“Gay conversion” is discredited in Australia yet “fixing” same-sex attraction remains a mission for some groups – often with tragic results.
By Farrah Tomazin 9 March 2018
It’s been 25 years since I realised I was gay, and for the first time in as long as I can remember, I’m questioning why.
The images flickering across my computer screen have jolted me.
I’m logged into a “support group” run by Living Hope Ministries, one of the most prolific proponents of gay conversion in the world. And, for a moment, they’ve gotten under my skin.
“Tomboy girl, or girlie girl, she needs three things from her parents we call the three A’s,” a woman is explaining on the hour-long gender development video I’ve been sent.
“Affirmation. Attention. And affection. And she needs to receive them from both parents to be gender healthy.”
I think of my own childhood – in a strict Catholic home with a violent stepfather and very little of the three A’s. Despite knowing better, I begin to question whether, indeed, that’s had an effect on my sexuality.
Fleetingly, unexpectedly, I am profoundly unsettled.
This is how it feels to be “ministered” to by Living Hope, an organisation I have covertly joined as part of a Fairfax Media investigation.
Gay conversion has been discredited as ineffective, damaging, even dangerous. But across Australia, organisations who believe that LGBTI people can or should change are hard at work.
Conversion practices are hidden in evangelical churches and ministries, taking the form of exorcisms, prayer groups or counselling disguised as pastoral care.
They’re also present in some religious schools or practised in the private offices of health professionals.
They’re pushed out through a thriving network of courses and mentors in the borderless world of cyberspace, cloaked in the terminology of “self improvement” or “spiritual healing”.
And they’re causing real harm.
Robert Williams remembers clearly the evening they tried to exorcise his demons.
An earnest married couple had met him at a suburban counselling centre run by CityLife, one of Melbourne’s largest pentecostal mega-churches.
I nearly always ended up in tears.
They sat him down in a private room and began to pray: hands in the air, speaking in tongues, commanding the spirits.
Williams was 47, had been married for 20 years and was a devout Christian. He was also gay and “desperately didn’t want to be”. Struggling to reconcile his sexuality with his faith, he had turned to his pastor.
“The pastor basically said, ‘Yes, we can help you with that,’ and I ended up having six months of intensive weekly sessions that involved a lot of regression therapy,” Williams says.
“You’d have to re-live painful experiences from childhood and you’re forced to identify things that you’d done wrong in the past. It was pretty traumatic. I nearly always ended up in tears.”
The sessions usually took place in the evenings, shortly after 7pm. During the day, if Williams ever had sexual thoughts about men, he was to flick an elastic band on his wrist – an aversion technique. If he found himself sexually aroused in his sleep, he was to get up immediately and have a cold shower. Nothing worked.
It took another four years for Williams to stop trying to “pray away the gay”.
He left CityLife, separated from his wife in 2014 and is now in a committed relationship with a man he plans to marry.
Scars remain (his ex won’t let him see their children) but, finally, he’s free. Free to be himself, free from the shackles of his church and free from the notion that he could, and should, turn straight.
Australia had about 40 active ministries devoted to changing sexual orientation two decades ago. They were part of a broader global “ex-gay” movement, named after the evangelicals at the helm who often claimed their homosexuality had been “cured”.
While many ministries have officially disbanded, Fairfax Media has found about 10 groups that still operate, tapped into an informal network of churches and counsellors here and overseas.
We need to see Evie straight away.
The ex-gay ideology is also present in schools, families, the health profession.
“The preconception is that it’s an American thing that was exported to Australia and doesn’t exist any more,” says La Trobe University academic Tim Jones, who is in the final stages of a major study on the issue.
“Our research shows that’s not the case. If you’re in a Protestant church or you’re in any other form of conservative religious community, it’s likely that community will be linked into a network in which you’ll be able to be referred to someone for conversion therapy. They won’t call it that, but the ideas around it are widespread.”
Gay conversion is an umbrella term for a range of approaches designed to change or suppress a person’s orientation or gender identity. But much of it can’t be captured under existing laws because it takes the form of “spiritual” guidance.
A few years ago, transgender student Evie Macdonald, then aged nine, was forced by her religious school in the Mornington Peninsula to undergo seven sessions of chaplaincy counselling – without her parent’s knowledge – in an apparent bid to stop her from transitioning. LGBTI advocates say anything stopping trans kids from being themselves is, in itself, a form of conversion therapy.
“I was beyond furious,” says Evie’s mother, Meagan. “The first thing I did was ring Evie’s doctor (from the Royal Children’s gender service unit) to tell her what had happened. She was really concerned and said, ‘We need to see Evie straight away because we know that (trans) kids have self-harmed after chaplaincy visits; we need to make sure that her mental health is OK.’”
The school insisted it had done nothing wrong and, technically, they weren’t required to inform Evie’s parents. All her parents could do was remove Evie from the school and, a few days later, they did.
Today, Evie is 12 “and such a happy girl” despite the unwanted counselling she received. According to Meagan, it wasn’t just inappropriate – it was dangerous.
In Melbourne, Courage International helps people “live chaste lives”; in Brisbane, Liberty Inc. addresses “unwanted same sex attraction,” and Liberty Christian Ministries, which is backed by the Sydney Anglican Archdiocese, teach a “biblical perspective” on same sex attraction.
Groups like these believe they are doing the right thing: helping people who seek support to live in accordance with their faith and values. Some have changed their message over the years, focusing less on changing sexual orientation than on suppressing it through celibacy. Others insist their work should not be classified as conversion or “ex-gay” practice at all.
“Liberty is not an ex-gay ministry,” says spokesman Jackson Stace in a statement. “Liberty does not encourage Christians to change their sexual orientation – nor do we refer to people or counsellors who would. We primarily seek to support a sub-group of Christians that can feel under-supported in church life as they seek to live out their faith.”
A similar message is conveyed at Renew Ministries, which operates in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific. The group’s website insists it does not “force people to change” but, rather, aims to “release people into sexual and relational wholeness” through “repentance from sin”.
But Renew is quietly registered as a charity under the name Exodus Asia Pacific, which was once affiliated to the world’s largest conversion therapy organisation, the now defunct Exodus International. It’s run by Shirley Baskett, a Melbourne-based church trainer whose story of escaping lesbianism and marrying a man is emblematic of the ex-gay narrative. Baskett declined to be interviewed, saying, “We have a No Media policy.”
Critics, however, point to a familiar theme. “The approach is totally grounded in the ideology that being same-sex attracted is problematic; that being gay is a form of brokenness needing God’s attention and needs to be submitted to prayer,” says Nathan Despott, who runs Brave Network, an advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people of faith.
“You would be hard-pressed to find an addiction-recovery group that doesn’t use similar language.”
Excerpts from Understanding Homosexuality and Gender Development in Females with Living Hope Ministries.
My peek into this world begins at the website of the US-based Living Hope ministry.
“What are your reasons for wanting to join?” I’m asked.
“I’m struggling with my sexuality,” I write, under a pseudonym.
“Are you a Christ follower?”
“Yes,” I say. “I attempt to live my life as Jesus taught us. Lately I have lost my way.”
Founded in 1989, Living Hope purports to have the largest online support group of its kind in the world. But signing up to a discussion forum requires approval. It’s clear that, to some extent, the ex-gay movement wants to remain hidden.
Once I’m accepted, I mimic the language I see on the forum. I’ve struggled with my sexuality for most of my adult life, I claim and, despite my prayers, I have genuine doubts about my ability to “renew” myself.
The replies are welcoming and well meaning. One woman tells me she’s had same sex attraction since she was five years old but, by trusting God, she has learnt to “desire Him and not women”. Another asks how she can pray for me.
Then Living Hope’s women’s ministry director, Bonnie Scasta, sends me a weblink and password to a gender development video she suggests I watch. It’s the video that hits my childhood raw nerve.
I’m in a committed, loving relationship; I’m an experienced journalist; I’ve spoken to countless people who have been through conversion for this article. Yet, even though I’m aware that this therapy will assert a link between sexual orientation and painful childhood memories, I find myself briefly unsettled.
Later, at a quiet, one-on-one session on the outskirts of the city, I get a similar feeling. An elderly priest is suggesting how I can live a chaste life: trust God; pray in sorrow; and stay away from forces of temptation, such as lesbian nightclubs, bars and alcohol.
The problem is not so much the messenger, who is gentle and kind, but the message: that I should live in celibacy because I am gay; that acting on my feelings would go against God’s plan.
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.
A few years ago, Dean Brodel was on a mission towards God.
He was 18, content in his faith and gradually climbing up the ranks of his Citywest church.
But Brodel also knew he was attracted to men. He confided in a senior member of the church, who prayed for his deliverance and tried to cast out his demons. His pastor, meanwhile, had this advice: don’t focus on your desires, focus on Jesus.
“Every day I would get up, look in the mirror and say, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ, I command the demon of homosexuality to leave me. I bind its power and I rebuke the schemes of the enemy,’” he says.
“I would wait to see if it worked but then I’d have a thought about men and I’d once again spiral into self-loathing and shame. All of 2014 was a continuous effort to see some kind of progress.”
Progress eventually came – but not the type he’d initially prayed for. He decided to be open about his sexuality, even though it would mean losing his church, friends, community. It was a moment of breathtaking liberation.
“There’s no point in putting unnecessary suffering on myself,” says Brodel, now 23 and an arts student.
Dean Brodel tried to repudiate his sexuality before he eventually found acceptance at a different church.
For others, however, the impact of trying to convert is serious and long-lasting. About a dozen people were interviewed for this investigation, some of whom were still so traumatised by the experience or scared of their former church they did not want their identities revealed.
One woman, from Sydney’s north shore, said she spent years trawling the internet, looking for conversion therapy “techniques”. When nothing worked, she punished herself using self-harm and starvation.
Another Sydney woman, who was sent on a “healing retreat” at a farm in Wilton, recalled the first time she kissed a girl: “I had to run out of the room and vomit because I was so conflicted,” she said.
Then there are the broken marriages, the losses of faith, the suicides. Former Pentecostal preacher Anthony Venn-Brown spent years in what is believed to be Australia’s first conversion therapy centre: the Moombara Christian Fellowship south of Sydney, which he first attended in 1972.
He was married for two decades until his wife, who knew of his earlier attempts to turn straight, discovered a letter he had written to a man he’d fallen in love with. It was devastating for both of them.
We will never be able to count the cost.
Now openly gay, Venn-Brown runs a support group for LGBTI Christians, called Ambassadors and Bridge Builders International. He has received hundreds of emails from people who have struggled with their faith and sexuality. Some have since been driven to take their own lives.
“We will never be able to count the cost of gay conversion therapy,” he says, his voice almost breaking. “It has been a silent genocide.”
Conversion therapy is opposed by the United Nations, the Australian Psychological Society, the Australian Medical Association, and numerous other professional health and human rights bodies.
In the United States, California banned conversion therapy for minors in 2012, followed by eight other states. Yet gay conversion still remains legal in 41 American states and, according to a recent study, an estimated 20,000 LGBTI youths aged between 13 and 17 will undergo conversion therapy with a licensed health-care professional before they turn 18.
Closer to home, Victoria’s Labor Government attempted a crackdown last year, giving the state’s new Health Complaints Commissioner the power to investigate and ban unregistered health practitioners – including any who treat homosexuality as a disorder. As yet, no one has come forward to the Commission.
Human Rights Law Centre director Anna Brown says that, while some countries have sought to ban conversion therapy, such legislation might not capture the less formalised types of practices that are prevalent in Australia.
In 2016, the state government commissioned La Trobe University and the Human Rights Law Centre to conduct research. Researchers tell of an international student who was threatened with being sent back to their south-east Asian country of origin to face the prospect of “corrective rape”. Another historic case involves a minor who was given electroshock aversion therapy as an involuntary patient. The trauma still lingers.
Many hope the La Trobe research will prompt a cultural shift, in partnership with religious institutions and communities.
Former pastor Matt Glover, who now works as a counsellor with LGBTI clients, says gay conversion could never be stamped out entirely because, for many, it’s ideologically driven.
Note, for example, last year’s call by Australian Christian Lobby director Lyle Shelton for parents to have the right to send their children to conversion programs, or the similar views espoused by tennis champion Margaret Court, now a pastor at Perth’s Victory Life Centre. Such views were hardened last year during Australia’s marriage equality debate.
There are, however, positive stories to tell. Stories of affirming churches where LGBTI people are welcome. Stories of conservative Christians who have changed their anti-gay stance.
“Rather than trying to stamp it out, it’s better for us to tell the stories of people that have reconciled their faith and their sexuality, and are living healthy lives,” says Glover, “so that everybody knows that there’s an alternative.”
It’s a lesson Alan Chambers knows only too well.
Not that long ago, Chambers was the president of Exodus International, the biggest gay conversion therapy organisation in the world.
At its peak, Exodus had more than 250 ministries in the US and Canada, and more than 150 in 17 other countries. The group’s central pitch – “change is possible” – was pushed at conferences, churches, and on US television news programs for almost four decades.
But in 2013, Chambers rocked the evangelical world by apologising to the LGBTI community for the “pain and hurt” his group had caused, announcing he was shutting down Exodus permanently.
The following year, Living Waters Australia, then the country’s biggest proponent of conversion therapy, followed suit. Other ministries slowly disbanded or moved deeper underground.
Speaking from his home in Florida, Chambers says the apology remains one of the most profound decisions of his life, and one that was “a long time coming”.
Now, as Australia considers how to tackle its own ex-gay movement, the softly spoken 46-year-old says the best way forward is for each side to start a dialogue.
As he points out, some ministry leaders genuinely believe – as he once did – that they are doing the right thing for the person seeking their help.
But does it haunt him, I ask, that there are people who have suffered or even taken their lives as a result of Exodus’s teachings?
“It’s compelled me,” he says.
“I know those people would probably say to me, ‘You have a responsibility to help others not do what we did.’ So I would stake my life, and everything in it, to help people understand that God loves them, no matter what.”
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