulnerable with the intent to do so. The word "intent" is incredibly important. If the intent is to change somebody's sexual orientation or identity, it is wrong. It is trying to convert.
No, I am sorry, Jim, for time reasons, I will not give way, but I will listen to what you have to say.
A person of faith should support banning conversion therapy not in spite of their faith but because of it. The evangelical group Left Side Up said:
"To engage in activity to alter the sexual orientation or gender identity of a person is not an expression of religious freedom, but an abuse of power."
It also stated:
"There are compelling Christian reasons to celebrate the wonderful rainbow of human diversity."
That is an evangelical group. I understand that people have religious views, and I respect them. I have always respected them, and I will not denigrate them in any way.
I cannot support the amendment, because removing the line:
"it is fundamentally wrong to view our LGBTQ community as requiring a fix or cure" promotes the idea that they do need a fix and do need a cure. That may not have been the intention, but that is what it looks like, that is what it feels like and that is what our LGBTQ community sees it as being. I cannot support it, and I will not support it. However, I ask respectfully, and I say this respectfully, with no political mischief to my friends in the DUP: do not move that harmful amendment. Do not move it. I will not play political mischief with you; I will applaud your moral courage. The amendment is damaging to the people of Northern Ireland. It is damaging to a community that has long been damaged.
A young female member of the LGBTQ community once said:
"It won’t always be like this. It’s going to get better."
I never knew Lyra McKee, and she will never see the "better" that she foresaw. As we remember Lyra McKee two years after her murder, it is incumbent on all of us to reach inside ourselves to change this practice of conversion therapy. Nobody is tackling anybody's faith, but if it is coercive and controlling, we have to stop it. I believe in the promotion and protection of all spiritual beliefs, unless they are coercive in nature and directed deliberately at the LGBTQ community to create a sense that they need that fix or cure.
We can all play with words today, and I hope that we can all look at each other at the end of this and say that we have been respectful to each other. I want to be respectful to everybody in this room. It does not matter what any of us say here today, because the reality for me will be what the Minister has to say and how she takes this forward. Conversion therapy needs to be banned, it needs to be banned now and it needs to be banned before the end of this mandate.
Please express your opinions, but do not paint this as something that it is not. This is not about attacking anybody's religious freedoms. This is about banning a harmful practice that is damaging our young and old alike.
I beg to move the following amendment:
Leave out all after "professionals" and insert: “recognises that legitimate religious activities, such as preaching, prayer and pastoral support, do not constitute conversion therapy, cannot be defined as such and must be protected; and calls on the Minister for Communities to consult widely on the way ahead, including relevant legislative options, to ban the practice of conversion therapy.”
At the outset, I thank the Members who tabled the motion and state that I am in full support of a ban on the dangerous practices of conversion therapy in Northern Ireland. My party believes that discrimination against someone on the basis of their sexual orientation is wrong. We are all created equal and should be treated as such. No one should ever be forced into treatment for being gay.
I share the grave concerns of many Members at the various abhorrent practices that have been promoted under the umbrella of conversion therapy in the past and those that sadly still exist. Those have included electroconvulsive therapy, enforced isolation, aversion therapy, food deprivation, hormone therapy and hypnotherapy. Those and some other forms of so-called conversion therapy should never be allowed to harm our loved ones, friends and neighbours ever again.
As a party, we are firmly opposed to those forms of coercion and manipulation, because they do not respect human dignity. As a result, we are supportive of an appropriate response to prohibiting unsafe and coercive practices, including through legislation. However, we are concerned about the absence of any clear or evidence-based definition of conversion therapy in the motion.
There is a risk that such ambiguity, if translated into legislation, would criminalise legitimate activities or conversations. We simply want to avoid unintended and unjustified consequences. Therefore, we need to nail down what activities we seek to deal with not just to safeguard activities that cannot be reasonably be deemed to be harmful or coercive but to give the best protection to our LGBT community.
Some Members disagree with our amendment because they want the ban to cover religious settings. Others object because they do not feel that the motion covers religious settings in the first place. That highlights the ambiguity that exists without clear definition. The motion does not account for a complex legal landscape of competing rights, including freedom of religion and freedom of speech. It was for those very reasons that legislation in Germany was restricted to treatments in healthcare settings and for minors. That is why our amendment encourages the Minister to consult widely with affected stakeholders on plans for legislation. We want legislation to be ambitious and effective, but that cannot happen with unclear and sweeping definitions of conversion therapy. It is also important that we consider other dangerous, unregulated and unqualified pseudoscientific forms of treatment, counselling and healthcare for all manner of things, many of which have no foundation in any religious beliefs.
Let me be clear: I do not believe that members of our LGBT community should be fixed or cured. I might not agree, but I recognise that there are those with deeply held religious beliefs on sexuality who have differing opinions on how someone should live their life. The DUP wants to see progress on banning conversion therapy. Those appalling practices that still pervade our society today must be defined and made illegal if they are not already. We are committed to not just any legislation to ban conversion therapy but the best legislation — legislation that is fair and evidence-based. We ask Members to support the amendment. Good law is clear law. Effective law is law with clearly defined scope.
I support the motion and oppose the amendment tabled by the DUP. I am conscious that there will be people outside the Chamber watching the debate who have experience of the trauma of this kind of pseudoscientific malpractice. I hope that we all bear that in mind and are sensitive to it in our contributions.
It is hard to know where to start with a concept like this, which is so obviously morally and ethically wrong. It is so indefensible that it is really hard to get your head around the fact that it still happens here today. I will start with the term itself: "conversion therapy". The word "therapy" suggests something healing, holistic and restorative, so let us look at the therapeutic effects of attempts to change a person's sexual orientation. A recent 'Spotlight' investigation of conversion therapy reported that, in 2018, a UK-wide survey found that over half of those who had experience of attempts to change their sexual orientation had subsequently suffered mental health issues and one fifth had attempted suicide.
A UN expert recently reported to the Human Rights Council that conversion therapy inflicts "severe pain and suffering" on lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and gender-diverse persons, often resulting in "psychological and physical damage" that is "long-lasting". When asked about their experience of conversion or "pastoral therapy", as it is sometimes called, participants in the discredited practice said that they were made to feel so degraded and ashamed and that their self-loathing became so great as a result of what they were being told by the people delivering the therapy that they wanted to end their life. If there are organisations in this jurisdiction exposing our citizens to behaviour that is so destructive that it makes them feel that they want to end their life, the Assembly needs to come down hard on them and work to eradicate the practice completely.
I thank the hundreds of people who have contacted me over recent weeks to show their support for a ban on conversion therapy. I do not think that I have been lobbied as strongly on any other issue. I want to make it clear that Sinn Féin unequivocally condemns the practice of conversion therapy and what it stands for. It is deeply damaging to the mental health and emotional well-being of the LGBTQ+ community as a whole. We are resolute in our opposition to homophobia and discrimination in all its forms.
Despite DUP attempts to suggest otherwise, it is fundamentally wrong to view the LGBT community as requiring a fix or a cure. That is why the Sinn Féin Communities Minister, Deirdre Hargey, is bringing forward legislation to ban conversion therapy in every way in which it masks itself. Like any new legislation, it will take time. I am sure that my colleague will, of course, want to ensure that no loopholes are made available by any changing of names or definitions. It is also important that those affected by conversion therapy and the wider LGBTQ+ community have their say when the legislation goes out to consultation. I have no doubt that they will do that.
As I said, Sinn Féin will support the motion as it stands but will not support the amendment. I urge other Members to reject the amendment. The toxic mix of heteronormative conservatism combined with religious fundamentalism that permeates the DUP is given voice in its attempt to amend the motion. The amendment seeks to provide cover for quacks and clerics to continue to damage and harm our LGBTQ+ citizens. Again, I urge Members to reject that fossilised thinking by rejecting the amendment.
I will finish by saying that I am sure that there are many eyes and ears on us today. There may be people watching the debate who are coming to terms with their sexuality. Maybe they do not have the right support system around them, and maybe they are not given meaningful, proper sex education in their schools that reflects their feelings and sexual orientation. If you are such a person and you take nothing else from the debate today, please know this: homosexuality is normal and natural. You cannot change or control your sexuality any more than you can change or control the colour of your skin, and anyone who tells you otherwise is nothing more than a snake oil salesman. No cure is required for being yourself, and you do not need to be fixed because you are not broken.
I want to start by saying that no one should be told that their identity — who they are as a person — is wrong or that it is something that must or even can be cured. It needs to be said emphatically and unequivocally that sexual orientation is not a sin to be confessed. The freedom to be oneself is something that most of us take for granted, yet, for some gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals, being themselves can be the most frightening step that they will ever take.
The practice of conversion therapy is not only abhorrent but barbaric and must be consigned to the past. The untold damage and trauma that it has caused people here will never truly be known. However, thanks to the bravery of victims — yes, victims — who have come forward to share their harrowing experience, a light has been shone on just how widespread the practice is here, with 7% of LGBT+ people having been offered or having undergone that deeply distressing practice. That abuse should not be tolerated, let alone provided for, under current legislation.
For too long, the LGBT community has been let down and has had to fight for the rights that are afforded to others and an equal place in society. While we have come some way in advancing LGBT rights, the fight is far from over. The Executive committed to a sexual orientation strategy in 'New Decade, New Approach'. The Minister has said that legislation to outlaw conversion therapy will be a part of that. However, the LGBT community wants a swifter and separate approach. We have seen too many strategies launched to great fanfare, only to sink without a trace.
I am slightly embarrassed in front of those who are from the LGBT community, especially anyone who is in the Chamber, that we are debating the issue. I am 66-year-old happily married grandad: that is who I am. No one is trying to change me. Why is it right that some people out there should try to change anyone else? I have three little words: love is love.
I thank the Member for his intervention. Love is, indeed, love.
Any strategy that is brought forward must focus on addressing LGBT health inequalities. Research from the Rainbow Project has shown that LGBT people are particularly vulnerable to developing mental health problems due to the homophobia, discrimination and oppression that exist in our society. It will, therefore, come as no surprise that that community is more likely to self-harm, to feel suicidal and to suffer addiction issues. Most shocking of all is the statistic that Ms Ennis quoted on the number of people who have attempted suicide. Consider those horrific statistics in the context of conversion therapy, in which organisations perpetuate the falsehood that sexual orientation can be controlled and prey on extremely vulnerable individuals.
Many victims have spoken of their struggle to accept themselves, and practices such as conversion therapy serve only to compound their feelings of self-hatred and shame. That discredited practice is completely unethical. No one should be put through that traumatic ordeal or be led to feel that they are deficient in any way. Put simply, it is abuse. The Governments here and in Westminster have not done enough to establish protections for the LGBT community. It is incumbent on us all to acknowledge and tackle all forms of discrimination in our society. We must find a way forward to protect victims and to send a clear message to practitioners that this so-called therapy is wrong. To do that, we need legislative backing in the form of an outright ban.
Some promote mental health and well-being but, in the same breath, support — well, tolerate — conversion therapy. Those viewpoints are completely incompatible. Tolerance of the latter is effectively a denial of the former, and we will oppose the amendment today. Homosexuality is not a brokenness; rather it is the system and attitudes here that are broken. I apologise to every member of the LGBT community who has been failed by our system. Every citizen should be free to live and to love without fear of shame or judgement. We need to start from the premise of understanding and to champion inclusive education in our schools to allow young people to form healthy relationships with themselves and with others. By engaging and educating, we can create a society that works for all.
The SDLP is built on foundations of equality. We fully support the motion and the ban on conversion therapy.
To start, I thank Doug and John for tabling today's motion. I know them as allies of the LGBT community, alongside others in the Chamber such as Carál Ní Chuilín, whom I have known for many years and who supported me when I was much younger and less grey-haired as an LGBT activist. I really appreciate them tabling today's motion, and I appreciate the work that so many have done, including my colleague Paula Bradshaw. I also thank, in particular, those who have been involved in a very successful, professional and well-organised campaign. I am impressed by the work that has been done. I speak as an Alliance Party MLA on behalf of the party. I am conscious of the need for a respectful debate, because people are watching, and the way that the debate plays out has impacts.
On Saturday, I was sorting out the books in my study, having got new shelves from a well-known furniture retailer. I found one of my books — 'Boy Erased' — which was given to me as a gift by one of my best friends, who was able to come to terms with his sexuality and with his friends and family in relation to that. I strongly recommend the book in relation to today's debate. Alongside the book, I found a postcard that was given to me in the late 1990s when I was at university in Derry. Things have moved on somewhat from then. At the top, it says, "Lesbians and gay men are". Well, we have moved on to be more inclusive than that, as the LGBT community. The postcard says that they are our daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, cousins, grandparents, uncles, aunts, in-laws, carers, cared-for, friends, work colleagues, customers and service users. That is whom we are talking about today. The issue that we are debating has a significant impact on so many people: not just my LGBT brothers and sisters but their wider families, friends and work colleagues.
I am very fortunate to have had a very inclusive upbringing, a very supportive family and a mother who is probably more liberal than I am, but I am conscious of those who have not and of the impact of this debate on them, particularly the DUP amendment tabled on Friday. That amendment has caused hurt and offence, and people have contacted me saying that they have been re-traumatised by it, particularly the desire to remove the wording about a "fix or cure". I really regret that that has happened.
I thank the Member for giving way. Does the Member agree that it has been heartbreaking to hear, over the last week or so, from people who have been so traumatised by the amendment? It has traumatised a vast part of the community, which did not expect this to happen.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I agree with Ms Armstrong. All the amendment does is harm. The DUP needs to recognise that it is on the wrong side of history on this. The debate that we have had in recent days about the amendment has shown that society has moved on quite a lot. The idea that a ban on conversion therapy can be an attack on religious freedom is building a straw man. Any legislation that is passed by this place would have to be compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights, especially article 9. I am used to these straw men being built, especially in relation to equal marriage. We were told that the sky would fall in if we legislated for equal marriage. The reality is that people are a bit more equal and are happier in love. The sky has not fallen in.
For me, when we are debating conversion therapy, it touches the core of what is deep-rooted homophobia in our society. There is an idea that sexuality is a choice and a lifestyle. I chose to wear a bow tie today. That is a lifestyle choice; my sexuality is not. It also goes to the core of deep-rooted transphobia in our society. The reality is that it is perfectly good and normal for one man to love another man, for one woman to love another woman or for someone to fulfil their gender identity. The failure to recognise and accept that shows why we need an effective ban. We need that ban. This must not be symbolic legislation. That would be an insult and would allow the harm to continue.
A definition of conversion therapy is essential to allow that effective ban, and the Ban Conversion Therapy coalition of LGBT+ organisations has provided a recommended legal definition, which is about actions to encourage someone to erase, repress or change their sexuality or gender identity. Asking someone to repress, for example, their sexual orientation is deeply harmful. I know people to whom it has happened. I know people who suffered from the homophobia and transphobia in our society to such an extent that they took their life. We have a responsibility in this place to ensure that an effective ban is brought forward. Yes, it must be done through co-production and co-design with the LGBT community, but this Assembly mandate must end with an effective ban.
As has been said, Sinn Féin will support the motion and reject the amendment. I preface my remarks with thanks to the UUP Members who tabled the motion. I place on record an acknowledgement of the huge amount of work done by Micky Murray of the Alliance Party through the online petition that he started last year and, of course, the Ban Conversion Therapy alliance for its work in bringing so many people together to call out the notion that gay people need a fix or a cure. I was happy to hear from my constituents, who lobbied me on this.
It is reassuring to see such consensus across parties for the banning of this cruel and inhumane practice. Work began last year when Carál Ní Chuilín met the Justice Minister and the Health Minister in the summer. Our party is working on this in the South through Fintan Warfield's Bill of 2018. From a rights perspective, this could not be more clear: banning conversion therapy is the bare minimum. This is not even about applying the conditions for LGBTQI+ brothers and sisters to live a life with equal opportunity; this is about removing a real and visceral barrier to a full and happy life.
Under article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, everyone has the right to live life free from inhumane or degrading treatment, which is what those so-called therapies clearly amount to. The testimonies from people who have been subjected to conversion therapy speak for themselves. Article 8 of the ECHR allows everyone the right to a private life. Imposing your views, whatever they are, on another person's home is a contravention of that. Conversion therapy, slurs daubed on walls and violent attacks are the physical outworkings of a much deeper problem: they are symptoms of homophobia. It is that discriminatory prejudice that we really need to address.
No one is born homophobic; it is something that is conditioned by society. Like any other form of discrimination, we need to challenge homophobia when we are confronted with it. Just as institutionalised racism survived the abolition of slavery and the ending of Jim Crow, the implementation of marriage equality did not fix all the issues that LGBTQI+ people face. Telling people that you regard them as equal is important, but, unless you actually treat them as equal, you have failed. Allowing language that ostracises and others people leads to those people being ostracised and othered. That requires ownership and acknowledgement.
I note that a proponent of those therapies, who was challenged this morning on radio, claimed that homosexuality or transsexuality is a lifestyle choice, as Mr Muir referred to. When he was asked whether people should be allowed to change from heterosexual to LGBTQI+, he faltered. Of course we know why: to change who you are and who you love is not possible. We are not having this conversation about people attempting to turn gay; we all know that those in our LGBTQI+ community have fewer rights and face more challenges. Our LGBTQI+ community has had to fight hard for the realisation of its rights. In doing so, that community faced stigma, shame and ignorance. Unfortunately, that is just the thin end of the wedge. There is also discrimination in the workplace, attacks on nights out, homophobic abuse on social media and threatening catcalls on the street. When we talk about those matters, I always think of people, particularly young people, growing up in rural areas such as my own who are grappling with their sexuality and figuring out that they are gay, lesbian or trans and all of the challenges that that can bring because of a lack of resources, education, community and support. Our LGBTQI+ population is dispersed by its very nature. That is felt all the more when you live in the country.
A few weeks ago, one of our councillors — Councillor Cora Corry — and I met Mid Ulster Pride, which is a group of young people trying to establish an LGBTQI+ network in their constituency. I learned a lot from our conversation. They listed concerns that never would have occurred to me as a young person. There is an additional layer of rural isolation with which I did not have to contend when I was growing up. The motion is a step in undoing some of that harm. It is about telling members of our LGBTQI+ community that they are valued and loved just as they are. The Assembly has not always been a friendly place for people who identify as LGBTQI+. That is the only thing that requires a fix.
I thank Doug and John for tabling the motion. This is a really important day in the Assembly. There has been a lot of debate, rightly or wrongly, since the motion was mentioned, as there was when Paula brought forward the petition on the issue and when Órlaithí Flynn raised it at the Health Committee. The message to me is that the issue will keep being raised while the practice exists. It needs to be banned.
No one in the House has an issue with the banning of torture. That is what conversion therapy is. I have spoken to people who have tried to be converted. What they experienced, particularly the older gentlemen, was nothing short of torture. I am the proud sister of a gay brother. I witnessed what my younger brother experienced when he grew up. My family were like many families. My father, Lord rest him, was a working-class engineer. He was certainly not politically correct, but he knew about the bullying that his youngest son went through because he was gay. My brother is happily married, but why did he have to go to London to feel included? Why did he feel that, as soon as he turned 17, he needed to get out of here?
That has happened to so many people. He was so lucky to have friends from Belfast and across the North who acted as a support mechanism for him. I spoke to some of them at his wedding and heard about some of the things that they had had to go through, which, I have to say, were and are shameful. What is even more shameful is the attempt to use religious belief to say that it is OK, when it is not.
I listened to Andrew, whom I have known for a long time. He said that he has grey hair now, and the fact that mine is not shows that I have been to the hairdresser while Andrew has not. The point of the matter, however, is that all denials of equality started in places such as this, and they need to end in places such as this. That is the only way in which we will protect people who face discrimination and bullying and will ensure that, as described in the European Convention under, as Emma said, articles 3 and 8, they have the right not to be tortured and the right to a private life. I could not help but be moved by what Andrew said on the radio this morning, and I was really proud of him. Like many people, he is saying, "When will this nonsense stop? How many more times do people have to ask to be treated fairly?".
We need to go beneath the skin of the amendment. The only way in which any of us will be taken seriously, when it comes to people's rights, entitlements and protections, is if we pass legislation to protect. In 2021, we still have people saying, "Listen, I'm not a homophobe. I'm just not convinced that your notion of conversion therapy is the same as mine". The fact that you are even saying things like that in 2021 is ridiculous. I do think that that is homophobic. I accept that some of the people with strongly held religious beliefs are not homophobes, and I take your point about being respectful, despite being really annoyed. This needs to stop, however, and it needs to stop now. The only way in which we can put an end to people being abused and being made to feel different or less human is to bring forward legislation now.
To end on a positive note, it has been a respectful debate, and it will hopefully end as a respectful debate. In 2021, strategies and legislation are still being blocked, and commitments made by Governments have not been honoured. If we are still doing that in 2021, we need to ask ourselves fundamental questions. If you say that you are for equality, show me what that looks like. We know what it looks like when you are opposed to it. It means sending people to join a long waiting list for mental health support, if they can get it. Our brothers and sisters — either they are your brothers and sisters or they are somebody else's brothers and sisters — need our support, and they need it now.
I will start today with some direct quotations from Members and former Members from the party opposite.
Sammy Wilson, DUP:
"I don't care if they are ratepayers. As far as I am concerned they are perverts."
Thomas Buchanan, DUP, said that homosexuality is: "an abomination."
Edwin Poots, DUP:
"It is unnatural in the first instance, and abominable in the second instance."
Iris Robinson, DUP:
"Gay people are more vile than child abusers."
That last quotation is from 2005. Today, in 2021, as a young person, I am in genuine disbelief that we are here today even having to debate conversion therapy. People of the LGBT+ community need not our prayers but our respect and support.
I thank the UUP for tabling this important motion. I really am at a loss as to where to begin. Today's debate is the symptom of a very sick part of our society that believes that our LGBT friends, family and colleagues need to be cured. To be frank, I find the amendment insulting. It is a cheap tactic from the DUP, utilising religion as a veil for its evident and ardent homophobia. The idea that a young, vulnerable person who is looking for guidance on their sexuality is met with therapy is the real abomination.
As someone with a strong faith myself, I am sick and tired of religious freedoms being used as a way to think that it is in any way acceptable to reject the LGBT+ community. Get real. The motion is not about criminalising prayer; it is about limiting harm to our LGBT brothers and sisters with these unethical therapies. Religious freedoms must be questioned the moment that harm is committed, and we know, from speaking first-hand to people who have endured conversion therapy, that many have experienced hurt and rejection from people who told them, "God condemns you because of who you are and who you love". That is shocking.
Has the LGBT community not been through enough, from the historic shame of the AIDS pandemic to delay after delay in the right to marriage equality? We do not want more young people, especially those in isolated rural communities, watching us today to experience more anguish. I cannot imagine how that must feel.
Looking back at our history in NI on LGBT issues, I remember, when I was growing up, looking round the table at lunchtime and thinking that it was so strange that half my friends would be able to dream about their wedding day and getting married while the other half would not. It makes me feel ashamed that, just a few years ago, that was the reality in my home, in our home.
What a shame it is that the party across from me, led by the First Minister, wants to amend the motion to take out:
"that it is fundamentally wrong to view our LGBTQ community as requiring a fix or cure".
What message does that send to the young people in our schools who are struggling or repressing their identity? They should not be met with shame, stigma and, least of all, therapy. They should be met with love, understanding and respect. After all, is that not the Christian way? Research on the issue of family acceptance of LGBTQ youth showed that young people were eight times more likely to be suicidal, six times more likely to report high levels of depression, and three times more likely to use drugs.
I say to the DUP, and its actions today and its actions spanning decades, that using religion as a mask and a weapon to do your dirty work for you and to allow you to be freely and openly homophobic is a disgrace. To that end, as someone with a strong faith, I have to say that it is you and your mentality that are the problem, not members of the LGBT community. The SDLP strongly supports the motion and rejects wholeheartedly the DUP amendment.
I have no difficulty whatsoever in condemning some of the gruesome practices that, historically, were associated with what has been called conversion therapy, including the use of drug and aversion therapies. All of that was obnoxious. My problem with the motion, however, is, very simply, its deliberate obfuscation by the fact that it fails to define conversion therapy. In fact, in its very last words, it embraces the banning of:
"conversion therapy in all its forms."
What are "all its forms"? If we take seriously some of the lobbying from the LGBT community, it patently and indisputably includes religious exercises. We have all received — I know that I have — lobbying from that community making it very clear that it wants a ban not just to extend to the gruesome and the horrible practices that I have talked about but to religious exercises. They want to criminalise preaching in accordance with the sexual ethics set forth in Holy Scripture; they want to criminalise praying in accordance with the sexual ethics set forth in Holy Scripture. Where there has been legislation, as in Victoria, Australia, that is exactly what happened.
Did the Member note this morning that a leading SDLP councillor made it very clear on 'The Nolan Show' that he wanted all forms of religious intervention to be banned and that a leading councillor from the Alliance Party on 'Talkback' made exactly the same point that all religious intervention of any kind in this field must be banned?
In a moment.
We are in a situation where it is abundantly clear from the lobby groups that advance this motion that they are in no doubt that they want to suppress and, indeed, criminalise religious activity. By their standards, that giant of Christian heritage St Paul would be a most offending criminal. Anyone who has ever read — maybe not enough have — his letter to the church at Corinth, First Corinthians chapter 6, will know that he, apparently, could readily be accused, in the terms of the LGBT community, of conversion therapy. When he referred to changes in lives and said, "such were some of you", was that not conversion therapy in the terms that are being proposed? It seems to be.
It is critical that religious practices are protected. If a minister of religion is approached by a young person or an older person who wants counsel and guidance on sexual issues because they are a person of faith or who is attracted to faith, is that minister of religion to be criminalised? There is a great phrase to the effect that the Government should not intervene between consenting adults in the bedroom. Fair enough. Now, however, there is the desire to intervene between consenting adults in the minister's counselling room because it offends thought processes by daring to uphold what is clear to anyone who holds to Christian faith as set forth in the Bible. It is sad to me that those who want, rightly, to ban conversion therapy are not prepared to stand up and accept an amendment that would put it in the right context that preserves, outside that ambit, freedom of religion. That is protected as an absolute by article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights but would be trampled by this motion if it got the sort of legislation that embraced its terminology of "in all its forms".
Mr Speaker, thank you for the opportunity to speak. I support the amendment because it does preserve the fundamental imperative of religious freedom, and I will oppose the motion because it does not.
I am going to have to give four minutes to all Members who speak next, in order to give the rest of the Members who wish to speak that entitlement. I rule that there will be four minutes each with no additional time for interventions. Be aware of that. It is to ensure that we give as many as possible of the Members who are listed to speak the opportunity to do so.
First, as a member of the Policing Board, I condemn without reservation the attempted murder of a police officer overnight. The PSNI, I believe, found a viable device and dealt with it. Whoever was responsible has no place in our society in 2021.
I thank my colleague Mr Beattie for tabling this motion. Once again, he demonstrates what an asset he is, not only to the Assembly but to society, in his fairness, his inclusiveness and his compassion.
The debate works on two levels. Obviously, there is the specific level, and I accept that we need to tighten up our definition of conversion therapy, but that is not something that we will do today in a private Member's motion. We will do it when we get to legislation. I note that Sinéad Ennis confirmed that the Minister is preparing to bring forward legislation, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister later.
Not only will that legislation need to define more closely conversion therapy but it will need to address the legitimate concerns of those who believe that it will have a negative impact on worship in this country. That is not what I am about in supporting the motion. I am about protecting the vulnerable and outlawing coercive practices. Everybody who has spoken so far agrees that there are and have been coercive practices. I simply want to put in place protections that I would want for me, my family and my friends if we were being pressurised to change against our will.
Yesterday, I listened to a member of the LGBTQ+ community talk about his experience of how he was made to feel ashamed of who he is. I have met many others who, like Carál Ní Chuilín's brother, have left this little part of Planet Earth not because they wanted to but because they felt that they had to as a result of who they are and of how we treated them. That is just wrong, and I am so sorry to hear that about your brother, Carál.
The debate is about recognising that we have not done well by our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters. It is also about acknowledging that, as Peter Lynas of the Evangelical Alliance did on the radio this morning, the Churches have not done well on occasions. That is a big statement, coming from Peter Lynas.
Most of the parties in the House, 23 years ago, agreed on a way forward on building a society that is inclusive, respectful, builds trust and recognises diversity. In fact, more than recognising diversity, it was changing the narrative from saying that we are a divided society that needs a fix and a cure to becoming a society where we recognise and celebrate our diversity. That is why I support the motion but not the amendment. That amendment implies that our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters need to be cured and fixed.
For those who are listening to the debate who seek unionist unity and are wondering why we do not have it, the answer is very simple. Read the motion and the amendment. They are like chalk and cheese. That is why there is not and never can be unionist unity.
I support the motion. I do not support the amendment.
Those who oppose conversion therapy have been utterly honest in their demands, and I applaud that. We all received a briefing last week from a group of LGBT activist organisations that made it absolutely clear that what they seek and that what, clearly, the motion seeks is a complete ban on all interventions by pastors, priests and ministers on the issue.
I am a married man of 38 years, and I have three children. If I were in a situation where I started to struggle with same-sex attraction — I am not, by the way — and I went to my pastor seeking spiritual guidance, the motion and the campaign would mean that the only thing that he could do is approve of my lifestyle choice, commend it and wish me all the best. If at any time he were to quote from his Church's teaching on this issue, which is clearly outlined by Paul, Leviticus, Jewish sacred writings and the Koran, and he indicated to me his Church's teaching, if reported to the police, that pastor, priest or minister would be up in the courts. People say that it has not happened, but it has. What about Pastor McConnell from Whitewell Tabernacle, who was up in court for articulating his Christian views on a certain subject? Therefore, it happens.
Are Mr Beattie and Mr Stewart putting themselves into a position where they will put pastors, priests and ministers into the dock? If they are not, they should not be supporting the motion. When people talk about conversion therapy, they talk about physically and sexually abusive practices that are appalling. We all oppose those: there is no difficulty whatsoever with that. However, they also talk about innocent behaviour, such as people praying or asking for prayer. Remember that we are not talking about coercion here: we are talking about adults who perceive that they have a problem and who go to their spiritual adviser to seek prayer and counselling. There can be no compulsion whatsoever.
I came across an article in 'The Guardian' recently, which shocked me. The journalist wrote:
"Some churches claim their prayer practices are not conversion attempts", but the article quoted an activist who said:
"That's merely semantics ... Conversion practice is the oxygen you breathe the minute you go into a conservative religious environment".
'The Guardian' apparently endorses the idea that conversion therapy is the oxygen that conservative Christians breathe. So when they support banning conversion therapy, they and, presumably, Mr Beattie and Mr Stewart support the banning of conservative religious practices. I notice that neither of them have asked me to give way on that point.
Here in Northern Ireland, they are outlawing the beliefs of hundreds of thousands of people, including in Upper Bann and in East Antrim. Normal, everyday Christian practices and beliefs are being compared to bogus therapy and even rape, and that is considered as merely semantics. I am not sure that I have strong enough words to condemn that slur.
If you are gay and have never stepped into a church, the sort of news that you read and the picture that you get is that there are millions of Christians in the UK who are looking for opportunities to hurt you. You are told that if someone prays for you, it is actually a form of abuse. You are told that the entire religion of hundreds of thousands of people in Northern Ireland is so toxic that it should be outlawed. I put it to the proposers of the motion that that is incredibly dangerous language. It is a crude caricature of our religious communities —
The Business Committee has arranged to meet at 1:00 pm. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2:00 pm. This debate will resume after Question Time, when the first Member to speak will be Rachel Woods.
The debate stood suspended. The sitting was suspended at 1.02 pm.
On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair) —