More than a dozen LGBT survivors of harmful “gay conversion” therapy have shared their experiences in a new report that claims the dangerous practice remains a “real problem” in Australia’s religious communities.
“Gay conversion” therapy describes the discredited practice of trying to change sexual orientation using psychological or spiritual means.
The Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice: Responding to LGBT conversion therapy in Australia report by La Trobe University and the Human Rights Law Centre calls for action by governments, the health sector and religious communities to better respond to people experiencing conflict between their gender identity or sexual orientation and their beliefs.
One participant underwent extreme “aversion” therapy in the 1980s that involved ice baths and electroshock therapy.
But according to another survivor’s account in the report it was the “insidious and unrelenting ex-gay messaging” they were subjected to over a long period of time that “ate away” at their wellbeing and self-worth.
One man, Anthony, says he was “earnestly seeking to build a life that would honour my deep faith” during his twenties when he was told by his spiritual leaders that he was “sexually broken” and “in need of healing”.
“My quest to change my sexual orientation saw me praying, being prayed over, and introspecting, self-censoring and even participating in exorcisms,” he said.
“I tried for many years, with great passion and desire for change – and nothing worked.
“Not only is gay conversion therapy completely ineffective, it’s also incredibly unsafe. It did a huge amount of psychological damage to me.
“And I know that I hurt other people deeply along the way as well because I was so out-of-sync with who I really was. Now, I happily know that I’m gay, I’m not broken, and I’m not in need of healing.”
Another man, Benson, said he was a young man when he was subjected to gay conversion therapy in the mid-2000s.
“I experienced hypnosis, exorcism, and was told that the reason I was gay was because my mother was overbearing, and my father was distant,” he said.
“I experienced months of night terrors, which later in life I was told can be brought on by extreme stress, however the church told me these were demonic attacks, which only saw me engage in more exorcisms.
“As a result I began losing my hair at the age of 16 due to stress. After years of engaging with the therapy I made attempts to take my own life, as I knew nothing had changed.
“Eventually I gained the strength to leave the church and come out, and engaged in non-religious therapy to attempt to repair the damage, and still do so almost ten years on.”
Ten organisations still advertising conversion therapy
“Gay conversion” or “ex-gay” therapies have been widely condemned as unethical and dangerous by numerous bodies around the world including the United Nations, the Australian Psychological Society, and peak psychology bodies in the US and the UK.
The report documents the history of conversion therapy in Australia, from its emergence in conservative Christian communities in the 1970s through to today, with the report claiming it continues to be promoted “in the messages and teachings of many churches, mosques and synagogues, through print and digital media and through some Christian radio programs.”
It states there are currently at least ten organisations publicly advertising the provision of ex-gay and ex-transgender therapies in Australia and New Zealand.
The report recommends new laws banning professional practitioners from engaging in any activities designed to change or suppress a person’s sexuality or gender identity, and a blanket ban on conversion practices for children.
But the report says legislating against “informal” activities in faith-based settings would drive proponents further underground and awareness campaigns educating about the risks of conversion therapy would be more effective.
La Trobe researcher Dr Tim Jones said it was their hope that the research would help religious communities “become aware of the severity of the harms LGBTI people of faith are experiencing, and work to provide better care for their LGBTI members.”
“The report reveals the immense trauma and grief participants felt at the prospect of having to choose between their faith or their gender and sexuality, both intimate and important parts of themselves,” Dr Jones said.
“The psychological and spiritual trauma experienced by our participants, at their loss of faith, or their struggle to be accepted by their communities, was devastating.”
Human Rights Law Centre legal advocacy director Anna Brown said governments across the country should respond to the harm caused by conversion therapy, “particularly the acute vulnerability of children and young people subjected to conversion practices without consent.”
“The law is only one part of the solution, because a ban will not impact on the informal practices among adults that we know are prevalent in Australia’s conversion movement, and may drive them further underground in certain faith communities,” she said.
“We recommend a multi-faceted approach implemented in partnership with religious institutions and communities to help, not harm, LGBT people of faith.”
Conversion therapy made national headlines in Australia earlier this year after a motion from a branch of the Victorian Liberals to debate the practice got up – and was swiftly pulled – ahead of the party’s state conference.
Survivor Chris Csabs started a petition earlier this year, calling on the federal government to outlaw conversion therapy, that was met with an evasive response from Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
The petition received more than 46,000 signatures, and led to wider campaigning by survivors of the practice.
“The messaging of the movement that told me that I was ‘broken’ has caused long-term damage to me,” Csabs said.
“I hope that this research is now used to stop the harm it continues to cause others in the LGBT+ community.
“My hope is that the recommendations made in the report are heeded by those in power and acted upon so that we can protect our community, and in particular our vulnerable young people, from this dangerous movement.”
If this story has brought up issues for you, support is available from QLife on 1800 184 527 or online at QLife.org.au, Lifeline on 13 11 14, Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.