by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
Attempts to suppress a documentary illustrate widespread ignorance, intolerance and injustice in Western sexual politics.
What makes a good society? Should there be ‘liberalism’ and ‘tolerance’ for any point of view, within a framework of law that protects against exploitation and violence? Or are certain viewpoints, voices, actually better kept away from the public space, because they cause harm by stirring up hatred, affecting people’s mental health, or simply being inconvenient? And then, who decides?
Some views generally held to be abhorrent and patently false, such as holocaust denial, are illegal in some countries but not in others, because in the liberal West we have usually taken the view that an opinion should not be censored, no matter how wrong or stupid, but rather should be open to debate and held up for scrutiny rather than being given the opportunity to breed in dark corners.
However today, loud, powerful lobby groups are capable of generating such public disapproval about certain viewpoints that they are effectively suppressed, even though, unlike holocaust denial, they are based on truth and beneficial for those who hold them. On 8th February a documentary film about a viewpoint deemed ‘incorrect’ was due to be shown at Vue Cinema in Piccadilly Circus. At the last minute the cinema bowed to pressure and cancelled the screening. With exquisite irony, the film was called ‘Voices of the Silenced’ (VoS) – see here for press reports on this ‘silencing’.
What are the main points of the film? Why were critics so keen to stop it being shown, rather than debating the viewpoints in a tolerant manner? And what was the result? The ‘voices’ that VoS allows to speak are men and women who have been involved in homosexual relationships and in some cases have identified as part of a gay or transgender community and lifestyle, who for various reasons became dissatisfied with that, sought help in the form of different types of counselling, and stopped their compulsive behaviour. In some cases, they found that heterosexual feelings developed even to the point of getting married and having children.
The immediate objection to this, which led to the cancellation of the film’s screening, is that it’s promoting the idea of ‘gay cure’, linking it to the dark days of compulsory electric shock aversion therapy in the 1950’s. Critics say “what’s wrong with being gay – why are you trying to change people from gay to straight?”, completely ignoring that the voices are from people feeling oppressed and wanting to change, and those willing to attend to them (often at great personal cost), not from any powerful group imposing their view and solution on others. The point is made in the film that change is not guaranteed, and seeking it should be entirely voluntary, but help should be available and not suppressed.
Another common objection attempts to use science: “hasn’t it been proven that some people are born gay? Won’t trying to change them cause harm?” So the documentary features a second group of voices: researchers who have analysed the debates around the science of sexual orientation, and the rapid evolution of scientific opinion on the subject. They show that medical opinion is now firmly on the side of sexual desire being influenced by postnatal factors and ‘fluid’, ie with potential for change, rather than genetically determined or fixed. The speakers in the film conclude that guidelines issued against therapy for unwanted same sex attraction by such august bodies as the Royal College of Psychiatry and the British Medical Association, laws enacted in States in the US or motions passed in Church Synods, have too often been guided not by science, but by ideology mediated by cultural pressure coming from lobby groups, illustrating the power of sexual politics, or politicization of sex, in the West.
The third group of voices in the documentary come from the ancient world. Presenter Mike Davidson from Core Issues Trust invites viewers to imagine the worldview of Jewish slaves, taken to Rome after the destruction of Jerusalem in ad70 and forced to build the Coliseum, or of Christians in Pompeii before the eruption of Vesuvius. The first century AD saw a clash between Roman and Judaeo-Christian sexual ethics: the powerful but immoral and violent civilization of Rome on one hand, Judaism and the new religion of Christianity which was emerging from it on the other. Those in control demanded conformity to their values, and there was huge pressure on Christians to compromise. But despite their voices being silenced in the early days, it was Judaeo-Christian ethics which were on the ‘right side of history’, and eventually became the foundation of our understanding of marriage, family, law and human rights which are again under threat today, as one of the voices of the documentary, Bishop Michael Nazir Ali explains.
The documentary shuffles repeatedly between these three themes of personal testimony of seeking and finding ways to change unwanted thoughts and behaviour, analysis of scientific and cultural bias trying to prevent this testimony from being heard, and finding parallels with the ancient world. Some might find this confusing, but for me it’s effective in helping to communicate the three strands in layers of short clips, rather than getting bogged down in overlong explanations.
As is often the case, the voices of individuals calmly, convincingly and bravely sharing stories of changed lives are compelling, although for English-speaking viewers, testimonies in a foreign language with subtitles might strain attention spans. The visuals of sites in Rome and Pompeii, and the narrative making the parallel of clash of values in ancient and contemporary cultures, is effective in breaking up what would otherwise be a documentary consisting only of talking heads. Is the content convincing? The historical angle certainly adds weight to the idea of a minority being persecuted and silenced for their faith-based sexual ethics.
The film was due to be shown to a few dozen people at Vue. Because of the cancellation and subsequent media interest, thousands of people were alerted to the documentary, the work of Core Issues Trust, and the idea that for some at least, being ‘gay’ might not be a destiny that must be embraced, but a choice that can be refused. But perhaps this is about more than allowing a minority some freedom of choice in thought and behaviour – it’s a courageous challenge to an entire ideology of sex which dominates our culture but because of the lies on which it’s based, has to use increasingly oppressive methods to enforce conformity. Voices of the Silenced is not for entertainment, but is compellingly watchable, and deserves a wide audience.
Northern Ireland: The first part of the documentary Voices of the Silenced was also denied a viewing at Queens Film Theatre in the Belfast but a screening will go ahead at Ballynahinch Baptist Church on Tuesday 13th March at 7.30.