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The case for banning gay conversion therapy



There are many ways that LGBTQ+ people are made to feel shame. One is conversion 'therapy', also known as reparative therapy or sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE), which is extremely damaging. In 2017 Victoria instituted an inquiry and was given power to ban practitioners, and recently the ACT government has pledged to do the same.

Partial view of lesbian couple holding hands on couch (Getty)While there seems to be movement by the Greens and Labor to institute bans on a federal level, the Liberal Party doesn't seem inclined to even consider this issue. In response to a survivor-led petition, Scott Morrison said he had 'never thought about it' and that cracking down on conversion therapy is 'just not an issue for me'. His laissez-faire attitude is disheartening.

SOCE survivors and their allies released a statement calling for Australia to follow the lead of Brazil, Spain, Malta and several US states in banning conversion therapy, and a list of recommendations, including an inquest into the prevalence of conversion therapy.

We know SOCE doesn't work. The consensus among mental health experts is that gay conversion therapy has no scientific basis and is harmful. In a position statement, the Australian Psychological Association states there's 'no evidence' that SOCE works. People who undergo conversion are significantly more at risk to depression and self-harm.

However, despite this evidence, SOCE is still active in Australia. A 2018 Fairfax investigation by Farrah Tomazin reported that there are ten active ministries. There were stories of a trans child being forced into chaplaincy without her parents' knowledge, of ritualised exorcisms and deeply ingrained self-hatred.

In Tomazin's report, there's a link to a two minute talk given by the Living Hope Ministry in the US. I press play, thinking I will be able to separate myself from such blatant anti-gay rhetoric. Yet when I watch the video about 'how women become gay', it hurts. Not because of the anti-gay content, but because it uses language about God's love, the type of religious language I grew up with, to sneak past my defenses. For a moment, despite years of learning to accept myself, I waver. 

Tomazin posits that this is key to the strategy: 'The success of the ex-gay movement is this ability to hit the sore spots; to make you question your own identity; to convince you that you're broken and need to be "fixed". If you happen to be young, religious or vulnerable, therein lies the danger.'


"The narrative of LGBTQ+ people being 'broken' and needing to be 'fixed' is so dangerous because it confirms the damaging cultural narrative many LGBTQ+ people internalise at a very young age — that we are sinful and wrong."


I take a break and then check out some of the Australian versions. The first one I google is Courage International, which started in the US but has a chapter based in Melbourne. It's a Catholic organisation that encourages LGBTQ+ people to lead the path to the chastity. I read through the young people's brochure and tears come to my eyes as I'm brought back to my 16 year old self, reading brochures on why same sex marriage was wrong and LGBTQ+ people could only find redemption in 'chaste lives'. How for another moment, I considered it.

When defending their programs, these organisations often focus on the right of freedom of choice. But freedom of choice doesn't account for how easy it is to be misled when you're motivated by internalised homophobia and influenced by people with good intentions but limited understanding.

Nor does it account for the many children who are sent by their parents or guardians to these kinds of conversion programs. The beliefs of some in the Liberal Party — such as Lyle Shelton's view that parents have the 'right' to send their children to conversion therapy — only reinforce the vulnerability of LGBTQ+ youth.

The SOCE narrative of LGBTQ+ people being 'broken' and needing to be 'fixed' is so dangerous because it confirms the damaging cultural narrative many LGBTQ+ people internalise at a very young age — that we are sinful and wrong.

While a nation-wide ban will be a good first step, SOCE survivors group says what is really needed is cultural change. Australia — and, in particular, Australian Christians — need to have conversations not just about surface-level tolerance, but really confront the belief that LGBTQ+ people can only be accepted conditionally. LGBTQ+ people are not the ones who need to change.



Neve MahoneyNeve Mahoney is a student at RMIT university. She has also contributed to Australian Catholics and The Big Issue.

Topic tags: Neve Mahoney



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Existing comments

In Bob Dylan's classic "Don't think twice, it's all right" he penned the famous words "I gave her my heart, but she wanted my soul, don't think twice, it's all right". Those who believe gay conversion therapy can change a person's core, their identity, are profoundly mistaken. They would do well to reflect on Dylan's words. And change.

Pam | 07 September 2018  

At the very least it should be illegal to provide this 'therapy' to anyone but adults. Persuading your children, who love and trust you, that God made you faulty and in need of fixing - and that your sexual inclination can be fixed - is a form of abuse. I'm far from believing that the rights and responsibilities of parents should simply be by-passed, as suggested by the current push for specially trained teachers in all schools. This could only lead to further stress and division within the child. But children must be protected from the surely small number of misguided parents who misuse their 'authority' over their child's spirit. Best would be to ban this dangerous therapy altogether.

Joan Seymour | 07 September 2018  

Thank you, Neve, for the courage to speak up and for a Jesuit journal to carry your account. Homosexual orientation, ostensibly from birth and increasingly regarded by scientists as genetically sourced as well as transmitted, is an ontological fact. The American Association of Christian Counselors has condemned conversion therapy because there is no evidence that it works. The Australian Catholic Church misguidedly supports the mission of an American Catholic organisation called Courage which, among other things, endorses conversion therapy. This isn't just unethical but anti-intellectual advice, piously masquerading under the guise of purity and chastity, both of them virtues that apply to all persons, whether straight or gay, Christian or otherwise. On the other hand, there are several theologies, almost all of them Catholic in origin, that identify identity as God-given, and therefore commanding of acceptance and celebration. This includes, especially, those aspects of identity, which until recently in our continuing evolution, were regarded as inferior and treated as an object of shame, such as having a dark skin or being born female instead of male. The Church condemns gnosticism, Catharism and mind-body dualism, all of sharing responsibility for the ignorance that, as Catholics, we are bound to contest. (https://www.catholic.com/tract/the-great-heresies)

Dr Michael Furtado | 07 September 2018  

Some "conversion" is possible for some in the LGBTI+ community, Neve. The advent of the AIDS epidemic and the realisation of its unrelenting threat of death in the face of no known treatment lead to many conversions in behaviour in both the heterosexual and homosexual community. I suspect, however, that those in the LGBTI+ community who "converted" were not genuine in their sexual orientation in the first place.

john frawley | 07 September 2018  

John Frawley, I happen to be one of those LGBTI people you label as "not being genuine" about my orientation because when I contracted HIV, I changed my behaviour. I stopped having sex altogether. Then later, as I realized I was not the outcast in society you seem to portray me as. Do you realise "safe sex" is the message for the whole of society and not just LGBTI people?

AURELIUS | 08 September 2018  

As an ex-member and coordinator of Courage Melbourne (2008-2012), I can say I have done my share of damage to my fellow LGBT+ Catholics. During my time at Courage, we never spoke of conversion therapy, nor was it ever offered. I reckon I dodged a bullet – it was not until 2 years ago that I began seeing the damage conversion therapy has done to LGBT Christians – it is abuse in a both a spiritual and psychological sense. It was mainly members from Encourage Melbourne, a group for families (many of whom were devout Catholics) of those with ‘same-sex attraction’ (SSA. We never used the word ‘Gay’) who mentioned conversion therapy for their ‘SSA’ children regularly. The parents were on a crusade to save their sinful, broken, immoral ‘SSA’ children from hell. I wonder if the brochures that Ms Mahoney read at age 16, were the same ones that I stuffed in envelopes which were sent to every parish in the Archdiocese? In 2008 we posted orange brochures titled ‘Homosexuality & Real Hope’, then 2010 red and green ones that read ‘Same Sex Attracted & Struggling?’ on the front. Glad to be LGBT, Catholic and THRIVING these days!

Teresa @ Acceptance Melbourne LGBT Catholics | 16 September 2018  

From this post and its comments, it seems that some sincerely claiming to be Catholic maintain that living the "gay" lifestyle which includes non-marital completed sexual acts is morally OK, while others equally sincerely claiming to be Catholic (e.g. I myself) believe the Church with divine authority teaches otherwise. So what we have right now is a schism.

HH | 19 September 2018  

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