Banning gay ‘conversion’ isn’t enough
Over the weekend, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced his government was finally putting an end to gay conversion therapy in Victoria, which he called "bigoted quackery".
"For far too long and for far too many Victorians, an evil practice has been peddled in shame and stigma," he said in a statement.
"These activities - commonly referred to as 'gay conversion therapy' - claim to be able to change someone's sexuality or gender identity. What they really are is a most personal form of torture, a cruel practice that perpetuates the idea that LGBTI people are in some way broken."
Victoria's health watchdog concurred, with Health Complaints Commissioner (HCC) Karen Cusack saying conversion therapy causes "deep and all-consuming" pain and trauma "even many years after the conversion therapy 'treatment' has ceased." According to the HCC, contemporary conversion therapy often takes the forms of counselling, support groups and prayer sessions.
Although passing legislation to outlaw homophobic re-education programs is an important step, more work still needs to be done to ensure the practice isn't driven further underground.
To prove how easy it is to access conversion therapy, I met with missionaries from the Church of Latter-Day Saints and posed as someone struggling to accept my sexuality. They told me I could save myself if I followed a three-step plan that sounded like something out of an Alcoholics Anonymous guidebook.
First, recognise the "problem" (which I was congratulated for doing), then make a list of situations in which same-sex attraction might arise, and finally avoid those situations at all costs. I was told the mind is "like a stage" and that that with discipline and prayer, I could "control what stays on the stage".
They handed me several pamphlets depicting wholesome-looking heterosexual couples and pointed me to a scriptural passage, Ether 12:27. The passage reads: "And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness … if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them."
After the Bible reading, the missionaries tried to get me to commit to further sessions, and in the meantime encouraged me to download an app containing scripture, mental exercises and sermons to listen to whenever I was "tempted."
In the end, I came away from the session feeling some of the familiar stirrings of shame, guilt and fear. It wasn't hard to see how someone might fall prey to the false hope of a gay "cure" if they were desperate enough to seek it out.
Anthony Venn-Brown, an ex-preacher and advocate for survivors of gay conversion therapy, says he's often told by associates that the "worst years" of their lives were their "teenage years in church internally tormented about their sexuality."
"People experience intense cognitive dissonance because they are told their eternal destiny is dependent on ridding themselves of same-sex desire and becoming heterosexual," Venn-Brown tells RendezView.
"Not being able to change from gay to straight also means potential rejection of friends and family as well as never being able to serve God. Being a part of the church community and fulfilling your purpose in life hinge on overcoming [being gay]; the pressure is enormous."
While Premier Andrews' announcement is welcome, Venn-Brown says "it isn't as simple as 'ban, ban, ban.'"
Though some anti-gay ministries, such as Living Waters Australia and Exodus International, have closed down in recent years, other providers of conversion therapy operate in secret.
In 2018, a bombshell La Trobe University report concluded the ex-gay movement is alive and well in Australia, with conversion therapy "frequently cloaking its anti-LGBT ideology and reorientation goals in the language of spiritual healing, mental health, and religious liberty."
Any legislation would need input from experts and survivors to ensure that it's successful. It would also need to balance the rights of self-determination and religious freedom with the equally important right of gay and queer people to not be subjected to psychological torture.
To their credit, the Andrews government has pledged to consult with advocates and stakeholders before tabling a bill in parliament, a process which Equality Minister Martin Foley said could take at least a year.
Venn-Brown says church leaders and religious communities have "much more to learn about sexuality" and that the "real enemy is ignorance." Indeed, if we're to stamp out conversion therapy for good, faith-based groups must be willing to be educated.
Or as Premier Andrews put it: "Gay, bi and trans people don't need to be 'cured' - because there's absolutely nothing wrong with them. And if you think otherwise, maybe there's something wrong with you."
Seb Starcevic is a freelance writer.