SURVIVORS of gay conversion therapy say a crackdown doesn’t go far enough, and the sick industry is alive and well in Australia.
SURVIVORS of gay conversion therapy say a new watchdog for dodgy health practitioners doesn’t go far enough, and the practice is still alive and well in Australia.
Victoria has brought in a health complaints commissioner to crack down on bogus service providers including gay conversion, but men who spent years being told they were an abomination say it needs an outright ban.
Johann De Joodt, from Brisbane, told news.com.au he “was suicidal every week” during the 18 years he spent working with people who promised to make him straight.
“I’m still on antidepressants,” said the 50-year-old usher. “I’ve done many courses, casting out demons. My mental health wasn’t very good.
“The churches talk about unwanted attraction and homosexuality being a sin. If you love God and want to spend eternity with him you need to get rid of it. That’s how they manipulate you.”
Johann said he is aware of two active “ex-gay” programs — Liberty Inc in Brisbane and Triumphant Ministries in Toowoomba, but said his local MP was unwilling to take up the fight. “They’re quite open about it,” he said. “I would love to see conversion therapy banned. I’ve started a change.org petition and created a Facebook page because I’m concerned about LGBT suicide rates, [young people] get frustrated like I did.”
Geoff Ahern, 46, started gay conversion therapy at 15 and spent most of his life tortured by his sexuality and in denial about who he was. He would spend nights crying himself to sleep and twice contemplated suicide.
“The only thing that stopped me was that my wife and children never had the chance to know the real me, they needed to decide whether they could still love me,” he told news.com.au.
As a teenager, he had told a youth pastor at his church he was attracted to men. Instead of acknowledging he might be gay, the religious leader offered to change him.
“He said there was something wrong with me,” said Geoff, now a mental health worker who assists Victoria police. “I was invited to a pentecostal church where they say you can pray it away, exorcise the demons out, to the point where they suggested a young woman I liked and was thinking of asking out was God’s servant sent to rescue me.
“It’s kind of embarrassing to admit I believed that, but they target vulnerable people.”
Geoff succeeded in rebuilding his life and managed to maintain a friendship with his ex-wife, but he says the experience caused them both enormous heartache. “Vulnerable and influenced as I was, the truth is that my choices have caused my ex-wife so much pain and I have taken from her something that she can never get back.
“I know a lot of people who have lost their children,” he said. “They lose everything.”
Australia’s most notorious gay conversion organisations — Exodus and Living Waters — have now shut down, but survivors like Geoff are concerned the practice is still very much alive, quietly pursued by individual priests, ministers and youth leaders at churches around the country.
Johann says Liberty Incorporated in Brisbane is part of Exodus Pacific and involves some of the same people.
Geoff has spoken to many victims of the sickening practice while writing a PhD on gay conversion therapy.
“There are lots of people out there trying to reconcile their spirituality and sexuality,” he said.
He emailed five people he found online claiming they could help young people struggling with their sexuality. “Three acknowledged you could be gay but said you must never act on it if you want to get into heaven. One suggested I pay almost $3500 to fly interstate for a week for help.
“I was shocked by how quickly I found them and how overt they were. There’s still that philosophy that there’s something inherently wrong, that being gay is an affliction.”
Anthony Venn-Brown was one of the first in the world to be given gay conversion therapy, marrying a woman and even becoming a preacher before he realised the lie he had been fed at 40. He is now a happily gay 65-year-old and “still fighting this battle”, he told news.com.au.
“I work with so many people who say, ‘I’m still gay and can’t live with the internal torment.’
“We’ve seen it outlawed for minors in many US states, in the UK medical practitioners have said it shouldn’t be done.”
Australia has not been as active, and although the Australian Clinical Psychology Association has said it is harmful to mental health, there are still Christian “psychologists” who advocate gay conversion.
Anthony says the Victorian watchdog is a good step. He would also like to see more education in the workplace, and he runs courses to help Christian organisations first accept and then embrace gay people.
“Whatever we can have in place to protect LGBTI people would be wonderful,” he said. “We are living in the 21st Century.”
If you have questions around faith, sexuality and gender identity, visit Anthony’s support group, ABBIchat.
If you are in crisis and need support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit www.lifeline.org.au.