Last year Victorian Health Minister Jill Hennessy, above, promised parliament that legislation would be introduced to outlaw quack therapies used almost exclusively by Christian organisations to cure gay people – and this week a powerful new watchdog will be launched to in Victoria to crack down on dodgy health practitioners.
According to this report, the current Health Services Commissioner will be replaced by a new Health Complaints Commissioner (HCC) who will have greater powers to investigate unregistered health practitioners and can receive a complaint from anyone, not just the person treated.
Researchers have found that this form of treatment is more widely practiced in Australia than people thought, because practitioners have gone underground.
The HCC, Hennessy said, will have the power to:
Investigate and crack down on anyone making dangerous and unproven claims that they can ‘convert’ gay people.
This move will particularly please Geoff Ahern, a clinician within a specialised Victoria police unit for mental health emergencies. Ahern, 46, deals with people who are suicidal, acting erratically, or in a state of crisis.
But 10 years ago, he was in a mental health crisis of his own.
Years of gay conversion therapy, which began when Ahern was just 15, had left him in a state of inescapable self-loathing.
Convinced he could be “straight” if he tried – and prayed – hard enough, Ahern underwent numerous counselling sessions at a Sydney Christian Life Centre, part of a group of churches associated with today’s Pentecostal Australian Christian Churches.
In his early twenties, he married a woman, encouraged by the idea that if he settled down and got married, everything would be OK.
But it wasn’t, and Ahern crumbled into a “state of despair”.
He would get home from work and cry himself to sleep in a similar mental state to the people he had just spent hours helping.
I became suicidal myself. I thought, this has got to stop. I can’t do this any more. If you can work so hard and ask God to change you and fix you and he doesn’t, there are two outcomes of that: one, he’s a cold-hearted bastard; or two, there’s actually nothing wrong with me.
Counsellor Matt Glover, who specialises in treating LGBTI people from church backgrounds, said the underground nature of ex-gay ideology is particularly concerning when young people are involved.
Glover said Victoria’s expanded powers to tackle conversion therapy will “knock off some of the rougher edges”, but that the insidious nature of ex-gay therapy is tougher to tackle.
It will help, but I don’t know that there’s any way to get into the core of religious communities that place their belief in ideas that are anti-gay.
Victoria’s crackdown on conversion therapy is unprecedented in Australia, and comes after calls in recent years to make the practice illegal.
Conversion therapy is opposed by the Australian Psychological Association, the Australian Medical Association, and the United Nations, among numerous other professional health and human rights bodies. It is deemed ineffective, unethical, and actively harmful.
A Columbia Law School project collating conversion therapy research found that among people who had undergone such treatment, there was a prevalence of depression, anxiety, social isolation, decreased capacity for intimacy, and suicidal thoughts and behaviours.
The researchers concluded:
There is powerful evidence that trying to change a person’s sexual orientation can be extremely harmful.
Ahern is well-acquainted with the problems that can manifest from stoking this particular inner shame – even if there’s no formal conversion therapy involved.
I assessed a young man a couple of years ago who comes from a conservative, typically Aussie, blue-collar family. When we got to the bottom of his alcoholism and other issues, it was because he was gay and hadn’t told anyone. He said to me, ‘If I told my dad, he would beat the shit out of me.’
Timothy Jones, a researcher at La Trobe University in the final stages of a study into conversion therapy, said he was surprised by how common the practice is in Australia.
It is much more widespread than we thought it was, and much more pervasive than we would have expected.
While most formal conversion therapy groups – such as Exodus or Living Waters – have closed, Jones and co-researcher Liam Leonard found the practice of gay conversion therapy in Australia has continued, mostly in Protestant churches.
The study found a range of therapies, including pastoral counselling, sessions with professional psychologists, online counselling, and group activities. One study participant received electroshock therapy.
What we actually found was that a lot of groups have reorganised themselves, renamed themselves, so looking at them from the outside you wouldn’t know they are doing conversion therapy.
People growing up in the church, at some stage realise they are attracted to people of the same sex, or realise they identify with the gender they were not assigned and want to transition. They will seek advice from a pastor, and the pastor will know someone to refer them to.