A victim of “gay conversion therapy” has blown the whistle on the dangerous practices in Australian churches.
The term “conversion therapy” refers to the discredited practice of changing or suppressing an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity, using psychological or spiritual means.
On Sunday night, Channel Nine’s 60 Minutes program revealed the practice is still continuing in Australian churches.
Australian man Robert Williams told 60 Minutes’ Sarah Abo he told a minister at Melbourne’s City Life Church he was gay in 2009.
He was immediately referred to group counselling, which he said turned out to be “conversion therapy” aimed at turning him straight.
“They got me to wear an elastic band on my wrist,” he said.
“Every time I had a sexual thought, I had to ping it. And if I had sexual thoughts at night, I had to take a cold shower.”
But after six months, Williams said the counselling was deteriorating his mental health and as a result he suffered depression and anxiety.
Williams said he “lost everything” when he told his wife, his two children and his church he was gay.
“I lost my children, I lost my wife, I lost my security, I lost my identity… I had to rebuild the whole lot,” he said.
Williams, who has since married his husband, now wants to see the practice banned to protect other gay people, particularly youth.
“I submitted myself willingly at the time, I didn’t know the damage it was going to do to me,” he said.
“I think they know it’s shameful, I think they know the damage they’ve done.”
In the 60 Minutes investigation, Williams went undercover to attend counselling sessions and group therapy with counsellors and church ministers.
The “counsellors” told him during the sessions to choose celibacy over homosexuality, and acting on same-sex attraction is a sin.
“In their terms you can’t be a Christian and be gay,” he said.
‘Counsellors’ tell gay people that they’re ‘broken’
John Smid is one of many former ‘gay conversion’ practitioners who now admits and accepts his own homosexuality.
He said he encouraged hundreds of young gay Christians to “change” their sexuality over 22 years.
Smid quit the notorious Love in Action conversion therapy group seven years ago and recently married his husband.
“The over-arching message is sexual brokenness,” he said.
“We’ve clearly taught that homosexuality was caused as a result of family dysfunction, as a result of sexual abuse. We taught that homosexuality was a product of brokenness.
Smid said the “counsellors” administering the therapy have no qualifications, he said.
“As Christian leaders we believed that we had the authority of the Bible,” he said.
“We did not come to grips with how deeply harmful it is when you start working with someone’s psyche.”
The Australian Christian Lobby defends conversion therapy
But Martin Iles, director of the Australian Christian Lobby, refused to accept the practices were harmful and suggested gay people leave the church.
“You’ve got to understand that people who would sign up for that are people who want to sign up for it,” he said.
“I don’t believe anyone is made to believe anything. People can choose to believe what they want to believe these days.
“[The Bible] says that it’s a sin to act on any sexual desire outside of marriage. [A marriage] is a union of one man, one woman, to the exclusion of all others for life.
“That’s the standard, and there’s no getting around it. And if people don’t like the standard there’s no need for them whatsoever to be part of the church.”
Iles said Victoria’s moves to ban “gay conversion therapy” is “hugely concerning” for the Christian church.
“You’re actually criminalising a significant part of the Christian faith. That’s hugely concerning for the Christian community,” Iles said.
“’Conversion therapy’ is a convenient term that can essentially creep into all sorts of areas of life.
“And laws preventing that message from being spoken by the church which has been spoken for millennia, it just smacks to me of madness.
“I think there are things that need to be stopped but if we’re getting into this kind of conversation — steady on. It’s just attacking religion.”
Victims of conversion therapy practices have died by suicide
But Smid said he is determined to expose the long term harm caused by the therapies.
He said he is now in contact with hundreds of former victims through an online support group he runs.
“Every single one I’ve had contact with has struggled terribly with depression and deep levels of anxiety,” he said.
“The people I’ve talked with had a lot of anger and resentment.
“There have been people that have even committed suicide as a result of that despair.”
If you need someone to talk to, help 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.
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