Snapshots of law, gender and sexuality news from the past couple of weeks.
The LGBTQ+ Community and “Gay Conversion Therapy”
William Lee, University of Manchester
Malta made history on the 7th December 2016 when the Maltese Parliament unanimously approved the Affirmation of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and Gender Expression Bill. Among other things, the Bill criminalises “gay conversion therapy”, giving legal recognition that for the position that “no sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression constitutes a disorder, disease or shortcoming of any sort”. This thereby relieves the LGBTQ+ community of potentially being subjugated to any “deceptive and harmful” act designed to change their sexual behaviour or gender identity.
The new Act in effect positions Malta as the first European country to ban “gay conversion therapy”.
The Business Insider states that Malta has been at the forefront of progressive social reforms in Europe since the Labour government was elected in 2013. For that, Malta quite comfortably deserves its ranking of being the best European country for LGBTQ+ rights as deemed by the European Region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA- Europe).
In light of such radical progress in Malta, this post will look briefly at the origins of “gay conversion therapy”. It will also briefly outline the United Kingdom (UK) and American’s current stance in regard to this practice.
Gay conversion therapy is one of the many negative consequences resulting from the historical medical classification of homosexuality by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) as a “mental disorder”. This stance was echoed by World Health Organisation (WHO), giving it an International Classification of Diseases (ICD)-9 classification code of 302.0 which stood for mental illness. It was not until 1987 that homosexuality was taken completely outside the DSM. In contrast, ICD-10 still retains a construct of “Ego-dystonic Sexual Orientation”. Specifically, ICD-10 does not recognise sexual orientation by itself as a disorder. However, it recognises any psychological and behavioural disorders associated with sexual orientation.
Conversion therapy is now recognised today as a problematic practice by most psychiatrists. The World Psychiatric Association has denounced the practice as “unscientific, unethical, ineffective and harmful” to those who undergo it. However, some professionals worldwide still support the technique. As activist Patrick Strudwick notes: “The ideology, that homosexuality must be caused by early psychological damage, means those who adhere to it will find such damage – whether or not it is there”.
In the UK, gay conversion therapies are a hugely contentious issue. Advocates claim it is not harmful but it has been condemned by UK health organisations. As a recent BBC News article reports, two years ago NHS England and the Royal College of Psychiatrists together with 12 other organisations in the UK signed a memorandum with regards to the conversion therapy. The memorandum sets out a shared understanding and commitment between all relevant parties to protect the public from the risks of conversion therapy. Even so, Tory Minister for Public Health Jane Ellison says the Government has no plans to ban gay conversion therapies. However, she has nevertheless also “outlined talks to be held in the new year to establish what progress has been made on tackling [the issue]”.
In America, The National Center for Lesbian Rights identified California, New Jersey, New York, Vermont, Oregon and Illinois as six states that have already banned conversion therapy. Moreover, similar laws had been passed in several jurisdictions, including Seattle, Washington, Cincinnati and Miami Beach. Anti gay conversion therapy laws have been introduced in a further eight more states.
The debate regarding gay conversion therapy has recently resurfaced due to nominations of Mr. Mike Pence as President’s Trump’s vice-president. The New York Times has voiced concerns over the nominations. Mr. Pence self-described as “Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order,” has been a prominent conservative figure in battles over marriage equality and equal rights for the LGBTQ+ communities. During Mr Pence’s congressional campaign, a statement was made in regards to the Ryan White Care Act. It was stated:
Congress should support the reauthorization of the Ryan White Care Act only after completion of an audit to ensure that federal dollars were no longer being given to organizations that celebrate and encourage the types of behaviours that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus. Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behaviour (my italics).
This has been largely interpreted as Mr Pence’s support for gay conversion therapy. Mr Pence’s spokesman, Marc Lotter, however told The Times that such accusations were “patently false” and that Mr Pence has never “supported or advocated” the practice of gay conversion therapy. Yet, considering Mr Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act last year and only signed an amendment to the act after pressures from business leaders. It is unsurprising that members of the LGBTQ+ communities remain suspicious of Mr Pence.
Ultimately, the persistence of gay conversion therapy is an illustration of the dangers still posed to the LGBTQ+ community by dubious medical practices.
Violence against Women Around the World
Begüm Yilmaz, University of Manchester
From November 25th the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, until December 10th the UN’s Human Rights Day, human rights organisations, mainstream media and politicians typically pay greater attention than usual to women’s issues than other times of the year. Over this period attention has been drawn in particular to the on-going problem of violence against women internationally. This news brief outlines a number of key developments in regard to violence against women that have emerged in the last few weeks across the popular press.
In an interview with the Today Show, Lady Gaga revealed that she suffered from PTSD after being raped when 19 years old. She said that at the time she blamed herself and did not tell anyone about it for a long period. Similarly, during the annual Billboard Women in Music event, after being named the woman of the year, Madonna mentioned the hard times that she went through as a woman over the course of her life. She said that she was raped on a rooftop by a man while a knife was put to her throat.
However, after Madonna’s speech, Piers Morgan took the issue to Twitter. He said that he did not believe either singer and that he saw it all as a mere “pinch of PR salt” and that PTSD has become “the latest celebrity accessory”. He added that both singers made “allegations of rape years after the event, no police complaint, no charges, no court case”.
In making these claims Morgan clearly demonstrates his ignorance of the extremely high number of victims that do not or cannot report the crime for various reasons. Furthermore, his comments fail to recognise that there are also many cases in which rapists are set free despite being reported to the police. This latter point was made well by Emily Jacob of the Huffington Post, a rape survivor, in an emotional open letter to Piers Morgan. She wrote:
Unlike 85% of victims of rape, I did go to the police and report my rape. Like 93% of those who report, my rapist wasn’t convicted of his crime; in fact, like 60% of those who report, my rapist wasn’t even prosecuted for his crime. Does this mean that he didn’t rape me? No.
On the question of why rape victims do not report, Jacob added:
Because they feel shame and humiliation. Which comments such as those you made this weekend will only exacerbate. Rape victims are already silenced and isolated; by a fear of judgement, by being shamed and blamed, by not wanting to face into what happened and make it ‘real’.
Jacob went on to point out that celebrities sharing their stories were vital in helping support other survivors as they were proof that you can still get up and be creative with your life and that life is not over after falling victim to sexual violence.
In other news, a Bill has recently been proposed to the Turkish Parliament, which if passed would overturn men’s convictions for child rape if they marry their victim. The BBC explains that 40% of all women in Turkey have reported being the victim of sexual or physical abuse and that the murder rate of women increased by 1,400% between 2003 and 2010. After thousands of people took the issue to the streets in protest against the proposed Bill, the government was forced to back down. In a similar fashion, and remaining in the Middle East, women in Lebanon wore blood-stained wedding dresses and protested this week against a law dating back to 1940s, which allows men to be cleared of all rape charges so long as they marry their victims.
Moving to North Africa, news reports this week have also discussed the controversy surrounding the recent decision of a Moroccan state TV show to include make up tutorials for women on how to cover up evidence of domestic violence. The make-up artist defended her tutorial, saying that it was designed to help women by allowing them to continue their daily lives while waiting for justice. The problem with such justifications, of course, is that advice of this kind also normalizes the wrongful act and may weaken the push for punishment of perpetrators. As reported on Quartz, according to Human Rights Watch, a 2010 national survey demonstrated that 63% of Moroccan women reported being subject to violence. Of these women, 55% said their husbands committed the violence, but only 3% reported it to the police. The television channel later apologized.
Turning to South America, hundreds of women in Colombia took to the streets in recent weeks to protest the rape and killing of a seven year old girl in Bogota.
Returning to Europe, the European Commission has published a report on European citizens’ attitudes towards violence against women. The research asked 30 000 Europeans whether they thought there were any circumstances in which rape could be justified. 27% of those who took part in the research believed that rape could be acceptable in certain circumstances. 12% thought that it was acceptable if the victim had been intoxicated, 11% thought date rape should just be called ‘date sex’ and 10% said ‘no’ meant ‘yes’ if there was no physical resistance. 22% of the British respondents thought that rape could be acceptable certain circumstances. This is a very important report which demonstrates that laws are unlikely to be sufficient to tackle the problem if violence against women, as a deeper issue is added to the conversation: social attitudes among the public. And to change an attitude that accepts the violation of the dignity of a human being as justified in such circumstances, requires much more work and time.
Even closer to home, in England and Wales, the Femicide Census, which includes the first detailed analysis of violence against women, has now been released. It has found that between 2009 and 2015, 936 women were killed by men and of these, 64% were killed by their current or former partners.
In a recent UK House of Commons debate on violence against women, the Scottish MP Michelle Thomson has told the House that she was raped. She was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, and she knew the man. The MP told her colleagues that she did not speak of the incident to anyone, and that she had felt ashamed. “I felt I was spoiled and impure and really felt revulsion towards myself”, revealed Thomson. Another MP, Tracy Brabin continued the debate by mentioning her own experience, the time that she almost got raped, as she was shoved to the ground and rescued only at the very last minute.
The UK government has also been recently urged to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, also known as the “Istanbul Convention”. Over 60 MPs wrote to Theresa May and asked her to follow the promise she made when she was Home Secretary, that she would tackle violence against women. “Words are not enough”, read the letter. It continued:
Your ministers have uttered warm words about their commitment to passing the Istanbul convention, but until we see government time set aside in the parliamentary calendar, it remains nothing more than a piece of paper, and the UK will be failing in its obligations to tackle and eliminate violence against women and girls.
What can one deduce from all this recent activity over the long-standing problem of violence against women? It is clear that there are still important steps to be taken, all over the world, to address the problem. Considering the fact that even many parties to the Istanbul Convention still suffer from high rates of domestic violence and rape (for instance, compare the list of the parties to the Convention and those countries’ records on the UN Women’s Global Database), this means that every government internationally must do all within its power to enforce laws that protect women from violence. Furthermore, the problematic perceptions of violence against women on the part of people like Piers Morgan and some of those who took part in the European Commission research indicate that there remains a deeper negative attitude about violence against women that must also be tackled and so it is vital that better education accompanies any laws used to target the problem.
The UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and the UN’s Human Rights Day are good for reminding people of the issues facing women globally, but in reality addressing violence against women should be on the agenda throughout the year given it remains one of the most frequently experienced problems in the world today.