‘Pray away the gay’- conversion therapy still takes place in Australia

Tessa Hoffman | 29 February, 2016 | 4 comments Australian Doctor

A crackdown on ‘gay conversion’ therapists raises questions about how widespread the practice still is. Australian Doctor investigates.

When, as a teenager, Paul Martin (pictured above) discovered he was attracted to other young men, it sent him into a spiral of fear and self-loathing.

Growing up as the son of evangelical Christian parents, he was not only told homosexuality was unnatural, but also a perversion, an abomination.

“Being gay is number one on the top 10 sin chart, and gay men are seen as predatory and evil, so for me to believe I was one of those horrible people was both distressing and traumatic,” Mr Martin says.

But in the 1980s, while in his early 20s, he heard about a path to his salvation.

At a suburban Melbourne church, a group of men and women met to engage in therapies designed to rid them of unwanted sexual desires.

The coursework — disseminated by Exodus International, then the largest anti-gay ministry in the world — ran on a quasi-Freudian premise that homosexuality was a trauma response caused by a distant relationship with a parent of the same gender and was therefore curable.

The glossy brochures, featuring smiling, happily married ‘former homosexuals’, only lent weight to the course’s legitimacy, recalled Mr Martin. Along with his classmates, he would work through audio tapes and workbooks whose instructions included visualising a stop sign or snapping a rubber band against their wrist every time they had an erotic thought about someone of the same sex.

“It wasn’t a cult, but it had a similar flavour,” he said. “It seemed so legitimate and viable, and had all the hallmarks of something that could be successful if you believed in it.

“The problem is it doesn’t work, and every day you end up failing.”

Counselling the ‘converted’

One doctor in Melbourne has counselled several male patients who have gone through these so-called therapies.

They arrive to see Dr George Forgan-Smith — a GP specialising in men’s health, who is gay himself — with a range of mental health problems, from anxiety and depression to substance misuse and suicidal ideation.

None ever truly believe they can change their orientation, he says, but feel compelled to seek treatment as a result of family or societal pressure.

“These are very high-pressure treatments, proven not to be effective and proven to be harmful,” Dr Forgan-Smith says. “They are constantly reinforcing a person is wrong, a person is bad. How do you resolve that?”

It can take months of compassionate listening and support to begin to unravel the damage, he says.

“I treat the mental illness they are presenting with; I also create a space where people feel safe to tell their story.

“They have to be in a place where they feel they are not being judged and won’t get the same treatment they had in the past.

“Many people can end up seeing the positive side and how they have had to be resilient to survive.”

But not everyone does survive. These so-called therapies have driven some to suicide, he claims.

One misnomer, he says, is that the practice is only found in the fundamentalist regions of the Christian faith.

“I’ve seen people who had this done to them in South-East Asia in Buddhism and in Islam,” Dr Forgan-Smith says.

Journey to self-acceptance

Mr Martin has also seen the damage of these ‘treatments’ first hand. After qualifying as a psychologist, he says he has counselled hundreds of people who have undergone them.

His journey to self-acceptance began with a personal breakthrough on a trip to Thailand, where he realised that, according to his faith, an entire country full of Buddhists was destined to burn in eternal Hell.

“The idea was so disturbing that I realised I couldn’t be a Christian anymore. Then I realised if I wasn’t a Christian, it was okay to be gay.”

His experiences at the hands of the church ultimately helped forge his career.

“Being personally damaged from stigma and ignorance created the driver for me to become a psychologist to assist others who have been through similar experiences.

“It also led to a determination to do whatever I can to make positive changes in the way society saw sexual and gender diversity.”

Government crackdown

Currently, the Victorian Government is looking at targeting unregistered health professionals offering non-evidence-based treatments purporting to reorient sexual preference.

There is also talk of legislation for a national ban.

Mr Martin says, mainly because of mounting public pressure, the number of groups that still offer ‘conversion’ is slowly dwindling.

For instance, in 2013, Exodus International spectacularly shut down, with its leader, Alan Chambers — who has a wife and children but has spoken publicly about his attraction to men — issuing an apology to the LGBTI community.

“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,” Mr Chambers declared.

“I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatised parents,” he added.

But while groups are dwindling, Mr Martin stresses this does not mean the treatments are not being offered. The movement has instead gone underground, he says, peddled by outlier Christian counsellors and online courses. He has heard of cases where counsellors “channel” the ‘Holy Spirit’ coursework while a translator stands by to deliver the message in English to the ‘patient’.

“These people are well meaning and don’t realise the psychological harm done when you set someone up to fail and the sense of shame around that failure.

“The evidence strongly suggests sexual orientation is something that becomes hardwired in a person’s brain and is highly unlikely to ever change. I don’t know anyone who has actually reoriented.”

Treatments still continuing?

Anthony Venn-Brown also knows this from the inside (see video, above).

The former Christian preacher finally gave up his pursuit to change his sexual orientation after 22 years of therapy, exorcisms and 40-day fasts.

He says the Christian ‘gay conversion’ movement has progressed through three phases.

The first involved advising prayer, fasting and exorcism to “pray away the gay”.

The next wave was conversion or reparative therapy, using methods first used in psychiatry.

But these days, says Mr Venn-Brown, most church groups accept conversion therapy doesn’t work and are framing homosexuality as a ‘temptation’ for which celibacy is the cure.

A few groups still offer the ‘treatment’, he claims, naming Sydney-based organisations Liberty Christian Ministries and Beyond Egypt among them.

However, both church groups vigorously deny this.

Allan Starr, a pastoral worker at Liberty Christian Ministries, says his organisation never carries out such therapy.

Rather, the organisation supports men and women struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction to pursue a celibate lifestyle.

Beyond Egypt also says it does not offer conversion therapies “of any kind”.

“We’re a Christian support group, offering support and prayer to people who ask for it in their journey through unwanted sexual and relational struggles,” the organisation says in an email to Australian Doctor.

“We don’t wish to be interviewed, as the entire premise that we are involved in some kind of ‘conversion therapy’ is false. We do not and have never in any way supported such therapies.”

Sending a strong message

The question now is whether the Victorian Government’s plan to crack down on conversion practitioners will have an impact.

Mr Venn-Brown is optimistic. Partly, he says, it is about raising awareness that, despite the apparent public shift in attitudes to homosexuality over the past 20 years, there are those within religious sects who still believe it’s abnormal to be gay.

He also believes it will act as a reminder that sexual desire cannot be changed or suppressed.

He adds: “It also sends a strong message … to people seeking help that conversion therapy is a waste of time.”