The dangers of gay conversion therapy

By Matty Silver

24 November 2014 — 2:36pm

It’s probably difficult to believe there are still people and organisations in Australia and around the world who believe they can “cure” gay people who struggle with same-sex attraction.

Conversion therapists or ex-gay practitioners believe homosexuality is an affliction or disorder that can be fixed by praying and psychotherapy, sometimes referred to as “pray away the gay”.

Reparative or conversion therapies are offered by ex-gay groups whose philosophy is based on the premise that homosexuality is an illness and unnatural. They maintain that people are born straight and only become gay when some trauma interferes with their sexual development.

Conversion therapy aims to repair the” trauma” and teach people how to perform “normal” gender roles. It offers support groups, individual counselling and prayer meetings to overcome a person’s unwanted same-sex attraction, help increase their attraction to the opposite sex or encourage them to abstain from acting on their feelings.

There is no evidence that this therapy is effective and it is condemned by major health, psychiatric and psychological organisations around the world. The so-called therapies have been proved to be ineffective and harmful, especially for minors and most of the groups are not run by accredited counsellors or therapists.

Young people are vulnerable. If they come from a religious family and are told that God doesn’t love them if they are gay and that it’s a sin, they become fertile ground for the ex-gay movement to convert.

The American Psychological Association conducted the world’s largest sexual orientation-change efficacy study, which found that conversion and reparative interventions caused harmful mental health effects such as increased anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and sometimes loss of sexual functions.

In the US the largest ex-gay organisation in the world, Exodus International, announced in June 2012 that it was closing after 37 years. President Alan Chambers apologised with this statement: “I am sorry for the pain and hurt many of you have experienced. I am sorry that some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt you felt when your attractions didn’t change”. In this interview he explains his reasons; he now believes that homosexuality cannot be cured.

One of the longest running conversion therapy programs in Australia, Living Waters, also ceased operations this year. “The Cure” is an Australian independent documentary on ex-gay ministries and the mental health implications of trying to “change” sexuality, told through the compelling narratives of people who have tried to transform their sexuality.

Anthony Venn-Brown, a former Pentecostal leader and ex-gay therapy critic, has been monitoring Australian ex-gay activities for nearly 20 years. He detailed his own struggle with such therapies in his memoir called A Life of Unlearning and is the co-founder of a support group for gay Christians called Freedom2b, which is now the largest network of LGBT people from Christian backgrounds.

He welcomed the news, as many Australians have a gay or lesbian family member, friend or work colleague and knows that sexual orientation can’t be changed. “To have churches or religious organisations label them as sick, dysfunctional and broken is abhorrent, offensive and ignorant. Unfortunately there are still some anti-homosexuality ministries and individuals practising in Australia as well as churches who preach that homosexuality is a sin”.

This video, made in 2009, shows a young gay man, Ben Gresham, reconciling his sexuality and faith. He is now part of a growing push within the evangelical movement that seeks to integrate faith with gay identity. He was part of the Hillsong Church, whose founder Brian Houston no longer supports conversion therapy.

But there are still some groups who believe that conversion is possible, for example in Sydney we have Liberty Christian Ministries and Beyond Egypt, in Brisbane Liberty Inc. An international online organisation Setting Captives Free – Door of Hope, has connections in Australia.

One of my clients who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian household was told that the Bible was very clear about homosexuality and that his sexual orientation was shameful and a sin. His parents found a psychotherapist who promised that he could “make” him straight. He only decided to give it a try because he wanted desperately to be accepted by his family and God. After he realised he couldn’t be changed, he experienced depression, shame, feelings of isolation, failure and rejection. It took years of therapy but he is now in a loving relationship with a man. However, he lost contact with his family.

Unsurprisingly in the age of the internet, ex-gay groups have set up internet sites offering “freedom from homosexuality”. Vulnerable and troubled young people who have only heard negatives about being gay from parents and churches are accessing these sites in the secrecy of their bedrooms.

Even a free app was developed called Setting Captives Free, which was available on Google Play and Apple iTunes. The worldwide organisation All Out launched a petition to get the app removed and succeeded.