The Right To Be Free

Why Iceland’s conversion therapy ban is important.

WARNING: This article contains mentions and descriptions of psychological and physical abuse.

Last June, Iceland passed an historic law banning so-called “conversion therapy” in all its forms. Many people–including those who live in Iceland–have nonetheless asked why there is a need for this law in Iceland of all places. After all, we are in the top tier of the ILGA-Europe Rainbow Map when it comes to queer rights. Do we actually need this law, or is it just virtue signalling?

For the unfamiliar, “conversion therapy” is an umbrella term for any practice to attempt to “cure” someone of their queerness. More often than not, this is conducted under the auspices of a religious organisation and inflicted on children. Furthermore, these practices can include everything from intense prayer sessions to physical assaults, but the goal is always the same: to compel someone–again, usually a child–to repress who they actually are in order to please adults.

Banned in many countries in the world already, Iceland has now joined the list.

For at least two people GayIceland spoke with, this ban was not only a long time coming–it could go even further.

Conform or lose it all

Journalist Malín Brand was raised in the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Like many restorationist Christian organisations, they are also decided against queer people.

“What they do is, they tell people that [being queer] is really disgusting, offensive,” Malín tells us. “That you should be ashamed of yourself, if you have the feeling that you like a person of the same sex, or if you feel like you were born in the wrong body or something like that, then you’re just wrong. This is just a feeling that you have to get rid of. That’s how it is still today with the Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

Failure to adequately repress your queerness can result in one of the Witnesses’ more controversial tactics: shunning.

“The other people in the congregation cannot talk to you,” Malín explains. “They cannot even say hi to you if they meet you on the street.”

Journalist Malín Brand was raised in the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

As the Witnesses are a very closed community, to be shunned is very often to lose all social contact, including from members of your own family.

“I feel like it’s a watchtower with no window,” Malín says of the experience of growing up in the congregation. “No brightness inside. That’s how it looks to me when I look back, I just think there were no windows. I couldn’t know what was outside.”

She adds: “Have you seen the movie The Village? That’s where I’m coming from. When I saw that, I was just crying because that’s what it’s like. There’s a whole world out there that you have no idea about because you’re trapped. And they have their own rules. All the authorities in the world, that’s just outside of this world.”

To underline how quick the church is to threaten shunning at even the sign of queerness, Malín recounts a story from her teen years.

“When I was 15 years old. I met a girl and the congregation,” she says. “She was 21. She was new in the congregation, which is quite weird. Because why do people go into this? It really doesn’t happen very often. If you’re not born into this, it’s very rare that people decide to become one of the Jehovah’s Witnesses that way.

I feel like it’s a watchtower with no window,” Malín says of the experience of growing up in the congregation. “No brightness inside. That’s how it looks to me when I look back, I just think there were no windows. I couldn’t know what was outside.

“But she did. And she was my first friend. I had never had friends before. Anyway, my mom just went crazy. And [the congregation] told me that I couldn’t meet her anymore. I think the whole reason is that they were afraid of us being together. Like we were in love or something like that. That was really, really a tragic thing. It was such a shame, you know? I felt that I should be really ashamed of myself for being friends with this woman.”

This type of environment can lead to dire consequences, Malín warns, saying, “I know about people that just couldn’t stand this and they have committed suicide, you know, others have just moved to another country because they have to.”

Fortunately, she left the Jehovah’s Witnesses when she was 23.

Beating the devil out of you

Steinunn Anna Radha used to be a member of Krossinn, now rebranded as Smárakirkja, and experienced the abuse of “conversion therapy” firsthand.

“[The people in the church said] that being gay is a sin, and that there were evil spirits that would make you queer,” she recounts. And therefore queerness would be something you could fix.”

Steinunn knew from a young age that she was queer, and despite knowing how the church elders felt about queerness, was courageous enough to try and come out.

“They showed me very clearly that this was not okay,” she says. “Queerness was not okay. Then I just went back into my closet.”

Steinunn Anna Radha used to be a member of Krossinn.

How this was shown was through physical and psychological abuse.

“They would put me on my knees and scream at the devil that was, in their mind, possessing me at that time,” she says. “They would be stepping on my stomach to get the devil out.”

This was followed up by intense prayer sessions that greatly damaged Steinunn’s self-image at the time.

“It just beats you down,” she says. “This doesn’t cure anything within you. It just makes everything worse. This mentality is so strong that even I myself, who had already known that I had been queer for at least maybe 12 years or so, I believed that the only right thing is to be straight and I would just go to hell for [being queer]. Thank God I know better today.”

Breaking down the walls

Steinunn was happy with the passage of the conversion therapy ban, in that it gave her the peace of mind to know that others could fight back.

“My first thoughts included how easier it would be to sue someone openly and lawfully for something like this,” she says. “Just the reality of that you can be free to say that they did commit a crime. So that’s a big step.”

Malín was also pleased with the law’s passage, saying, “I think it’s great. I think it’s really important to do something,” but added that the law does not go far enough–Malín would like to see the Jehovah’s Witnesses stripped of government funding altogether.

In Iceland, all legally registered religious organisations are entitled to money from taxpayers. To deny a religious organisation this kind of support does have precedent–last year, Norway ended similar support for the Jehovah’s Witnesses on the ground that church practices were in contravention of its child care laws.

“They are brainwashing people,” Malín says. “I think something more has to be done. Because nobody can see through what’s happening inside. The government needs to break these walls because of what happens and it will continue happening.”

My first thoughts included how easier it would be to sue someone openly and lawfully for something like this. Just the reality of that you can be free to say that they did commit a crime. So that’s a big step.

Even so, not all religious organisations in Iceland get state funding; Smárakirkja, for example, does not. The fact that the church is nominally Christian helps shield them from prying eyes, Steinunn points out, saying, “it’s more normalised to be a Christian and therefore there is so much hidden” because people will not deign to investigate a Christian organisation unless strongly encouraged to do so.

All this being the case, the “conversion therapy” ban was most certainly necessary in Iceland, and the relief it has provided for survivors is immeasurably.

“I already feel my heart is not as heavy for this topic,” Steinunn says. “Because now I know, I can defend myself.”

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Á. Óskarsson hefur komið að fjölda stórra verkefna við byggingu íþróttamannvirkja og hefur frá stofnun kappkostað að bjóða vandaðar og endingargóðar vörur.

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