Moves to tackle ex-gay conversion therapy

A new research project is aiming to better understand and tackle the harm caused by so-called gay conversion therapy and the ex-gay movement in Australia. 

Ex-gay therapy is a counselling practice aimed at making same-sex attracted people straight, or at least repress expression of their same-sex desires. It is usually offered by religious organisations, to religious clients, but is often run by private counsellors or trained mental health professionals.

The HRLC’s Director of Advocacy, Anna Brown said that the gay conversion practices should be of concern to the community.

“So-called gay conversion or ‘ex-gay’ therapy is alive and well in Australia,” said Ms Brown. 

“This is of real concern because the ex-gay agenda is all about telling vulnerable young people that there is something wrong with them that needs to be cured or beaten out of them. These therapies are often condoned by powerful organisations and groups and are at odds with a society that values and promotes diversity and embraces people for who they are,” added Ms Brown.

Ms Brown is working on the project “Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice: Legal Responses to ‘Gay Conversion’ Therapy” with Liam Leonard (GLHV@ARCSHS, La Trobe University) and Timothy Jones (Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University). The project advisory group includes health experts, LGBTI community and religious leaders and people with lived experience of the ex-gay movement. The HRLC is grateful for pro bono assistance provided by law firm Baker & McKenzie. The project will conduct research into the prevalence and nature of gay conversion therapy and the broader ex-gay movement in Australia, examine bans and other measures adopted overseas and develop recommendations for reform.

“There is an urgent need to better understand the nature and prevalence of these sorts of practices in Australia” said Ms Brown. “We need to understand the harm that these therapies have caused and we also need a sense of how these therapies are part of broader attitudes and practices that continue to undermine same-sex attracted people’s sense of personal value and worth,” added Ms Brown.  

There have been moves to ban certain forms of gay conversion therapy in other jurisdictions, such as certain parts of the United States, but ex-gay counselling and so-called treatments remain largely unregulated in Australia. Part of the problem is that the size, prevalence and nature of the movement in Australia remains unclear.

Nathan Despott, who runs an advocacy network for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people of faith, says that while there are fewer groups now the ex-gay ideology still exists within faith based communities and is entrenched in the messaging conveyed by some churches and synagogues, through Christian radio programs, or via online courses attached to religious ministries. In 2015, Mr Despott approached the HRLC to investigate policy and legal responses for the Australian context.  

The Victorian Government has committed to tackling the issue and has taken steps to crack down on unregulated therapies. As reported in the Sunday Age, the Department of Premier & Cabinet has commissioned the Human Rights Law Centre to prepare a position paper with recommendations for reform based on their research. The Health Minister has also announced that legislation will be introduced into parliament later this year to establish a new watchdog – the Health Complaints Commissioner – with the power to investigate and sanction anyone claiming they can treat homosexuality. 

“These steps are very welcome and we look forward to working with the Government on targeted solutions to protect vulnerable lesbian, gay and bisexual Victorians,” said Ms Brown.

People with experience of gay conversion therapy or who have experience of ex-gay messaging in their community willing to be interviewed for the Ex-Gay research project are encouraged to contact Tim Jones T.Jones@latrobe.edu.au