Conversion practices used to change or suppress sexuality or gender identity

LGBTIQA+ South Australians are deeply concerned about harmful and damaging conversion practices continuing in South Australia today.

In 2021 SARAA surveyed 623 LGBTIQA+ South Australians and their allies in partnership with our friends at Equality Australia to develop our community’s Vision for SA Pride 2030.

Ending harmful and damaging conversion practices that try to change or suppress our sexuality or gender identity was our communities most important issue, with 85% of participants rating this as extremely or very important.

With legislative bans on conversion practices in place in Victoria, Queensland and ACT, South Australian leaders must act to protect our LGBTQA+ communities from harm.

Our position statement explains what conversion practices are, what damage they do to LGBTIQA+ people, that conversion practices still happen today and what we must do to stop them.

What are conversion practices?

When most hear the words ‘conversion practices’ in relation to sexual/romantic orientation and gender identity, many picture false assumptions of LGBTQA+ people laying on chaise longues being subjected to psychoanalytic therapy, being sent off to summer camps where they “pray the gay away”, or receiving electroconvulsive shock treatment.

They might also assume that the idea of trying to alter someone’s sexuality or gender is something of the past.

In reality, we know that conversation practices involve a broad range of subtle and insidious techniques that continue today, legally, right here in South Australia.

Conversion practices (also know as “ex-gay” or “ex-trans” conversion “therapy”) seek to change or supress a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender and sexual expression. They are also sometimes refered to as Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity Change Efforts (SOGICE).

Conversion practices are underpinned by ideologies that view LGBTQA+ people as broken and assert that LGBTQA+ people can be “healed” to live ‘healthy heterosexual’ lives or with a gender identity consistent with their sex assigned at birth. They encourage us to live “sexually pure” lives through celibacy or abstinence and ultimately aim for LGBTQA+ people to change their orientation, gender identity or de-transition.

These practices are extremely damaging and not at all therapeutic, therefore our community uses the term ‘conversion practices’ instead of ‘conversion therapy’.

Clinical or therapeutic formal methods of conversion practices such as conversion organisations, behavioural and psychoanalytic therapies and clinical interventions have now largely ceased after being denounced by numerous professional health and human rights bodies including the Australian Psychological Society and Australian Medical Association.

Yet conversion practices and ideologies are still perpetuated in informal community settings. These practices are often complex and nuanced practices that can range from subtle to overt and occur in a range of forms that can include:

  • counseling in secular unregulated counseling services 
  • spiritual mentoring or pastoral care led by a person in power that regularly reflects conversion ideologies
  • informal prayer between peers or support groups that reflect conversion ideologies 
  • sermons or textual studies that focus on “traditional gender roles” with the implication that variance from these roles indicates deviance or brokenness
  • removal of the LGBTQA+ person from leadership to encourage “personal development” in the area of their sexuality or gender
  • disowning of the LGBTQA+ person from their faith community and family until they express a change in orientation.

While conversion practices can take place in religious environments, their underpinning ideology is not unique to faith-based settings. Therefore it is important that legislative action is taken to protect LGBTQA+ people from this outdated and damaging ideology, wherever it may occur.

For more information about conversion practises and ideologies we strongly recommend reading the work of survivor led advocacy groups such as The Brave Network, and affirming the SOGICE Survivor Statement.

How are conversion practices harmful to LGBTIQA+ people?

Psychological research has produced overwhelming clinical evidence that practices aimed at the reorientation of LGBT people not only do not work, but are extremely damaging to the long-term health and happiness of LGBTIQA+ people.

A 2018 joint report from the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society and the Human Rights Law Centre shares the voices and lived experiences of 15 LGBT people with experiences of conversion therapy. It found that all participants shared the following experiences:

  1. Each person knew from an early age that they were same-sex attracted or transgender.
  2. Faith and service to their respective faith communities was at the centre of their lives during the period they were subject to gay conversion and related therapies.
  3. Each person carries deep grief, and, in some cases anger, over being told they were “broken” and needed fixing.
  4. All have experienced a profound sense of loss at the lives they had taken away from them.

More broadly, research shows that survivors of conversion practices commonly experiencing:

  • PTSD symptoms related to religious trauma
  • severe mental health difficulties, including increased likelihood of thinking about self-harm, enacting self-harm, thinking about suicide and attempting suicide
  • difficulty forming relationships
  • difficulties with sexual function
  • feelings of guilt at the trauma they put others through, including other LGBT people they encouraged to engage in conversion activities
  • deep sorrow at the hurt and conflicts experienced by those who had married a partner of the opposite sex in attempts to achieve reorientation 
  • becoming estranged from members of their families
  • moral injury, or spiritual harm, for example deep sorrow at the loss of their faith community, or living with a continual tension, experiencing varying degrees of rejection from both their LGBT and their religious communities.

Do conversion practices still happen in Australia?

Damaging conversion practices have no place in modern Australia, yet continue today. Indeed, the Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice report estimates up to 10% of LGBTQA+ Australians are still vulnerable to harmful conversion therapy practices.

SARAA is frequently contacted by members of our community who have experienced conversion practices in South Australia, predominantly in conservative religious settings.

Often these community members are young and their experiences of conversion practices are recent, occurring within the last 5-10 years. They’re often unable to speak publicly about their experiences for fear of being outed or damaging relationships with family, friends and other members of their faith community.

Our experience is reflected in a 2018 investigation undertaken by Fairfax Media which found:

Gay conversion has been discredited as ineffective, damaging, even dangerous. But across Australia, organisations who believe that LGBTI people can or should change are hard at work.

Conversion practices are hidden in evangelical churches and ministries, taking the form of exorcisms, prayer groups or counselling disguised as pastoral care.

They’re also present in some religious schools or practised in the private offices of health professionals.

They’re pushed out through a thriving network of courses and mentors in the borderless world of cyberspace, cloaked in the terminology of “self improvement” or “spiritual healing”.

And they’re causing real harm.

More recently, researchers from the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society interviewed 35 survivors of LGBTQA+ conversion practices and 18 mental health practitioners to improve understandings of the experiences of recovery for Australians who have been harmed by LGBTQA+ change and suppression practices. This report concludes:

As social and political recognition of the continued harms of LGBTQA+ change and suppression practices continues to grow, concern is shifting from demonstrating the ethical problems with these practices to enhancing the supports for survivors of these practices to heal and recover. …

More clearly than previous studies, this report articulates the severity and complexity of harm experienced by survivors in the terms of complex trauma and PTSD. For survivors who seek formal mental health or counselling support for recovery, this process is often longterm

Despite our lived experience of conversion practices, it’s difficult to get accurate figures on the prevalence of conversion practices. There are limited studies of the prevalence of conversion therapy in contemporary Australia. Conversion practices are often clandestine in nature and it often takes a long period of time for a survivor to come to terms with what happened to them. Even when this processing has occurred, shame and guilt may still prevent a survivor from speaking out about their experience. This self-blame may be particularly potent for survivors who recruited other people into conversion practices as part of their engagement with the ideology. 

What does SA Pride on this issue look like in 2030?

We need laws to ensure LGBTIQA+ people in South Australia are protected against conversion practices – attempts to change or suppress a person’s sexuality or gender identity.

This law reform should be accompanied by a suite of comprehensive policy measures that respond to the issue of conversion practices in South Australia including:

  • redress and support for survivors
  • funding for research to understand the nature and extent of conversion practices
  • explicitly prohibiting conversion practices in schools, especially in relation to school chaplaincy programs
  • education about conversion practices and it’s connection to child protection and safety
  • sustained measures to support cultural change, such as education and training informed by the experience of survivors.

SARAA affirms the SOGICE Survivor Statement and calls on South Australian leaders to implement its recommendations.

SARAA also urges legislators to consider the ideal legislative model with reference to the Human Rights Law Centre 2018 report ‘Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice: Responding to LGBT conversion therapy in Australia’.

Explanatory notes

People with intersex variations and conversion practices

SARAA has removed the “I” when discussing conversion practices to reflect that conversion practices primarily reflect religious ideologies focused on sexual orientation and gender identity, not intersex variation.

As our friends at Intersex Human Rights Australia state in their Statement on the Religious Discrimination Bills package ‘Historically, people with intersex variations have not been subjected to religiously motivated discrimination in the same way as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people’.

Medical interventions performed on people with an intersex variation without their consent aren’t generally labelled ‘conversion practices’.

See SARAA’s position statement on ‘Ending medically unnecessary treatments on intersex people without their personal consent’ for more information.

 

Authorised by K Vincent for the South Australian Rainbow Advocacy Alliance Inc, Adelaide.

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