Tasmania to ban conversion “therapy” *

After the release of the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute (TLRI) report, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Conversion Practices, Tasmania is following other Australian states that have passed legislation banning what has become known as “conversion therapy”. Religious opponents are attempting to block the legislation by clouding the issues with smokescreens and resurrecting outdated theories.

“Conversion therapy? I thought that ended years ago,” is the response I often hear when speaking on the topic.

The people saying this are thinking about medical interventions such as electric-shock treatments, lobotomiescastrationshormone injections and aversion therapy that reached their heyday between the ‘50s and ‘70s. Medical and mental health professionals believed homosexuality was a psychosis, perversion, and deviant. These barbaric and invasive “therapies” were nothing more than experiments, attempting to “cure” gay men and lesbians. They were never called “conversion therapy”.

During the ‘50s and ‘60s an increasing number of psychiatrists and psychoanalysts took a softer approach. Seeing homosexuality as unnatural, abnormal, and socially unacceptable, mental health professionals theorised that the cause of homosexuality lay in a person’s development. Their parents’ lack of love, attention or affection supposedly created a void which homosexuals tried to fill through same-sex intimacy. For lesbians, and, to a lesser degree, gay men, same-sex attraction was supposedly caused by sexual abuse and rape. The quest to nail the “cause” became the mission of many. Once the “cause” was clearly identified, then they would be able to “cure” the “unfortunates”. Resolving the parenting or sexual abuse issues on the therapist’s couch, or in group sessions, eventually the client would become “normal”. Or so it was believed. Once again, this was never referred to as “conversion therapy”.

In the mid to late 1960s, many gays and lesbians had had enough of being pathologised, criminalised and institutionalised. Gay rights organisations mushroomed along with other social change movements such as feminism and civil rights. Gay rights activists saw mental health professionals as major contributors to shame and discrimination, and began targeting the organisations’ conferences.

The first protests were at the 1970 American Psychiatric Association (APA) Conference in San Francisco. A little-known fact is that the activists targeted an Australian psychiatrist, Neil McConaghy, who was there to talk about aversive therapy using electric shocks and vomit-inducing drugs while showing gay men erotic images. Shouts from the activists of “Where did you take your residency, Auschwitz?” and “get your rocks off that way?” disrupted and closed down his presentation. Perhaps the latter was true; McConaghy was at least bisexual.

Eventually, in 1973, the APA removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. This happened half a century ago. Let that sink in. Why is this still an issue for some?

Some invested years attempting to apply the outdated principles. The intense cognitive dissonance and failure to “convert” drove many to thoughts of suicide, attempts and severe mental health problems.

Whilst mental health professionals faced the reality they were wrong, and moved on, much of the Christian Church was not having any of it. In their eyes, homosexuality was more than a mental illness. It was a God-forbidden practice, a choice, a sin, an abomination and against divine order. They had the first chapter of Genesis and six other Bible passages to “prove” it. Within three years, the first formal organisation preaching a “change is possible” message, Exodus, was formed. It didn’t take long before their simplistic approaches of “pray the gay away” and casting “homosexual demons” out of people failed. But the “ex-gay” movement, as it was called then, continued to grow and, desperate to gain some credibility, attempted to be scientific by incorporating terms and approaches. They went back and adopted the old, discredited approaches of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Parental relationships, an overbearing mother, distant father, wanting a child of the other gender, arrested development were Christianised into a form of paperback psychology termed “reparative therapy”. It wasn’t hard for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals in churches to match many of their life experiences to the new “theory”. Some invested years attempting to apply the outdated principles. Nothing changed, but even worse, the intense cognitive dissonance of their faith/sexuality conflict and failure to “convert” drove many to thoughts of suicide, attempts and severe mental health problems.

For the last 30 years, substantial research on religious sexual-orientation change attempts has been done and come up with the same conclusions. No-one changes orientation from gay to straight, and attempts to do so can cause significant harm, studies have consistently found. The TLRI report summarises this. The institute states, “conversion practices are not safe or effective [and] involve clear risks of severe and lasting harm to people subjected to them.”

All mental health organisations reject the practices, as they are based on outdated and false assumptions about sexual orientation and gender identity. LGBTQ people thrive in spaces of affirmation, self-acceptance, and self-love. It’s the non-affirming religious spaces with their messages of brokenness, condemnation and shame that cause the harm.

This is why one of the TLRI’s 16 recommendations is to use legislation to “stop unregistered and unqualified people from purporting to assess, diagnose or treat other’s sexual orientation or gender identity as a fault or dysfunction”. The institute’s recommendations involve amendments to health and anti-discrimination laws.

The report’s recommendations have been backed by Premier Jeremy Rockliff. “I understand how much it has affected individuals to the detriment of their wellbeing, to put it mildly,” he told Tasmania Greens MP, Cassy O’Connor. “It is clear to me, as Minister for Mental Health and Wellbeing, that there needs to be change. I do take this very seriously.”

Veteran LGBTQ rights campaigner and Tasmanian Rodney Croome said, “Conversion practices are based on false and misleading claims, cause profound harm and must be prohibited,” and added, “I urge the state government to act quickly.”

In an article published to the Catholic Archdiocese of Hobart’s website, misleadingly titled Tasmanian Report Seeks to Ban Treatment of Gender Dysphoria, author Catherine Sheehan quoted Archbishop Julian Porteous, who expressed his opposition to the proposed changes:

“While the Church is absolutely opposed to any treatments or practices being forced on those experiencing same sex attraction or gender dysphoria, the definition of a ‘conversion practice’ in the report is so broad and expansive that it would make unlawful, medical and psychological treatments considered by many to be best practice.”

Croome responded: “The Archdiocese is conducting a misinformation campaign, not to protect medical practitioners, who the TLRI recommendations already protect, but because it wants the door to conversion practices left open […]

Pastors who deal with religious matters rather than conversion pseudo-science, parents who have the best interests of their children in mind and health practitioners who work within existing professional guidelines have nothing to worry about.”

The majority of the article on the Archdiocese’s website focuses on the transgender experience and warns about an “explosion” of gender dysphoria and transgenderism among young people. They say that trans and gender-diverse young people will be harmed by the new legislation because challenging the person’s desire to transition would be illegal. It’s strange that religious conservatives are suddenly concerned about harm to trans and gender-diverse young people. In recent debates, religious conservatives have targeted this vulnerable group and caused great distress and harm.

At the bottom of the article, links to personal stories are provided in an attempt to add some legitimacy to the article. Mike, Josef, Rhianne and Scott all tell their stories of being gay and proclaiming the reason they turned out that way was the family environment supposedly. There is no mention of being transgender at all. Whilst trans and gender-diverse people are at risk of being treated as “broken” and pressured to reject their preferred gender, the majority of people who’ve experienced and been harmed by conversion “therapy” are gay and lesbian people. Why the switch in focus, one has to ask?

The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) is using the same tactic. The ACL added a petition to the Tasmanian Parliament’s website to counteract the pro-LGBTQ petition “Pass Laws to Prohibit LGBTIQA+ Conversion Practices”. The ACL petition, initiated by ACL member Karen Dickson, talks about “gender confused children”, “physical and mental harm done to children though transition treatments”. Karen Dickson describes herself as “a nurse in emergency and parent of three teenage girls”. She is quoted as saying she “[doesn’t] want to see our young people fast-tracked down a path they shouldn’t be on,” and “to say that affirmation is the only response is terrifying… [this ban] would squash any opposition to a kid wanting to go down a [gender reassignment] treatment road.”

This switch from focusing on sexual orientation to gender identity has been going on for some time now. It began happening around the same time the world’s largest “change is possible” organisation, Exodus, apologised for the harm their message has caused and closed down.

Possibly some religious conservatives have finally realised their LGBTQ conversion practices and the message of “pray the gay away” are obsolete.

Queensland, the ACT and Victoria have already passed legislation banning LGBTQ conversion practices; South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory are moving towards the same. Tasmania may have been the last state in Australia to decriminalise homosexuality (1997) but since then has been one of the most progressive states in law reform.

Considering that the United Nations Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, Victor Madrigal-Borloz, called for a global ban on conversion “therapy”, Tasmania is moving in the right direction. The petition in favour of the ban has 5,669 Tasmanians saying YES, and on the anti-ban petition, 3,054 saying NO, which pretty well reflects the 2017 vote on marriage equality.

This legislation is not an attack on religious freedoms, as some would have us believe. It is to protect vulnerable LGBTQ people from the harms of outdated and unscientific beliefs and practices evidenced for decades.

* This article appeared in The Big Smoke September 16, 2022