An unnoticed, odd consensus has formed around the case of Matthew Grech, 33, who next week will appear in court charged with breaking the law that bans the advertisement of “gay conversion therapy” (as it’s inaccurately called).
Fox News, and the UK Christian group that’s offering legal support to Grech, effectively denounce the law itself as Woke-gone-mad: it amounts to a ban on free speech. The government replies that the law is a legitimate ban on harmful speech that could promote scarring shame, especially on young people struggling to accept their sexual orientation or gender identity.
But both sides agree that the law is clear. (With one exception: the government acknowledges that what ‘advertisement’ consists of is ambiguous, which is why that ambiguity will be ironed out in forthcoming legislation.)
But the law isn’t clear at all. Those decrying it don’t seem to have read it carefully. If Grech’s case in Malta will have a domino effect on the rest of Europe, as some are warning, it could be to open up a can of other ambiguities in it. They are ambiguities that are inescapable.
Grech is denying that he promoted any conversion therapy on a TV programme. That’s an open question that will require some careful thinking from the court.
In the interview, ‘conversion therapy’ was discussed. The transcript shows that dangers associated with such therapy were mentioned, although Grech encouraged adults who feel uncomfortable with homosexual attraction to explore the possibility that their sexual desire might be a distortion of what they really want.
Whether that constitutes advertising banned therapies is up for the court to decide. But even if Grech is found guilty, it isn’t clear that the case will settle what evangelical Christians like him can or cannot do in supporting “men and women with homosexual issues who voluntarily seek change in sexual preference and expression”.
All the case might do is simply teach people like Grech how to adhere to the wording of the law while still pursuing what they consider their calling.
Contrary to many news reports, the law doesn’t ban ‘gay conversion therapy’. It’s looser than that, in a way that can serve to protect Grech.
First, the law doesn’t ban ‘therapy’ only. It bans ‘practices’, which could therefore include ‘praying the gay away’ sessions.
Second, it doesn’t only ban ‘gay conversion’ but any conversion. In principle, and this is salient to the case, it also bans heterosexual people from being converted to homosexual or some other non-binary identity.
If the law rightly protects people who belatedly discover, or recognise, that they are gay, why can’t it protect people who belatedly decide that they are, after all, straight?- Ranier Fsadni
Third, it bans practices on others. It does not ban self-help. You might not be able to gather in church to pray over some vulnerable young man who’s deeply ashamed of his homosexual orientation. But no one can stop you from praying for yourself.
Fourth, what counts as ‘sexual orientation’ is defined by the law as something deep: a ‘profound, emotional, affectional and sexual attraction’.
When you see what Grech is saying about his experience, it’s unclear whether his own case counts as an instance of ‘gay conversion’ of the kind banned by the law.
Although he is described as ‘ex-gay’, that’s not how he describes his experience. He effectively denies having had a homosexual orientation as defined by the law. He speaks of having had relationships based on sexual attraction, but they weren’t also profound nor did they, he says, feel deeply true. He speaks of an unease that he felt went against his nature.
The way he speaks about his conversion suggests the experience of someone who has found his true nature after having experimented with a false one. Surely, the law can’t prohibit – in principle – someone from discovering that they are, after all, heterosexual.
If the law rightly protects people who belatedly discover, or recognise, that they are gay, why can’t it protect people who belatedly decide that they are, after all, straight?
The issue here is not about whether we think Grech is under an illusion. It’s whether his case is protected by the law rather than banned.
To say that the law is meant to prevent people lying to themselves is effectively to give the authorities the right to tell you who you really are. That cannot be good for an open society.
No amount of tweaking will rid the law of these issues, which arise out of two ambiguities that aren’t in the law but in our way of thinking.
First, there is the ambiguity of what we mean by ‘nature’. Grech talks of human nature as distorted by a surrounding culture. He speaks of discovering his true orientation, not of shunning it.
Second, he can speak this way because of the ambiguity of the term ‘conversion’. For Grech, his ‘conversion’ was not just about sexual attraction; it involved a religious conversion, an entire philosophical rebirth.
The moment we passed a law that forbade consenting adults from being treated with such ‘conversion practices’, not just minors and vulnerable people, such intractable issues were bound to arise.
The law cannot resolve cultural ambiguities about what human nature really is and what constitutes recognition to an authentic self. When it tries to do that, it ends up interfering not just with doctrines about sexuality but with religion, not just with socially repressive doctrines but with the doctrinal foundations of liberalism itself.
Let the law protect the vulnerable. Let the authorities be eagle-eyed when it comes to harmful quack therapies. But when it comes to the rest of us, the only resource we have to sifting humbug from truth is open discussion and debate.
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