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Dangers of gay conversion

Luke Williams |  18 October 2012

Gay on-off switchMy first encounter with gay conversion or gay reparative therapy (GRT) was the day I finally summoned the courage to ask a friend about the cluster of scars on his wrists.

'Gary' explained that when he was 15, his parents took him to a place called Exodus International where a group leader would try to persuade participants of what an awful life they would have if they were gay'. His parents rushed him to the centre after finding gay porn in his room. He was so upset by the experience he later took to his wrist with a razor.

Gary was just 15; legally not even an adult.

Late last month California's state Assembly approved a bill prohibiting children and teenagers from undergoing GRT. The legislation prevents licensed psychologists and therapists from seeking to change the sexual orientation of children under 18.

But in Australia GRT of minors is unregulated — there are no age restrictions or safeguards for minors entering an ex-gay ministry. About ten ex-gay Christian ministries around the nation offer GRT counselling.

In an ex-gay ministry, often run out of a church-run function centre or café, homosexual attraction is treated like an addiction. Participants are given a range of techniques to help them deal with the 'affliction'. Group members have individual counselling sessions and meet in small groups to discuss the 'struggles' they have had that week in containing their urges — often to be told 'God forgives your sins' by the layperson who runs the group.

GRT is not recommended by any secular health organisation; the Australian Psychological Society says there is a lack of evidence for the usefulness of conversion therapy, and that it can be harmful for the individual.

If a minor was to walk into a GRT centre in their local suburb today, they would not be required to gain their parents' consent, nor are they given any sort of disclaimer explaining the official medical position on GRT.

This is concerning when you consider the conclusions of the world's largest ever sexual orientation-change efficacy study, the American Psychological Association's 'Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation', which found that 'aversive and behavioural interventions' caused 'harmful mental health effects such as increased anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and loss of sexual functioning in some participants'.

Group leaders and administrators of ex-gay groups are not required to — and generally do not — have any health qualifications. Yet group leaders place themselves in an extremely powerful position, asking often very young teenagers what they fantasise about, who they have had sex with, or how often they masturbate.

This week Crikey revealed a University of Canberra doctor advised a gay student to undergo hormone treatment for his homosexuality. Remarkably, the president of the university's student association, James Pace defended the doctor saying 'We don't feel we should discriminate against her because of her faith.' On the face of it this is tantamount to saying that her right to share her beliefs negates her duty of care as a medical professional.

The Australian Medical Association opposes the use of reparative or conversion therapy that is 'based upon the assumption that homosexuality is a mental disorder and that the patient should change his or her sexual orientation'. Sure enough in August Sydney Exclusive Brethren Doctor Mark Christopher James Craddock was banned from practise as a GP after he prescribed 'treatment' hormones to a gay patient.

Indeed, ex-gay ministries are becoming increasingly fringe. Exodus International, formerly the world's largest ex-gay ministry, has announced it will no longer associate with or promote therapy that focuses on changing sexual attraction. Former ex-gay group member Ben Gresham is part of a growing push within the evangelical movement who seek to integrate faith with their gay identity. At 24, Gresham is now part of the Hillsong church, whose founder Brian Houston said on Gresham's website that Hillsong no longer supports GRT.

 But the debate around GRT is very much alive.  Liberty Christian Ministries Incorporated, which 'offers support to men and women who struggle with unwanted same-sex attractions', has travelled five times in the past two years to Toongabbie Christian School in Sydney's outer north-west. A representative from the group has been into the school to discuss 'care' for same-sex attracted youth with staff, and offers students one-on-one sessions.

The Daily Telegraph's Miranda Devine this week attacked a pilot anti-homophobia program for NSW schools saying parents 'don't expect their values should be subverted by homosexual or any other propaganda'. Devine's story made the front page, but the practice of ex-gay therapy in Sydney high schools barely rates a mention.

It seems at the very least that teenagers should be told explicitly and clearly that recognised psychological and medical organisations warn of the potential health risks of GRT when entering an ex-gay ministry. Furthermore, both the minor's and their parents' written consent should be prerequisite.

Luke WilliamsLuke Williams is a freelance journalist who is studying law at Monash University in Melbourne. 




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Submitted comments

It's very sad that our Western society has reached a point where the sexual development of its children has reached 'designer stage' - we must have school programs for pro-homosexual/anti-heterosexist attitudes and then there are the counter ones written about by Luke Williams in this opinion piece for those who want gay revision therapy. The attitudes and opinions driving both are the same that drive so many of the extremes of an individualist take on life. With regards to the sexual development of a child, it cannot be looked at separated from gender. Gay Revision Therapy would certainly be morally wrong if it had the 'designer' foundation instead of one which assists the young person to examine gender and their specific gender identity issues. Teens and young adults wanting to do this before making any specific choice of acting out any sexual orientation should be supported in doing so. The attempts by some in our society to present to young people that there is no choice involved when personally dealing with same sex attraction is wrong.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew 19 October 2012

Earlier this year American psychiatrist Dr Robert Spitzer rocked the US religious anti-gay movement when he declared that the findings of his famous 2001 research showing ‘highly motivated’ people could change from gay to straight were false. Spitzer’s work had underpinned most religious reorientation therapies for a decade. And had sustained much of the anti-gay doctrinal teaching. His recanting marked a significant shift in the US and beyond. So somewhat disturbing to hear of GRT continuing in Australia.

Alan Austin 19 October 2012

Yes. It's very sad that we still have individuals and groups in our society who believe that to be gay is to be abnormal. To be gay is to be in a minority, and that is all. There was a time when it was thought that black Africans were subhuman, and therefore fair game for slavery. A Cicil War was eventually fought to bring an end to that. Australian Aboriginal people were also considered subhuman, hence Terra Nullius - land belonging to nobody, and were not given the right to vote until 1962. Women were denied the right to vote in Australia until South Australia went it alone in 1895. In hindsight, we can clearly see how wrong it was to marginalise people because they were different from the majority or different from the most powerful group. Gay people do not choose to be gay any more than heterosexual people choose their sexuality, or women choose to be women, men to be men etc. We really need to challenge the notion that one kind of sexuality is normal while other kinds are somehow pathological and need to be 'cured'. What needs to be cured is our attitude towards our fellow human beings.

Kate Ahearne 19 October 2012

I am not a medical doctor but practiced as a Clinical Psychologist for 25 years. GRT as practiced within any bias is unacceptable. Sexual orientation is a complex topic fraught with misunderstandings and I would'nt want to add to this. I agree with much of what Fr Mac Andrew stated, with this proviso. The primary philosophy that seems to be operating is that a gay person has a genetic predisposition to same sex lifestyles. This obviates other evidence. I have attended many universities around the globe as a student and teacher. Watch first year University students. In their first year of 'freedom' from school, pre-Uni peers and parental constraints there is a prevailing attitude that 'anything goes'. In this climate experimentation can lead to defined behaviours in some. Clients can have an orientation that is indeterminate, sometimes due to a very negative sexual experience. Rape is an example. Some have chosen to be gay after such a horrendous negative sexual experience. The literature on sex orientation and outcomes doesn't seem to cater for individualism. There will always be exceptions to any research. Treatment/counselling/ and Psychiatrists and Psychologists need to be aware that no stereotype exists.

Dr Karl H Cameron-Jackson 19 October 2012

Thank-you Luke, for this timely and unequivocally accurate article. I'd just add that, in addition to the fact that teenagers should be told explicitly of the opposition of recognised medical and psychological organisations to GRT because it is seriously harmful, unprofessionally based upon social and religious prejudice and completely unsupported by credible research, that it also simply doesn't work, because sexual orientation is not an addiction, affliction, disorder or a sin - however homophobic cruelty is - no matter how kindly it is expressed. Fr Mick - please refrain from promulgating the fundamental fallacy that sexual orientation is a choice - this is nasty and factually indefensible. Celibacy, however, is a choice.

Michelle Goldsmith 19 October 2012

A recent 60 minutes show featured very young children who could be correctly predicted to be gay. Sexual orientation(s) are hard wired in very early childhood, they are not chosen and cannot be reprogrammed.

Those who believe otherwise usually have some religious ax to grind.

jean 19 October 2012

What is Jesus' recorded take on this?
Paul had stuff to say so obviously the orientation was not unknown in his day. But Jesus? can you point me to his condemnation?

hilary 19 October 2012

Some facts are in order. Religious support groups for those who wish to leave a homosexual lifestytle do not engage in 'reparative theraphy' - this is just simply false. See for instance what Exodus International states about reparative therapy: http://exodusinternational.org/press/fact-sheet/). Reparative theraphy is normally conducted by trained psychologists.

For some, homosexuality is indeed a choice, despite what the "National Convenor of the APS Gay and Lesbian Interest Group, Tony Collins told Queensland Pride" (http://www.gaynet.com.au/news/archive/STORY-80.HTM), which is what I think the author of this article is actually referring to. We should also remember that it was not scientific evidence that pushed the APA to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder, it was at times violent political action by the gay (homosexual] liberation front in the US prior to 1973.

Prof Robert Spitzer did not say that his previous findings were 'false', he merely stated (under the grinning stare of a homosexual interviewer) that he has changed his mind, since he could not thoroughly validate some of his findings. The publication which published his original work refuses to withdraw it, considering the research valid still.

The evidence is not clear in respect to reparative therapy; if anything, it points to it being effective. It is incorrect to imply that there is no alternative and dissenting psychological perspectives on reparative therapy - there is quite a body of scholarship that says otherwise. It is simply nonsense to argue that help groups must be led by 'qualified experts' (whatever this means). Though obviously many of the major reparative agencies employ qualified specialists, psychologists and other allied health staff. This of course is not mentioned by sensationalist writers who instead like to focus on the 'religious' aspect. This of course is used as a springboard to ridicule and demean anyone who offers a helping hand to those who are in need of help. By the same measure, we should all begin to attack the Salvos for helping homeless kids, or poor families - many of its officers are not 'trained health experts', they are motivated by their religious beliefs!

Dania Ng 19 October 2012

I was very taken by the article and could feel so for the young guy and his story.....I went through a similar situation in 1958..With attempted suicide..In those days their were no groups as Exodus .....I was admitted to a psychiatric Hospital and given a course of ECT commonly known as shock treatment to "cure" me.....I am now 71 and still gay.....It still sends a chill up my back as to these treatments.....Let the child be....He is not going to hurt any one by having same sex attraction..He was never brought to that position by "A dirty old man" as I was often told..I have been Gay all my life nobody has ever molested me..Thank you a lot for printing this article...

Murray Downie 19 October 2012

My experience working with young people over 30 years, is that it is not as simple as 'homosexuality is hard wired' into people, and evident from an early age. I have met young people who are confused about their sexuality... they may have had a homosexual encounter, but are rightly questioning whether it was a 'one-off', or something deeper. I have a deep concern that the counselling/psychological fraternity, feel that they can never steer a young person away from the belief that they are homosexual, once they voice any suspicions or worries about their sexual orientation. The reality is that many people have had a homosexual attraction or encounter, but did not go on to identify as homosexual.

It seems now the pendulum has swung too far the other way... ie. as a counsellor or youth minister, if you do not automatically affirm or validate a young person's questioning that they are homosexual, you are somehow 'homophobic' or denying the reality of homosexuality.

There are, I believe, situations where a person can and should be encouraged to resolve a 'homosexual incident' as being an aberration of their normal sexual orientation. We must be wary of the homosexual lobby that seems to suggest that 'self identification' is foolproof. The truth is that some people incorrectly identify themselves as homosexual. There needs to be a process by which they can work through this.

Michael T. 19 October 2012

@ Jean
How on earth can one arrive at the conclusion that "very young children ... could be correctly predicted to be gay. Sexual orientation(s) are hard wired in very early childhood, they are not chosen and cannot be reprogrammed". There is no such evidence, sorry to refute your statements. There is some very bad earlier 'science' carried out by a very weird and sick man in the 1940s and 1950s (Alfred Kinsey) which spawned a body of literature upon which many of the so-called studies that media likes to cite are built. Children do have their sexual orientation 'soft wired' through socialisation processes (family, school, peer groups). The point is that gender identity is constructed for individuals by the values and behaviours of the groups in which they grow up. Hence why we need to be responsible about what we teach our children.

Dania Ng 19 October 2012

Any therapy in the hands of unqualified therapists is risky and does not work. Reparative therapy engaged in with a qualified therapist has worked wonders for many with SSA. Read Dr Joseph Nicolosi's work on the subject. He is a specialist in this type of therapy in the USA - does not advertise - people come to him seeking help and are grateful for his insight and competent therapeutic help.

Skye 19 October 2012

Well written piece. Interesting to note that people like Dania still hold to entirely fallacious claims and are determined to believe that up is down and down is purple.
Spitzer has admitted his mistake no matter how much you claim otherwise, "grinning stare" - you are trying to imply his admission was coerced and that is quite simply dishonest. And scientific evidence does not support that GRT works at all. You have a right to your opinion but not to your own facts.

Jason Boulton 19 October 2012

Remember in the 70s when Homosexuals held an International Conference in San Francisco and to gain publicity invited the Media to attend the Conference. The attendance was mainly from English speaking people and Northern Europeans. None from Asia, Africa, Southern Europe and South America. The members of the executive were staunch supporters of the slogan "It is our right to be homosexual" At that time many protesting groups used the same slogan "It is our right". During General Business a quite homosexual moved a motion to use a new slogan "We were born homosexuals" and get the sympathy of our parents, the Church and eventually politicians. As the media was present the executives,even though were against changing the slogan allowed the
Conference to vote on the motion, and it was marginally passed. San Francisco Municipal Council elected the first homosexual politicians.

Ron Cini 19 October 2012

I wonder what therapy renowned Catholic psychologist Ronald Conway used.
He treated numerous clergy in his time.

L Newington 19 October 2012

This article is not as worthy of consideration as some of the posts that it has prompted, especially those written by professionals involved in the field. I wonder why Eureka Street did not seek input form such people rather than a free lance journalist who is studying law. Luke Williams is entitled to his opinion, but I found the contributions of the professionals to be far more nuanced and interesting.

John Ryan 19 October 2012

I'm a gay person. Lots of people believe that being gay is a choice because it then allows them to act in a prejudiced manner towards gay people. The only person who knows your sexual orientation is yourself, nobody else. You cannot force a person to be something they are not. If somebody claims that they are homosexual or heterosexual, the best thing you can do is accept them instead of trying to "convert" them into something they are not. Also many parents are paying "counsellors" thousands of dollars in an attempt to "convert" their child to heterosexual. So many people are making money out of gay conversion, the business is bigger in Australia than most people realize from what I've heard. Gay conversion therapy is all about making a gay person feel ashamed of themselves for being gay or lesbian. Also one of the reasons we have pro-gay sexuality education in schools is to reduce the high GLBTI suicide rate, it's not about converting kids or attempting to convert kids to be gay. Also we gay people generally find it hilarious how total strangers online claim that we have been sexually abused. Think about it.

Jasonb84 20 October 2012

The subtext behind both extremes of this debate (i.e. sexuality is hard-wired/sexuality is not hard-wired) is that sexuality is now painted as bad thing - a disease that can be avoided, similar to diabetes. With certain types of diabetes it's genetic i.e. guilt-free - and others it's lifestyle - "It's your fault."
I've already been through all this thinking process and I'm sincerely tired of all the psycho-babble - especially psycho-babble disguised as Christian charity like trying to describe the whole phenomenon as "designer sexuality.
So unless you've been through it - shut up! (and that includes people with longs lists of letters after their names)

AURELIUS 20 October 2012

JOHN RYAN, my post which came after yours expresses why I suspect many people in my situation feel - that it's not an issue about professional, but profound personal experience. Do heterosexual people consult experts on their sexuality and suffer anguish when they feel they might be heterosexual? I suspect not, so the best and professional thing to do is for professionals to stop the psycho-babble and banter.

AURELIUS 20 October 2012

Aurelius, I was left with mixed feelings after reading the article written by John R.Diggs section B.Catholic Education Rescource Centre sometime ago. The Endeavour Forum naturally have a lot to say too a great supporter of Cardinal Pell. I guess it's because I believe many seminarians were either coerced or forced into situations not conducive to their vocations.

L Newington 20 October 2012

@ Jason Boulton On what basis do you claim that what I have written is 'entirely fallacious'? The point is that much of the article above is based on inflated and erroneous facts, not objective ones. I have given some information on how this is so, what evidence do you have to refute it? If you don't believe me, then how about watching part of an interview with Nicholas Cummings, who is a professor of psychology, with fifty years of experience in psychotherapy, 450 articles and 49 books behind his name, past president of the American Psychological Society, and one of the persons who actually advocated for the de-classification of homosexuality as a mental illness? http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=RuyCT9ygT-4 I feel sorry for people who, for whatever reason, they suffer because of their homosexual lifestyles. But I don't have to accept untruths, neither do I accept being insulted because I challenge such untruths. When are we going to start dealing in facts rather than rhetoric?

Dania Ng 20 October 2012

This article and its responses raises important questions about GRT. Whatever their answers, one thing remains clear: the only morally licit completed sexual act is marital sex. That is, natural sexual intercourse between husband and wife. Any temptations to other completed sexual acts or their substitutes- contracepted intercourse, masturbation, bestiality, adultery, fornication, group sex, homosexual, incest, artificial insemination by the husband, IVF, surrogacy, donor insemination, and so on, are to be resisted on peril of eternal damnation. Oremus pro invicem. (Let us pray for each other.)

HH 21 October 2012

Aurelius, on the internet I have read and watched the testimonies of a good number of people who experienced SSA. They openly and bravely share their own profound personal experiences. Many of them find that their true identity is not found in homosexuality or lesbianism. They do not think that they were born gay. They found that professional counselling was an integral part of making sense of their lives, and setting them on the path to wholeness. I agree that there is such a thing as psycho-babble. However, I would not think that it is necessarily applicable to all counsellors who deal with people experiencing SSA.

John Ryan 22 October 2012

Well, JOHN RYAN, you don't need to go on the internet the find such personal stories of bravery - maybe just ask someone in your church who you might be sitting next to for their personal experience - I have also found OSA people who feel the same way - they don't think they were born heterosexual. I certainly don't feel I was born gay.

AURELIUS 23 October 2012

I must reserve a right to respond to HH, whose response seems at odds with church teaching. Nothing in this article by Luke, and comments following, is anything at all about "sexual intercourse". The discussion is about sexual orientation and the Catholic Church clearly teaches that one's sexual orientation is not sinful.

AURELIUS 23 October 2012

Dear ES editor/moderator: Has your magazine ever published an article on this or similar topic from a Catholic homosexual person?

AURELIUS 24 October 2012

The CA law is great but it does not have any affect on the countless churches and other religious groups which administer restorative therapy with/without licensed therapists. This is the most prolific of all exgay outlets and will remain unregulated as they are tied to churches and ministers. THIS is why HeartStrong has run http://www.exgay.com for over ten years!

Marc Adams 25 October 2012

Definitely these places should be clear about their viewpoint but they need to be open to the idea that many are looking for acceptance. (Some are looking to change/overcome desires though so give them counsel, examples and support as well.) The parents, in their ignorance were trying to help so don't be so hard on them. The kid had porn in his room and that is a problem. For him to slit his wrists over this shows a desperate, manipulative personality and mental illness/depression. he does need help and counseling. The parents 'panicked' but at least they thought they were going to help. they could use some counseling, too.

BP 25 October 2012

There are to many people to respond to. In the case of early wired sexual identity, that can be altered by what the child is exposed to. There are gays that were in very anti-gay pro church homes. No matter what the gays say, they are wrong to the anti-gays and the anti-gays are always wrong to the gays. it will never end. Gays are here to stay, no matter what anyone says. We were born this way and no you cant change it... The ENTIRE anti-gay movement is, that the OLDER generations are jealous the younger generation REFUSES to live within the constraints the older generations accepted as life. IF the older generations knew that if they spoke up as a teenager or early 20's they would have had a less restrictive life. AND im some cases I have seen, the kids that were thought to eventually grow up gay DID, without any interference or pro-gay agenda. The kids were singled out by name only. NO one told the kids anything. and only 2 people knew the names that were picked for growing up gay....

To Many restrictions on life & how to live 25 October 2012

No, no one should expect that their values should be subverted by homosexual or any other propaganda....and that any other propaganda should also include homophobic propaganda. My daughter has her own values, some of them different from mine, but I have taught her her entire life that she must respect everyone for their differences. I don't understand why its so difficult to teach individuality plus mutual respect for humanity. Let parents teach hate at home and if they don't want their children to learn acceptance, tolerance, and human decency, then they can keep their kids at home. There's no reason for hate to be taught at school.

Kari Monster 25 October 2012

I find this very aggravating that this still happens in australia being gay isnt a illness to be treated. i feel sorry for the young people who have gone through stuff like this its very heart breaking to know that its still being practiced and my heart goes out to every one young and old who have experience this or much worse. I'm gay and proud of it anyone who stands in my way will be pushed into the dirt like all other that have tried.

Naithan Andersen 25 October 2012

People who are homosexual not by there own choice should be loved cherished and accepted the way they are. but homosexual act Just like heterosexual act outside marriage should always be condemned openly by catholics who are gay. It is very important you as a gay person live holy purity. And encourage those person who for one reason or the other made themselves gay to visit therapist. And as a gay person. help spread the church teaching about homosexuality

Jeffery omorodion 04 November 2012

Jeffrey, I am not sure how or why you draw the distinction between people who are born gay and those who made themselves gay. Modern thinking does not make this distinction and logically it makes no sense. How on earth does somebody 'make themselves gay'? Also, gay marriage is not legal - so how are gay peope supposed to live in monogamous relationships where they have no sex? Church teaching on homosexuality is divided, contested and in-flux. But Gay conversion therapy does more harm to gay people than what their homosexuality ever will. People who run these groups are often just exploiting the young people who go to them for own gratification

MG 21 November 2012

Ignorance is epidemic, the problem here seems to be thebrainwashing ignorance promoting teachings of the church keeping humanity at bay so you are all so scared that you are willing to pay them weekly to keep you out of hell. Anyone who thinks somone would choose to be gay is an imbecile, outcast from society disowned by family tormented by peers isolated from friendship not understanding why you are different? Yeh good choice hey! Its obviously not a choice. Gay people do more good to enrich our society than any religion good work Luke, but it seems it will be a long time before the rest will leave the dark ages and wake up to reality i pity their contradictory souls.

mat 03 September 2013

This thread is rather old but interested people will still find it, especially in the current climate of marriage equality discussion. May I therefore add to the discussion a link to what Dr. Spitzer apparently has written, devoid presumably of the gaze of any grinning journalists: http://exgayaustralia.blogspot.com.au/2012/04/dr-robert-spitzer-apologizes-to-gay.html

Brenda 14 October 2013

this explains why professor henderson of the anu wont ask if a person is gay and makes suggestive remarks to gauge a persons response which I now assume is to allow him to form a delusion in his mind, akin to his belief in a non-existent god. He could be barred from fixing people that may be lgbtqi community supporters but considering Scott has discovered a loophole then I very much doubt it.

no thanks 28 August 2016

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