Conversion therapy on the national agenda

Content warning: discussion of torture, suicide.

With the release of new films on the topic, a new report garnering attention, and the Morrison government yet to release their response to the Ruddock review into religious freedom, the issue of same sex conversion therapy is being discussed again in Australia.

Conversion therapy purports to change LGBT people’s sexual orientation, making them heterosexual. It can be formal or informal in its approaches. The types of therapy and their methods differ widely, and it is widely condemned by psychologists.

The Australian Medical Association (AMA) recently issued a statement that the organisation “unequivocally condemns conversion therapy, as does the World Medical Association.”

“Conversion therapy is harmful to both the individuals who are subjected to it, and society more broadly, as it perpetuates the erroneous belief that homosexuality is a disorder which requires a cure.”

The AMA is joined by a number of other international bodies who have expressed this view. The United Nations Committee Against Torture raised concerns about the practice of conversion therapy in 2014. This was not the first time that the practice was likened to torture.

The American Medical Association, The American Psychiatric Association, The American Psychological Association, The American Psychoanalytic Association, The American Academy of Paediatrics, and The National Association of Social Workers (USA) have all said that homosexuality is not a mental disorder and that sexual orientation cannot be changed.

New Film and Study

Conversion therapy will be highlighted in a new film coming out on 8 November which will likely further the national debate.

Boy Erased, was directed by Australian Joel Edgerton and is based on the memoir of the same name. Starring Australian actors Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe, it appears likely to generate as much discussion as it will Oscar buzz.

Director Joel Edgerton hopes the film will become redundant as he explained in a recent interview that he finds the practice of conversion therapy traumatic and narrow-minded, “I kind of hope Boy Erased is a redundant movie. It would be great if it was redundant now or in a year, or in five years time that there’s no point even watching this movie. That it’s a museum piece.” Edgerton went as far as endorsing the recommendations of the recent La Trobe University report that includes new state laws banning conversion therapy against minors and preventing health practitioners, social workers and teachers from engaging in the practice.

The university study was a joint effort between the human rights law centre, gay and lesbian health Victoria, and La Trobe University’s Dr Tim Jones.

Dr Jones told Triple J that a lot of people thought that groups were no longer offering conversion therapy.

“We found that many of them have just hidden what they were doing,” Dr Jones said.

The process, Dr Jones says, have not changed. The report found that at least ten organisations in Australia and New Zealand still offer conversion therapy for same-sex attracted people.

The report recommends that state governments ban children under the age of from having the therapies.

Australian law does not prohibit conversion therapy across all states. The Victorian government is currently ‘cracking down’ on the process, with an inquiry currently underway into the prevalence of the policy. The Victorian government has suggested that it is possible they may legislate to charge providers that carry out this ‘therapy’.

Federal legislation appears to be less likely. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was equivocal when asked about conversion therapy, suggesting that he had never encountered the practice. Mr Morrison suggested people “should follow the law.”

“I’ve never been involved in anything like that…it’s just not an issue for me,” the Prime Minister said.

Triple J spoke to Asha, a trans, non-binary person who had previously undergone conversion therapy.

“I was seeking a community…after having some conversations with family members about God, and Jesus and the Bible,” Asha said.

“I found a community I thought I could become enmeshed in.”

When the church pastor found out that Asha was attracted to men, they began meeting to deal with it. These sessions “were gentle at first.”

“We talked about the struggles of same sex attraction…he took me through the Bible and there were words like abomination, sin…”

Asha said that this process began “a battle within” to “change my attraction to other men.”

Moving later to an independent charismatic church, Asha reached out to a pastor friend. Once they came out to him, the pastor told them they could heal.

The pastor told Asha not to overthink the subject.

Asha later preached a sermon telling people that they had overcome attraction to men. It was a lie.

“That’s what the pressure of a community does to someone.”

Asha later told Insights that the whole experience took a toll.

“The idea that my sexuality was broken, which is the core assertion of the conversion movement, drove me to a mental health crisis.”

Anthony Venn Brown was sent to so-called conversion therapy decades ago. In a 2014 piece for The Saturday Paper, he was quoted suggesting that the programs had long-term consequences.

“It’s not when we first go to these gay conversion programs that does the damage,” Venn-Brown said. “It’s in the months that follow … Every time we wake up and think about another man we are tormented. You feel like a failure, you feel evil. It’s living out those moments every single day which eventually drives people to suicide.”

Uniting Network have condemned conversion therapy in a statement.

“We call on all religious organisations in Australia to explicitly state their rejection of LGBT conversion therapy, and any statements along the lines that LGBTQ people are disordered, broken or otherwise not whole individuals” the statement read.

“It is our view that involvements in activities such as ‘conversion therapy’ and these types of statements fail to uphold the fundamental premise and hope provided by Jesus Christ, who calls all of us to ‘Love God and to Love one another,’ with no exceptions.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call Lifeline – 13 11 14

Jonathan Foye is Insights’ Editor




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