This article was origially published on The Big Smoke “NSW bans conversion therapy” April 2, 2024

During a marathon session of the Upper House of the New South Wales Parliament, which stretched from 11pm to 6:30am, the government’s Conversion Practices Ban Bill 2024 was going through the final processes. With 22 votes in favour and four against, the bill passed, fulfilling the pre-election promise made by the Minns Labor government.

This landmark legislation introduces criminal and civil penalties targeting individuals and groups engaged in harmful practices aimed at altering or suppressing the sexual orientation or gender identity of LGBTQ individuals, commonly referred to as conversion “therapy.”

The Act defines a conversion practice as a practice, treatment, or sustained effort to change or suppress an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity. An offense has occurred when conversion practices cause mental or physical harm, has endangered the individual’s life, or is substantial. There are both criminal and civil consequences, depending on the level of harm, with a maximum penalty of imprisonment for up to five years for criminal offenses.

Rocky road

The journey toward this legislative milestone mirrors the challenges faced in achieving marriage equality, marked by a lengthy and arduous path.

Initially, awareness had to be created. Most LGBTQ people and others did not know of its existence, or the horrendous harm caused. Often people were getting conversion “therapy” confused with the aversion therapy “treatments” by mental health professionals in the 50s and 60s.

When the movement to ban contemporary “change is possible” practitioners and organisations began in the US in the early 2010s, it was often not well thought out. It was easy to yell ban, ban, ban without thinking through the nuances of various human rights and religious freedoms. Initial laws in the US and some countries only protected minors or only applied in 8 therapy contexts. Having worked in the space for many years, I knew the places and situations where most harm happened  were beyond those parameters.

In 2013, newly elected member for Sydney, Alex Greenwich lodged a motion in Parliament on Reparative Therapy, the popular term at the time along with “ex-gay”. He concluded with “I believe we should move to protect vulnerable people coming to terms with their sexuality, promote real support and acceptance within faith communities and schools, and outlaw this futile and damaging practice”. The motion was handed over to the government inquiry into the promotion of false or misleading health-related information or practices. Our submissions were overwhelmed by the many submissions for and against alternative/new age approaches to medical practice. It went nowhere.

By 2020, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory led the charge in enacting legislation to prohibit sexual orientation change efforts and impede attempts to suppress transgender individuals’ transition. Victoria followed with the introduction of the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill. Although varying in specifics, the overarching intent remained consistent: to protect LGBTQ individuals from harm and ensure accountability for those perpetuating such practices.

The harm

I’ve been working with “ex-gay”, reparative and conversion “therapy” survivors for over two decades through online forums and support organisations I founded. In 2004, my autobiography, A Life of Unlearning, which included my 1972 conversion “therapy” story, was released. Immediately my inbox filled with emails, beginning with “your story is my story”. I’ve estimated that since 2000, I’ve worked with over 4000 survivors of religious LGBTQ conversion practices. The evidence of harm  was abundantly clear to me. Repeatedly, I was hearing stories of depression, anxiety, grief, trauma, thoughts of suicide, and attempts. Some had spent many years attempting to change or suppress their true selves, and many were living with long-term impacts.

One of the most disturbing messages I received was from Matt, who said,

“Between 14 and 30 I tried to get rid of the gay through “ex-gay”, conversion “therapy” programs. When I turned thirty, I realised the futility of those efforts. Around 32 to 33, I became happy that I was gay. I’m 34 now. Half of my life seems wasted. I made a lot of friends in my years of conversion therapy. Out of forty, only six are still alive (one died naturally, the rest suicide.)

It should be noted that ALL mental health professional organisations have opposed LGBTQ conversion practices as ineffective and harmful. In 2017, in a surprising move, the Australian Christian Counsellors Association, added “Counsellors shall not do therapeutic interventions aimed at modifying or changing the sexual orientation of clients” to their code of ethics.

In an even greater surprising move, Kanishka de Silva Raffel, the Archbishop of Sydney Anglican Diocese, which has been notoriously anti-gay, stated in a recent article that  the “Sydney Anglican Church expressed its opposition to harmful ‘conversion therapies’. It had become apparent from the testimony of survivors that some groups, including Christian faith groups, have employed harmful practices in an attempt to change or suppress feelings of attraction to the same sex, or gender dysphoria”.

Yes, statements were made at the 2018 Synod that reflected a change in approach. What the Archbishop failed to mention was that Sydney Anglicans had promoted and supported the “ex-gay” organisation, Liberty Christian Ministries which had “employed harmful practices”. It had been one of the top three conversion “therapy” organisations in Australia for over 20 years. Unlike Exodus in the US, there has never been an apology for the damage and wasted years participants experienced. I know how substantial that has been as I was often the first person their “failures” came to.

The opposition

Opposition to the Bill was muted considering how volatile debates on the topic can be. Those who opposed the Bill seemed to have missed the point. First, the LGBTQ conversion movement is based on completely erroneous and outdated beliefs.

If you are LGBTQ, you don’t need fixing. You are not sick, broken, and in need of healing. You are not unnatural or abnormal. If people have a problem with you being who you are, it’s their problem. They are the ones that need to change. It’s now half a century since the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the list of pathologies in 1973. Catch up.

Speeches against the Bill were predictable. A few showed they were out of touch with the issue and debate by referring to the cruel aversion treatments used on homosexuals in the 50s and 60s.

Some suggested parents will be criminalised for having conversations with their children about their values. Read the research!!! Read the Bill!!! Nothing can happen unless harm is evident. What parent wants to harm their child? We already consider that a criminal offence.

Others claimed people will be thrown in gaol for their religious beliefs about sexuality and gender. Once again, according to the legislation, you can’t be sent to gaol for speaking about or preaching an outdated belief. Outdated beliefs are preached and taught regularly in conservative religious circle. For example, a belief that women aren’t equal to men or that people can’t have sex before marriage. Saying people will be imprisoned for saying queer people are flawed and outside God’s kingdom is nothing more than fear mongering. However, people who target an individual and make a sustained effort to change or suppress their sexual orientation or gender identity and cause harm will have gone too far.

It’s not over

Since the government consultation on the legislation opened in August 2023, it has been a busy time. Meetings with politicians, reconnecting with survivors, encouraging them to share their stories (always a challenge), supporting them through the process, follow up….lots of follow up.

There have been many special moments. The most rewarding has been seeing the impact survivors’ stories have had. I’ve seen politicians moved to tears, government policy makers and bureaucrats the same. Seasoned gay rights professionals deeply touched as we’ve worked together to create legislation that embodies a commitment to protecting vulnerable individuals and fostering a more inclusive society free from the harmful impacts of conversion practices.

There is much to do over the next twelve months to prepare for the Bills enactment.

Ultimately, this legislation doesn’t change ignorance or prejudice. Those are changed through education, LGBTQ people living openly and authentically and a willingness to engage in respectful dialogues.

Read more Behind the Scenes HERE.

Anthony Venn-Brown OAM

In a former life, Anthony Venn-Brown was a high-profile Pentecostal preacher in Australia’s Pentecostal megachurches. His bestselling autobiography, ‘A Life of Unlearning’, details his 22-year struggle through gay conversion “therapy”, exorcisms and marriage trying NOT to be gay. Anthony has become a respected LGBTQ community leader and thought leader in the area of faith, sexuality, and gender identity. He is the founder and CEO of Ambassadors & Bridge Builders International (ABBI) which provides  resources and training in both religious and LGBTQ circles. In 2020, Anthony received the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for service to the LGBTIQ community.