It has caused untold harm for LGBTQA+ communities around the world. Despite being outlawed, the scars still remain.
Conversion therapy has caused untold harm for thousands of LGBTQA+ people across Australia and New Zealand. The practice is fast becoming outlawed on both sides of the Tasman: yet for many, the scars of the cruel therapy still remain.
What is it like to be told a fundamental part of who you are is wrong? That because of who you love or your gender, something about you is broken and must be fixed? Many people reading this may never know what that experience is like. Yet it’s a lived reality for thousands of LGBTQA+ people across Australia and New Zealand.
Conversion practices, also known as ‘conversion therapy’, as defined by the Australian group Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity Change Efforts (SOGICE) Survivors, refers to both “formal therapeutic and informal practices occurring in a range of settings that target and attract LGBTQA+ people of faith in order to change or suppress their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender and sexual expression”.
Activists have been calling for an end to these practices for a long time, but it’s only in recent years that legislation has been introduced in Australia and New Zealand. After a petition by the New Zealand Green Party that received over 150,000 signatures, the Labour government has announced a bill to end conversion therapy, with plans to outlaw the practices by February 2022. Across the Tasman, Queensland, the Australia Capital Territory and Victoria have all introduced laws banning conversion practices, with Victoria’s Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill being hailed by activists as a ‘worldleading’ piece of legislation.
According to the US Southern Poverty Law Center, the practice is thought to date back to at least the late 19th century, when a German psychiatrist named Albert von Schrenck-Notzing claimed to have turned a gay man straight using hypnosis. The ideology was picked up by psychologists and used by religious groups who deemed those who didn’t fit in accepted forms of sexuality and gender identity as inherently wrong.
The period of the early 1970s and mid-1980s saw the conversion movement spread across Australia as religious groups sought to reform people’s sexual and gender identities through prayer, personal effort and re-forming ‘healthy’ habits, such as celibacy. “In order to explain how people became same-sex attracted or trans, secular psychological reasoning was misappropriated by religious leaders, groups and organisations,” explains SOGICE Survivors member Chris Csabs. “The predominant reasoning was that same-sex attracted and trans people had a disorder or sickness due to abuse, neglect, other forms of harm, or developmental issues, and could, through therapy, find healing.”
From the 1980s onwards, the movement continued to spread across the globe, as conversion organisations became significantly networked. These days, conversion practices have been thoroughly discredited by medical professionals and denounced by human rights, LGBTQA+ and religious groups around the world. Many stories of conversion practices we’re presented with talk of electroshock treatments and lobotomies.
Csabs says that while it’s important to acknowledge these horrific experiences, conversion practices today are much more insidious and nuanced, rooted in an ideology based on pseudoscience, poorly conceptualised religious concepts, and cultural stigmas related to sexuality and gender. “Most conversion practices in Australia do not involve physical harm. What they do involve is an ideology that teaches people that their sexuality is ‘broken’ or that their LGBTQA+ identity is caused by something negative, such as past trauma, abuse, dysfunctional family or even demonic influence. The harm that occurs due to this ideology is incalculable, even leading to suicide.”
Shaneel Lal, co-founder of the New Zealand Conversion Therapy Action Group (CTAG), was confronted with this ideology first hand, when they were volunteering at a hospital in 2014. “A priest walked up to me and offered to pray my gay away. I refused so he looked at me and he said, ‘It’s hot, but you know what’s hotter? Hell’.”
This led Lal to research into the practice in New Zealand and co-found the CTAG, raising awareness about the issue and calling on the government to adopt a ban. Lal has worked with many survivors to share their experiences and bring awareness to the ways in which conversion ideology manifests in today’s world. Some have experienced invasive therapy, where they are told to inflict pain on themselves when they “think or feel queerly”. “The goal is to make any queer thoughts or feelings invasive by associating them with pain and suffering, therefore accepting that
A 2019 report said some 698,000 LGBT adults in the US had received the therapy.
“THERE ARE MANY STORIES COMING OUT. THIS IS NOT A THING OF THE PAST.” SHANEEL LAL
you’re queer becomes a punishment in itself.” Another friend of Lal’s who grew up in the church was told that their queerness was a God-given, Satan-imposed cross to bear to strengthen their character. “There are many stories coming out,” says Lal. “This is not a thing of the past and that’s the sad reality.”
Csabs says conversion practices often play out in non-therapeutic, underground settings, such as counselling, pastoral care, prayer ministry, support groups, conferences and rallies and online interactive coursework and mentoring programmes. The pervasiveness of this ideology and fact that it exists at a ‘micro level’ makes it difficult to recognise, quantify and regulate conversion practices. The harm caused, however, is evident.
A 2018 study by the Family Acceptance Project in San Francisco found that conversion practices by parents alongside a medical professional or religious leaders increased suicide rates among LGBT people from 22 per cent to 63 per cent. Released in 2021, the ‘Healing Spiritual Harms’ report found that survivors often experience PTSD symptoms, distrust of mental health professionals and shame about their experiences. “We know conversion ideology acts much like a virus in the mind of LGBTQA+ people, causing significant damage to a person’s sense of self, and sometimes permanently arresting a person’s ability to grow and thrive,” says Csabs.
“The sting in the tail of conversion ideology is that as the participant realises that their sexuality or gender identity is not changing, they become further convinced that it is their ‘brokenness’ causing this failure, leading to a downward spiral.”
Fear of loss of family and community is another major driver of harm. Because these practices often happen in the home or close-knit communities like the church, a legal ban is only one aspect of an effective approach to ending these practices. “Banning on its own does not do much because it requires accountability,” explains Lal. “That requires queer people in vulnerable situations to come out and openly say ‘I’m being put into conversion therapy’. That young person may not want to tear the family apart or may be too scared to call the police. Those are the kinds of situations that the ban will fail to work on, where people are silently suffering.”
Part of the solution, says Lal, lies in providing the right resources and education for LGBTQA+ people so they can identify what’s happening before it gets worse, and know who and where to go to for help.
SOGICE Survivors, who helped develop Victoria’s legislation, agree a legal ban is only part of the solution. The issue is far from black and white, and combating something as evasive as an ideology requires a complex strategy, such as more public awareness campaigns to target people at risk, an examination of the counselling industry and increased funding for mental health and support services.
As New Zealand looks to follow in the footsteps of places like Victoria in ending conversion practices, Lal says lawmakers must do more to ensure the voices of survivors are being heard in the development of the legislation before it reaches the Select Committee stage when the public can have their say on the bill. “The ban on conversion therapy and the legality of conversion therapy deeply affects the queer community. The Select Committee process is dominated by mobilised and well-resourced communities. The queer community, particularly queer people who also live in the intersections of being immigrants, refugees, indigenous or people of colour, they don’t have the resources or are not mobilised enough to be a strong force at the select committee. If the Ministry truly cares about getting it right, and genuinely want to ensure that our voices are heard, they need to consult the community before it gets introduced to the House.”
In 2020, New Zealand elected its most diverse government to date, with 10 per cent of the parliamentary members from the LGBTQA+ community. While those around the world applaud the country for its progressive achievements, Lal says we mustn’t let progress in some areas give way to complacency in others. “When queer people in Aotearoa talk about our struggles, the response that we get is just be grateful you don’t live in a country that would kill you.
“I feel like we’re living in a country where the rights of queer people are treated like a checklist, things that we tick off rather than ensuring that queer people have equal treatment in every aspect of life.”