Does NSW really need to ban gay conversion therapy?
The Australian state of New South Wales is about to launch into a debate over “conversion therapy”. This has been framed as attempts to change people’s sexual orientation from some species of LGBT to heterosexual. Yesterday Alex Greenwich, an independent and an openly gay MP, tabled a Conversion Practices Prohibition Bill 2023 in the NSW lower house. He told Parliament that this was “an unprecedented opportunity to be inclusive, welcoming, safe, affirming and respectful” to the LGBTIQA+ community which he represents.
Loose talk about “conversion practices” conjures up electric shocks, nausea-inducing drugs, exorcisms, ice baths, aversion therapy and so on. There is no evidence of such practices having occurred in Australia for decades. A bill banning them is like a bill banning cruelty to unicorns. It might come in handy if one were discovered in a forgotten valley in the Blue Mountains. But since animal abuse is already covered under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, even then there would be no need for fresh legislation. Similarly, if a conversion practice unicorn started giving people electric shocks, he could be charged with grievous bodily harm.
For instance, there is no NSW law against BDSM even though its practitioners occasionally cause bodily harm or even death. A man practicing BDSM whose case is currently in the courts has been charged with numerous offences, none of them specifically targeting BDSM -- but they will be powerful enough to send him to jail. Despite the evident dangers of this practice, in a spirit of tolerance, earlier this month Sydney hosted a Leather Weekend with live BDSM demonstrations. This drew no comment from Mr Greenwich. And why should it? He is not neglecting his duties; he knows that the present Criminal Code will cover possible offences.
What about people who benefit from 'conversion therapy'?
Complicating the issue is the fact that many people insist that they have been helped, not harmed, by “conversion therapy”. Their perspective on this acrimonious debate has been completely ignored. In 2021, before Victoria passed its own conversion therapy ban, Leah Gray wrote in Mercator:
I am an ex-lesbian, as well as someone who experienced gender dysphoria as a child. Now I am married to a patient and gracious man and have a young son.
Ten years ago I voluntarily sought counsel from Christian psychologists, ministries, support networks and people who had walked before me. It was difficult, but I found relief and happiness. Every step of my journey will become illegal under the Victorian government’s Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill.
For the record, none of these avenues of support were ever harmful or coercive. In fact, the counselling I received saved my life. Ex-LGBT people like me are living proof that real and lasting change is possible, that suicides have been prevented, and that it is good for people to have the freedom to choose the type of help and support they want– including (shock horror) the religious kind.
Ms Gray was the spokesperson for an organisation called Free To Change. In 2021 it published a 116-page survey of LGBT people who had benefited from what she described as “counselling for unwanted homosexual or transgender feelings”. Seventy-eight people participated, 29 of them from Australia.
As the authors of the report pointed out, a single positive case invalidated the need for a conversion practices prohibition bill:
All that is necessary to counter-act their claims that “conversion therapy” is universally damaging and harmful to the extent that it demands criminal legal penalties, is evidence that just one person who experienced unwanted same-sex attraction or just one person who experienced gender dysphoria, has found lasting change and/or relief through counselling.
Mr Greenwich has based most of his inflammatory assertions on research from Latrobe University, notably a 2018 report called “Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice: Responding to LGBT conversion therapy in Australia”. Its claims were based on first-person narratives from 15 people. It’s impossible to know how reliable these witnesses were.
What we do know is that the poster boy for the horrors of “conversion therapy” in the United States, Sam Brinton, was a fraud. His lurid stories of psychological and physical torture have been exposed as an elaborate charade. Believe all survivors? A gay journalist at LGBTQ Nation, Wayne Besen, had the best response to that: “Yes, we should trust, but shouldn’t we also verify?”
There are only 15 stories of victimhood, compared to 78 stories of healing in the Free to Change report. If it’s a number’s game, Leah Gray’s side wins, hands down.
Facts are normally helpful in framing legislation. Mr Greenwich’s First Reading Speech in Parliament was long on rhetoric and short on facts. Mercator fact-checked some of his assertions.
“The NSW LGBTIQ+ Health Strategy 2022-2027 identified significantly poor health and wellbeing outcomes for LGBTIQA+ people in this State due to chronic exposure to discrimination and stigma.”
This is misleading. True, the document cited by Mr Greenwich asserts that mental and emotional distress is largely caused by “persistent exposure to stigma, discrimination, social isolation, and environments that create social anxiety”. But there is no documentation for this claim.
In fact, a link between homophobic stigma and mental health is highly contested in the academic literature. In 2017 a highly cited paper which contended that gay people who were stigmatised had a significantly shorter life expectancy was retracted. Another paper which contended that conversation therapy (called sexual orientation change efforts or SOCE by sociologists) was linked to suicide attempts and suicide was demolished in the prestigious journal Archives of Sexual Behaviour. According to the author, Paul Sullins, conversion therapy doesn’t cause suicide and it could even decrease the risk of suicide.
It would be rash to say that the issue is settled. It’s not.
“[A] 2018 joint report from the Human Rights Law Centre and La Trobe University [found] up to 10 per cent of LGBT Australians vulnerable.”
This requires context. Again, the Latrobe report is vague and unreliable. The figure of 10 percent is meant to be frightening, but it is all but meaningless. What does “vulnerable” mean? How did the researchers hit on 10 percent?
A 2021 La Trobe University report on conversion practices titled “Healing Spiritual Harms: Supporting recovery from LGBTQA+ change and suppression practices” found that survivors commonly experience complex, chronic trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.
This is misleading. Statistically, this is meaningless. How many underwent conversion therapy? How many benefited from it? How many did not? How many regard themselves as survivors? Like the 2018 report, Healing Spiritual Harms was based upon possibly unreliable first-person narratives – 35 of them. How does that compare to the 78 people in the Free to Change survey who benefited?
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“These practices have not disappeared; they have just changed form. The past domain of institutions, psychiatrists and psychologists practising aversion or electroconvulsive therapies and psychoanalysis has morphed into a more subversive approach, often disguised as spiritual healing and mental health support.”
This is false. “These practices” include electric shocks and aversion therapy. Nothing remotely that brutal is happening today. It is false to imply that savage physical or psychological manipulation is taking place. Mr Greenwich doesn’t even bother to offer any proof that it is.
Instead, he redefines harm. He proposes a ban on change or suppression practices which cause “serious injury”, including psychological harm. The text of the bill says that: “Harm to mental health includes psychological harm, but does not include an emotional reaction, including, for example, anger, distress, fear or grief, unless the emotional reaction results in psychological harm.”
This definition is gobbledygook. How can “psychological harm” be distinguished from an “emotional reaction”? Last week the Sydney Morning Herald published interviews with what it called “gay conversion therapy victims”. One told the SMH that “his brush with conversion practices was only fleeting, but it left him with lasting scars”. This experience, which had happened some 15 years before, included chats with a psychiatrist, a priest, and a school mentor. He didn’t like it. Was that just an emotional reaction or was it serious psychological harm?
If harmful “conversion therapy” practices are unicorns, what is the real purpose of Mr Greenwich’s bill?
He sets them out clearly in Clause 3: to have the State Parliament affirm “that a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity is not broken and in need of fixing” and that “no sexual orientation or gender identity constitutes a deficiency, disease, disorder, illness or shortcoming”.
But these are ideological declarations, not facts. If they were facts, they could be demonstrated scientifically and no legislation would be needed. Only ideologies need to be defined by legislation and enforced by the government.
The Conversion Practices Prohibition Bill is reminiscent of the Act of Supremacy which declared Henry VIII supreme head of the Church of England. It creates a new species of heresy and effectively hands over to the LGBTQIA+ lobby “full power and authority from time to time to visit, repress, redress, reform, order, correct, restrain and amend all such errors, heresies, abuses, offences, contempts and enormities, whatsoever they be”.
Is this what an “inclusive, welcoming, safe, affirming and respectful” New South Wales will look like?
Michael Cook is editor of Mercator
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