“Why I chose gay conversion ‘therapy'” was presented at the Homosexual Histories Conference at the Australian National University, Canberra, 15-16 November 2019 and is part of my research for The Quest to Cure Queers.
On the 13th March 1951 there was a lot of gay talk in newspapers all over Australia. Thanks to Trove, I found numerous references. Advertisements encouraged people to purchase gay colours, gay lipstick, gay designs, gay fabrics, gay beach umbrellas, gay stripes on British bath towels and gay flowers. Dulux paints suggested that their new range of paints, the Dulux 3 Sisters, will ensure ‘Now you’ll be proud of your home. All this gay cheeriness is so easy to enjoy. Ask your paint store about these 3 new Dulux Sisters. He’ll be glad to tell you about them.’ Obviously, I had too much time on my hands one day to research that.
A child is born
Something else happened on that day. ‘VENN-BROWN. March 13. At the Mater Maternity Hospital, to Max and Ursula – a son (Maxwell Anthony)’ the notice read in the births column of the Sydney Morning Herald. No mention of gay though (it would take me another 40 years for me to own that three-letter word)
The warning to Australia
On Sunday night, 11 November 1951 (Remembrance Day) with no television (that wouldn’t commence officially for another five years), radios were the source of news and entertainment. I have no problem imagining my parents in the loungeroom after dinner in our little two-bedroom upstairs flat in Neutral Bay, Sydney. They would have spent the day with my father’s parents at Longueville and had a delicious roast dinner cooked faithfully by my Grandma Gertrude. The males snoozed after dinner while the women washed the dishes. It was a weekly tradition and fond memory of mine that lasted till we found our lives outside the family. Now at 7pm, with the weekend over and a week ahead, baby Anthony, his year older sister Catherine and five-year-old sister Susan were all tucked in bed. Dad and Mum would have sat down to listen to the 7 o’clock news which was followed by the serious warnings of ‘The Call to the People of Australia’. ‘The Call’, as it became known, issued by eleven leaders of the judiciary and the prominent church leaders of Australia was read by the ABC’s chairman after the 7 pm news. Even though Remembrance Day celebrated the end of WWl, the memories of the second war would have been very fresh in people’s minds along with the grief and trauma. This would have added to the gravity of the announcement.
The Call began:
“There are times in the histories of peoples when those charged with high responsibilities should plainly speak their minds.”
Australia is in danger. We are in danger from abroad. We are in danger at home.
We are in danger from moral and intellectual apathy, from the mortal enemies of mankind which sap the will and darken the understanding and breed evil dissensions.
“Unless these are withstood, we shall lack moral strength and moral unity sufficient to save our country and our liberties. “Our present dangers are a challenge to us, but in meeting the challenges of history, peoples grow in greatness.
“The dangers demand of all good Australians community of thought and purpose. They demand a restoration of the moral order from which alone true social order can derive.
If the ‘The Call’ was missed on the radio it was there to read in newspapers.
The morning after the broadcast, the Sydney Morning Herald’s front page read ‘CALL TO THE NATION – Australia In Danger.’
The Sydney Morning Herald continued its emphasis on page 2 under the title. ‘TIMELY CALL FOR A NEW NATIONAL SPIRIT’. In the article emphasising the severity and urgency of the hour the author writes ‘As a people we follow our disparate paths and pursue our selfish ends with little thought to spare beyond them. Cynicism has begotten out of indifference a contempt for morality in its widest sense.’
But it wasn’t done. Page three continues with further comments and backing from the Prime Minister of the time Robert Menzies ‘I am grateful to those who have issued such a notable challenge to us restore our ancient faith, and to practice the ancient virtues upon which our greatness was founded.’ Bipartisanship always reflects the seriousness of an issue. The Leader of the Opposition weighed in as well saying ‘it was fitting that leaders of the Churches and of the judiciary should today proclaim and restate those basic moral principles without which a people must perish.’
The Sun newspaper wrote that ‘Twenty-five Anglican bishops from all States, described the ”Call to the people of Australia” as ‘a splendid setting forth of moral standards.’ ‘The bishops welcome publication of the call, which is a strong challenge to the nation. They are glad that such a document should come from a movement among some of the laymen of Australia. They hope that all laymen will subscribe to it; and ask that all men will seek the power of God to enable, it to be put into effect. Without that power the call cannot succeed.’ 
Later that month, on the front page of The Catholic Weekly, the churches Archbishop of Melbourne, Most Rev. Daniel Mannix, also emphasised the importance of ‘The Call’ because the ‘dangers were so urgent that they can be ignored only by those who were blind to realities.’ …and ‘The people must be made to see that the basic problem was a moral problem; that our moral fibre had become ‘flabby and diseased; and that there must be a change of outlook and of heart if we were to face with any confidence the sacrifices which this national emergency demanded.’
My parents had deeply religious upbringings with Anglican clergy on both sides of the family. I have no doubt the influence this would have had on them and on the countless thousands of Australians who, if not regular church goers, would seriously have still considered themselves Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians etc.. Forty four percent of the population attended church at least once a month.
This moral backlash was pretty well a global phenomenon. Once the war concluded, in 1945, most governments wanted to get society back in order. Now the men had returned home, women could leave their wartime jobs and get back into the home and their role as wife and mother. The moral decline and promiscuity, including same-sex-experiences and relationships that had occurred during the war years had to be reversed. Another thing that drove this concern was the spike in births post-war that occurred 1946 to 1964, now referred to as the baby boomers. The concern then of course was not about an ageing population creating new challenges in every country, as it is today, but the fear of a continued moral collapse. The post war boom of young children needed to be brought up in a sound society of high morals and strong, stable families. Politicians, law makers, law enforcement and churches all got in on the act of putting society back on track. Australia took the need to bring back pre-war sensibilities more seriously than most though by formalising it in a national treatise the ‘Call to the People of Australia’,
Born with the enemy within
Whilst ‘The Call’, didn’t mention homosexuality and was targeting a range of concerns, including communism, it would not have been difficult to attach it to what had already been called ‘alarming’, an increasing visibility of homosexuality. Articles with sensationalist headlines such as ‘Sex Perverts Flood Sydney’ (1948) and ‘Perverts Must Be Cleaned Out of Sydney! (1950), were not uncommon. The enemy within was the wartime rejection of the strong sense of morality which had been the bedrock of society. The most frightening evidence of moral collapse was not only the increase of, but the tolerance of homosexuality which, according to some, had reached ‘epidemic’ proportions.
Only a couple of weeks before ‘The Call’ the Chief Superintendent of the Criminal Investigations Branch (CIB) of New South Wales Police, Colin Delaney, told the Sydney Morning Herald, that ‘132 males were charged with soliciting males in Sydney in the past year , whereas in the same period only 41 prostitutes were arrested for soliciting males.’ He was ‘alarmed at the steep increase in sexual perversion among males in Sydney’ and ‘the vice squad was engaged more than ever combating the evil.’ Delaney finishes off with this warning ‘I cannot stress too strongly the dire need for parents to exercise, the closest control and supervision over their children, particularly young boys.’
When Delaney was appointed Commissioner of Police, the following year, in 1952, he stated that the two major tasks of the police force were combating the toll of deaths on the road and fighting the “growing cancer” of perversion (homosexuality). It is only recently in my research that I discovered my father knew Colin Delaney personally. Sadly, I’ve been unable to find the actual connection.
Society and parents’ fears
How much of this impacted parents’ thinking bringing up their children? How much of this influenced the police, judges, doctors, teachers? And impacting people for generations to come.
As I’ve researched more on my past and the culture I was brought up in, I’ve reflected about the influences that made me so desperate not to be gay and choose to extinguish my natural same-sex desires.
One thing I believe that has rarely been considered is communication. When I speak about communication, I’m not referring to verbal or written but the most powerful elements of all in communication which are, not the words, but the non-verbal elements of tone and body language. Did I ever hear about homosexuality, growing up? The answer to that would be no. Not that I am conscious of anyway. Possibly the message was coming through loud and clear.
Concerns already existed it seems. In a pram in the butcher’s shop at Neutral Bay a women leaned in, looked at me, and said to my mother ‘that’s a beautiful girl you have’. When she told my father later that night he said, ‘Get those curls cut off’. Reluctantly, I’ve been told, the next day she took me to the local barber’s shop and they were all cut off. They never returned.
Conformity, fear and shame
The first indication that something wasn’t quite right was in my pre-school years. My sisters and I played Mummies and Daddies. We’d get all their dolls out (they were our children) and the toy prams, and have dinner parties with tiny, china tea sets our grandparents had bought. I remember Dad suddenly appeared and scolded me for playing with dolls. I saw the look of displeasure. ‘Boys don’t do that’ he said as I was sent upstairs to the flat. Whether he was ‘gender policing’ or just fearful that this behaviour could lead to me becoming one of those perverts or deviates I’m not sure, but I was very aware I’d done something wrong.
In 1955 we moved to Hunters Hill and I began kindergarten. One of my classmates had discovered a game with girls. You play chasing, then when you catch a girl, she has to come to the back of the weather shed and show you her panties. He asked me to join him. A teacher appeared and scolded us. But the worst was yet to come. That night my parents, who’d been notified by the school principal, took me into the kitchen and grilled me about what happened. I knew I’d done something terribly wrong and after the talk in the kitchen I knew shame. Not only my shame but the shame I could bring to the family.
Growing up, I was very conscious of the constant effort to ensure that I was involved in things like cubs, soccer and later cadets in high school, that would ‘make a man of me’.
The next step in my growing awareness was in my early teens.
One afternoon, after a school soccer match, we were getting changed after the game. One of the guys began clowning around by humping his mate while he bent over to undo his boots. ‘Get off me, you homo!’ the guy protested and I laughed along with everyone else, not knowing what the joke was about. Curious about this word ‘homo’, I asked Mum what it meant when I got home.
‘Mum,’ I asked cautiously (asking my parents such probing questions was not the usual thing) ‘what’s a homo?’
I remember the look of concern, almost fear, on my mother’s face.
‘Why are you asking?’ she responded.
‘I heard some of the boys at soccer calling someone a homo.’
‘Was it you?’ she asked quickly.
‘No, Mum,’ I protested, sensing this was a label I should strongly deny. A look of relief came over her face as she carefully gave her thoughtful response.
‘A homo is a man that likes other men.’
That was it.
I think Mum was as glad as I was that the conversation ended there.
The Collins New English Dictionary was standard for all school students. We’d often look up rude words like sex, fart and bugger. There ‘homo’ was clearly defined for me.
Homosexuality (noun) – attraction between individuals of the same sex; sexual perversion resulting from this attraction
Homosexual (noun) a person thus perverted.
Getting the message
At high school, two feminine guys were constantly harassed and bullied. Stuart South was relentlessly ridiculed. The teachers called him Stuart but the rest of us taunted him with ‘Cyril’. He committed suicide soon after leaving school in year 4. The other guy, clumsy and overweight, hung himself.
As high school progressed a gang of a dozen boys from the year below decided to target me for harassment. The gang’s threats commenced the moment they saw me during breaks or between classes. I constantly tried to avoid them.
‘We’re going to punch your head in, you fucking queer,’ they’d shout across the playground. They’d stand behind me in the tuckshop line and punch me in the head and back, whispering, ‘We’re going to get you after school. We’ll be waiting for you at the gate.’ The thought of being attacked by a group of a dozen boys made me ill and for months I lived in fear, leaving classes early, finding different escape routes in order to avoid being bashed.
In 1967, the same year that the UK decriminalised homosexuality and I entered senior high school, an Australian survey was done to test the views on reviewing the laws that made homosexual acts between consenting adults a crime. Of those surveyed only twenty-two per cent said it should no longer be an offence and sixty-four per cent disagreed. Of the sixty-four per cent who disagreed, many made comments such as ‘they should be whipped severely’ or ‘sentenced to long-term imprisonment’
With all these messages, it didn’t take long for two things to become very clear to me. Firstly, that I should never tell a soul about my feelings or experiences and secondly, I need to do everything in my power to change.
Finding out for myself
It was about this time I sensed a longing.
It was a hot summers night. I couldn’t sleep and decided I’d go for a walk. I climbed out my bedroom window to walk the streets of Hunters Hill. As a car approached from behind, I’d turn around to watch it pass hoping someone would offer me a lift. One night a woman did. I was disappointed. Eventually I got what I wanted, and Alan drove me to a nearby park in Woolwich. When he asked if I liked our fondling and mutual masturbation, I said I ‘was just trying it out’ and ‘I don’t think I’ll do it again.’ But I did.
I discovered Boronia Park, about a twenty minute walk from home, where men cruised in cars, then parked and went into the toilets. If they asked me my name. I made one up. I wasn’t there for conversation, only to connect physically, sexually with another male. I never kissed, there was no affection or tenderness; it was quick relief. But I never felt good afterwards.
I hid in the bushes when the police cars patrolled past knowing that if I was caught then I’d be put in a juvenile delinquents’ home and bring shame to the family. It was dangerous. I was robbed once, another time bashed and once raped. But I could tell no one about this dark perverted thing I was doing.
Glenn was gorgeous. Ruggedly handsome with strong beard line, a chest like a mohair rug and often referred to as a ‘ladies’ man’, although I wasn’t quite sure what that meant. In today’s terms he would be referred to as the ‘school jock’. Attending similar classes, we gravitated together. I think I fell in love with him, but had no idea what that meant. Men fall in love with women; not men.
One afternoon, alone in a classroom together I noticed his leg touching mine. It became a bit of a game while we worked on our project together. I’d move my leg and touch his, then move away, He’d do the same. Every cell in my body became electrified. I had no idea what to do. Glenn did. ‘Let’s go to my place’ he said.
We didn’t speak much on the 20 minute drive. At his place, he decided to show me some of his new clothes. A private showing that after several undressings and dressings, quickly turned into fondling. He threw me on the bed and tried to fuck me. Failure. He chided me for leading him on. We didn’t speak about it again.
He broke up with his girlfriend and came to my place with alcohol. Once again the sexual tension was electifying. I wanted to touch him so much. I did as he lay sleeping the alcohol off on my bed. Afraid of the consequences I went back into the loungeroom to watch TV. When I came back to the bedroom he’d disappeared. I found him in his car out the front of our house with his wrists slashed. I thought I’d caused this.
Crisis point #1
The trauma and stress of that night tipped me over the edge. Life was hard. I went into depression and thought constantly of ending my life.
My friendly next door neighbour saw something wasn’t right and began asking probing questions. After sharing tears and fears she did what I could never do; tell my mother that I had a problem and that I needed psychiatric help.
In 1968, homosexuality was not only a prison sentence but considered a sickness but mental health professionals. There were a variety of theories about the causes and also cures, including group therapy, psychotherapy, psychiatry, visiting prostitutes and the recently introduced aversion therapy that included electric shock treatment and vomit inducing drugs. The Sydney Morning Herald said it was the ‘new hope for deviates’.
My father was never to know why I was seeing a psychiatrist. It was too shameful.
Thank God I never had to endure the horrors of aversion therapy. My psychiatrist was of the belief that I was confused, and that I was lucky to have nipped this in the bud. According to some ‘leading’ psychiatrists there were two types of homosexuals; ‘acquired’ and ‘inborn’. According to my psychiatrist, I had the potential to be in the former category not the latter. To avoid this all I had to do was, work on my relationship with my father and end my friendship with Glenn. Simple. You know it wasn’t.
Enter Sydney Diocese Evangelical Christianity. The answer was to be found in Jesus Christ, confessing my sin, asking him to be my saviour and live in day by day personal relationship with Him. ‘If anyone can set me free, it’s God’, I thought. My conversion experience was quite dramatic after my years of internal torment. I’d found Jesus and had nothing more to worry about because my Bible told me I was now a ‘new creature in Christ, old things had passed away and now all things had become new’. I told my Baptist friend in high school that Jesus had set me free of homosexuality. He suggested that I don’t tell anyone about that.
But why did I find myself back at Boronia Park? The aftermath of these ‘encounters’ was always emotionally devastating. Now I had sin and failing God to content with. The shame intensified.
Enter the Charismatic movement and Pentecostalism with the promises of supernatural power of the Holy Spirit and healing. Once again, I believed I’d found the answer; finally. But of course, I hadn’t. It was a constant battle; sometimes I’d successfully resist and other times I’d fail.
Probably you’re thinking one of two things at this stage. Either ‘it’s a miracle you’re still alive’ or ‘what the fuck were you doing Anthony’?
The devil made me do it
Having a strong sense of the ‘calling of God’ on my life I went to bible college in New Zealand in 1971. Surely cloistered away in a total Christian environment I’d be free of temptations and ‘falling’. I have to get on top of this evil thing. The hyper-spiritual environment only intensified my struggle which I confessed to the college principal. ‘It’s a demonic force’ he suggested, ‘you have to be delivered to be truly free’. I was sent to Auckland over several weekends for ‘deliverance’ by the top preacher in New Zealand, Neville Johnson, at Queen Street Assemblies of God. Ah……freedom at last. Apparently not.
My last hope
Returning to Sydney, after my 21st birthday in 1972, I put myself into a residential program like ‘Love in Action’ in the movie ‘Boy Erased’. One of only two in the world at that time from what I’ve discovered. This was to be my last resort as I’d failed at everything else. I was told it would take two years to ‘renew my mind’ and develop the strength to fight the devil and overcome the ‘desires of my flesh’; and of course, become straight.
The belief was that my homosexuality was the result of three factors. My relationship with my parents, demonic forces and my own selfish desires. It was an abusive environment and after 6 months I’d lost my motivation to change and checked myself out.
There were growing number of Christian books to fuel the hatred of my gay self and my belief that happiness would never be found in the gay scene. ‘Gay relationships don’t last, gays are a selfish, bitchy bunch and you’ll end up a lonely, desperate old queen’ I’d been told.
Gay Sydney confirms what I was told
Within days of leaving I began my search to become a part of Sydney’s growing gay scene I’d never previously been a part of. My intention was to experience all the negatives I’d been constantly told about. I believed this would re-motivate me to ‘hate my sin’, come back and try again. Hell was the consequence if I didn’t.
My six months in Sydney’s gay scene confirmed everything I’d been told. After meaningless sexual encounters, unrequited love and a failed brief relationship I was ready to come back to God. I did and moved to Orange in NSW, met my wife, got married, had children and became a famous preacher.
What happened to my homosexuality?
It was always there and from time to time I had those ‘encounters’. Never allowing myself to enjoy them, hating myself for what I was doing and feeling devastated afterwards. But I had to keep fighting. The problem was obviously with me and not God. The mental gymnastics of self-denial kept me going.
I always felt that it was sex that would bring me undone but it was love actually. At 40 I fell in love with a man. I resigned from the ministry and walked away from everything. It wasn’t a proud or empowering coming out. It was clouded with shame and scandal. It would take me another six years to find resolution, deal with the years of negative conditioning, internalised homophobia and self-loathing. Many people don’t get gay pride; that’s because they have never experienced gay shame.
So what drove me to gay conversion ‘therapy’?
The foundation laid:
- A non-accepting, often hostile society. Today there are schools, churches, families, some cultures and NO voting suburbs where this is still the reality for LGBTQ youth.
- Fear and shame empowered by secrecy. For those living in the closet, fear, shame and secrecy have a daily negative impact on their lives.
- My own and my parents ignorance about sexuality. Ignorance about sexuality and gender identity still abounds in many churches, families and cultures; fuelling prejudice and bigotry. One only needs to read conservative Christian websites or Israel Folau’s social media post to know how prevalent this still is.
- A natural desire for acceptance and ‘normalcy’.
- Christianity gave me promises of forgiveness, healing and deliverance; a false hope of change. This is still being preached in churches not only overtly but covertly by taking a non-affirming position.
- My sexuality became an eternal issue. According what was being preached and taught from the Bible, the acceptance or rejection of my homosexuality had eternal consequences; heaven or hell. This belief continues to be preached by some religious leaders and in churches, mosques and synagogues.
I’M BETTER NOW!
 “‘The Call to the People of Australia’, Remembrance Day, 1951,” updated 11 November 2016, accessed 13 Nov 2019, https://honesthistory.net.au/wp/the-call-to-the-people-of-australia-remembrance-day-1951-highlights-reel/.
 “‘CALL TO THE NATION – Australia In Danger.’,” Sydney Morning Herald, Monday 12 November 1951.
 “‘TIMELY CALL FOR A NEW NATIONAL SPIRIT’,” Sydney Morning Herald Monday 12 November 1951.
 “CHALLENGE TO ALL, SAYS MENZIES,” Monday 12 November 1951.
 “Bishops’ support for call to nation,” Sun Monday 12 November 1951.
 “‘The Call’ is supported by entire hierachy,” Catholic Weekly, Thursday 29 November 1951.
 Andrew Stephens, “File reveals secret lives of soldiers in the Pacific,” Sydney Morning Herald, 21 December 2012.
 “Sex Perverts Flood Sydney,” Barrier Miner, Tuesday 14 December 1948.
 “Perverts Must Be Cleaned Out Of Sydney! No Deterrent,” Truth Sunday 12 February 1950.
 “Concern Over Perversion,” Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 20 October 1951,.
 “Police Fight Against Perversion,” Sydney Morning Herald Wednesday 2 December 1953, .
 Survey results printed in the Australian Law Journal
 Bert Castellari, “‘Learning Therapy’ – new hope for deviates,” Sydney Fri, Oct 14, 1966.
 David Pynt, “Sex Offenders Act needed to check this social menace,” Sun, Wednesday 1 August 1951.
 2 Corinthians 5:17
 Romans 12:2
 Chapter 12 Dreams Come True A Venn-Brown, A Life of Unlearning: A Preacher’s Struggle with His Homosexuality, Church and Faith (Personal Success Australia, 2015).
 Welcoming, Accepting and Affirming – know the difference https://www.abbi.org.au/2017/03/welcoming-accepting-affirming/