It would be easy to assume that anti-gay conversion therapy is largely an American practice: they’re known for evangelical strains of Christianity that rarely flourish elsewhere, and the majority of the well-known media representations of conversion therapy are American (But I’m A Cheerleader, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Boy Erased).
But anti-gay conversion therapy has been taking place in Australia since the 1970s, and a new report released today reveals just how widespread it is. (Note: despite being colloquially known as ‘ex-gay’ ministries, these groups also target transgender and gender diverse individuals as well).
The Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice report, co-authored by researchers drawn from the Human Rights Law Centre, La Trobe University and GLHV (formerly known as Gay and Lesbian Health Victoria).
The study found that up to 10% of LGBTQ Australians are still vulnerable to conversion therapy practices, and at least ten organisations in Australia and New Zealand currently advertise conversion therapy services.
According to the report, “Rather than receding, our research suggests that conversion practices and ideologies are being mainstreamed within particular Christian churches.”
Australia saw the emergence of ex-gay ministries in the late 1970s, following their emergence in the United States. The majority of these ministries are Protestant Christian – the report explains that Catholics generally just encourage chastity and celibacy for everyone who isn’t married, gay or straight. The report also mentions that conservative Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist groups have also offered conversion therapies in the past.
Conversion therapy often uses the language of self-help blended with psychoanalytic practices to lend them an air of legitimacy. Many films that have looked at conversion therapy have touched on this – both But I’m A Cheerleader and The Miseducation of Cameron Post feature characters looking for the ‘root’ of their ‘perversion’ – the traumatic event that caused them to think they were gay.
The movement gained prominence in the 90s when Australian ex-gay ministries joined forces with their bigger American equivalents. In that same decade, hate groups like the Westboro Baptist Church also gained prominence.
By 2002, there were as many as 30 ex-gay ministries operating around the country, and their practices included counselling, residential camps, exercises aimed at encouraging ‘normative’ gender behaviour, and spiritual interventions like prayer, scripture reading, fasting and spiritual healing. Well-known cases mentioned in the report include those of an international student who was threatened with being sent back to their country of origin to face the prospect of corrective rape, and another case where a minor was given electroshock therapy against their will.
A report from the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this year interviewed people who’d been subjected to conversion therapy, and they had to endure practices such as aversion therapy and people speaking in tongues.
In addition to those practices, the report found that:
“Some ex-gay ministries also referred clients to trusted registered medical and psychological clinicians who were known to provide psychotherapy, pharmacological and aversion therapies aimed at sexual orientation or gender identity change.”
Homosexuality wasn’t removed completely from the DSM (the manual used in the US to classify mental disorders) until 1987.
According to the report, in the decade following 2002, the number of ministries advertising conversion therapy declined, but researchers were unable to link this decline with a decline in the actual practicing of conversion therapy.
These ministries tried to adapt: they began emphasising that they were looking to assist people who experienced ‘unwanted’ same-sex attraction; that is, people who agreed there was something wrong with them.
This focus on agency is reinforced in the report’s own conclusions; according to the Sydney Morning Herald, the researchers make clear that adults who wish to seek faith-based guidance should be allowed to do so, because legislating against that would limit religious freedom. The researchers do recommend outlawing conversion therapy for minors, however.
For adults, the report suggests challenging these ministries by “raising awareness of the severity of these harms and supporting the development of improved pastoral practice with LGBT people”, although the researchers add that “once a practitioner is providing services as a professional, or purporting to, in our view it is appropriate for the state to step in to regulate the provision of those services”.
Allowing these ministries to continue to exist in any way, shape or form is harmful to the LGBTQ community. Adults who feel so ashamed of who they are that they seek out the services of these ministries shouldn’t be encouraged to do so in the name of free will; instead, unpacking the reasons they feel so ashamed with a licensed medical professional would be much more productive.
The best that someone can hope for as a result of conversion therapy is a denial of their identity; there is no serious scientific research that suggests sexuality can be changed under duress.
The Australian Medical Association and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians have condemned conversion therapy, with RACP’s President, Dr Catherine Yelland, telling Triple J:
“Gay conversion therapy is unethical, harmful and not supported by medical evidence.”
Making exceptions for religious organisations to perpetuate harmful practices is not an example of making reasonable allowances in the name of religious freedom; it’s actively prioritising a religious group’s right to perpetuate misinformation and bigotry over the right of LGBTQ people to feel safe and supported.
The fact that religious schools in Australia have been allowed to expel gay students is another example of this misguided attempt to ensure religious freedom. Children deserve to feel supported by their schools, not demonised or cast out, and religious schools should be held to the same standards as everyone else (and, indeed, both major parties agree, as Morrison announced last week he will be working to close the loophole).
If religious schools are now being held to the same standards as government schools, why can’t religious organisations be held to the same standards as secular organisations when it comes to conversion therapy?