Gay conversion ban leaves many questions unanswered

In a number of countries, there are moves to ban LGBTQI+ conversion practices, or as they used to be called, “gay conversion therapy”. In Australia, bans have been enacted in Victoria, the Australian Capital Territory (Canberra), and Queensland.

The government of the state of New South Wales, where Sydney is located, has also promised to introduce a ban. This is opposed not only by churches but by feminist groups.

A consultation paper dated July 31, “Banning LGBTQ+ Conversion Practices”, still has not been released. However, Mercator has obtained a copy. It’s an extraordinarily superficial document which seems to be based largely on pamphlets composed in an LGBTQI+ echo chamber. It needs to be thoroughly critiqued before MPs are asked to vote on a bill.

A first question: what are “conversion practices”?

The consultation paper says that: LGBTQ+ conversion practices is [sic] an umbrella term for practices that seek to change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity to conform with heterosexuality and identify with the gender that corresponds with their sex assigned at birth (i.e. to be cisgender)."

Under this umbrella fall common practices like dressing boy babies in blue and girls in pink. Or buying girls dolls and boys Lego. Will the government ban this insidious mind control as well?

How about parents, teachers, counsellors and doctors who support children in changing their gender identity? Isn’t transgender counselling for kids who cannot give fully informed consent a form of conversion practice? Will that be banned?

A second question: are conversion practices harmful?

In a free society practices are not criminalised unless there is evidence that they actually do harm people. Even Nazis skinheads are allowed to think ugly thoughts inside their tattooed skulls. So the consultation paper declares that: “Evidence shows that conversion practices are dangerous and damaging”.

The consultation paper lists three broad areas of conversion practices. The first two are talking therapies and prayer. These are “dangerous and damaging”? Come on; pull the other one.

The third is physical abuse. Aversion therapies using electric shock and nausea-inducing medication, “corrective rape”, kidnapping and forced isolation are abhorrent. But is this happening now in Australia? Footnotes in the consultation paper refer to the existence of such practices elsewhere but not here. This puts the NSW Parliament in the awkward position of banning something because it might be happening in Uganda. Next up will be a ban on poaching elephants and giraffes.

A third question: do conversion practices actually help some people?

The problem with most research on conversion practices, American psychologist Christopher Rosik suggested last year in the peer-reviewed journal Archives of Sexual Research, is that it is based only upon interviews with people who identify as members of an LGBT+ minority. (In academia, conversion practices are often called Sexual Orientation Change Efforts, or SOCE.)

If people who claim to have experienced harm are taken only from this group, the fraction of “victim-survivors” may be impressively large. But in fact, the denominator ought to be much more extensive. It should include LGBT+ people who had SOCE and did not experience harm plus people who do not identify as LGBT+ (or who no longer do) who had SOCE and did not experience harm.

As Rosik says, “The situation may well be akin to assessing the benefits and harms of marital therapy using only participants recruited through divorce support groups. The SOCE experiences of LGB + -identified persons are of course important to document, but they must not be overgeneralized in a rush to advocate for certain policy prescriptions.”

In Australia, the voices of people who have benefited from SOCE or conversion practices have been silenced. They have been left out of the denominator.



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A fourth question: is there evidence of harm from counselling and prayer?

The consultation paper claims that: “The overwhelming medical evidence has concluded that conversion practices cause significant harms for participants.” This includes “Heightened suicidal ideation and suicide attempts”.

It would have been better if the authors of the paper said that the “medical consensus” was overwhelming rather than the evidence. As we have pointed out before in Mercator, the theory that SOCE is associated with suicide ideation and attempts has been debunked. Most studies don’t take into account the fact that some people are suicidal before they request help from a therapist. They overlook an elementary rule of social research: correlation is not causation.    

The consultation paper claims that: “There is no backed [sic] scientific or medical evidence which indicates that conversion practices are in fact able to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity”. This is false. Some people do benefit.

Before the Victorian government passed its ban, Leah Gray, a former lesbian, wrote in Mercator:

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.

There is a lively debate in academic journals about whether talking therapies or religious consultation can help people overcome unwanted same-sex attraction. The footnotes in the consultation paper mostly refer to pamphlets by activist groups, not to the academic literature. The government has made no attempt to assess arguments against bans.

A fifth question: is scepticism about LGBTQI+ really hateful?

The belief that sex is so powerful and precious that it should take place only between men and women in a stable marriage is held by three-quarters of the world and was the received wisdom for all of recorded history -- until yesterday afternoon. It is not a bizarre “ideology”.

And there are many people who affirm this traditional belief but who are nonetheless troubled by unwanted same-sex attraction. Why shouldn’t they have the right to seek help in a humane fashion? As sociologist Paul Sullins wrote earlier this year in the Archives of Sexual Behavior:It is a perverse form of bigotry that insists that tolerance of adopting a same-sex orientation requires intolerance of adopting a heterosexual orientation.”

He argues eloquently that:

“ …most SOCE therapy is freely chosen by religiously-committed persons or persons in a heterosexual relationship whose goal is greater personal wholeness, which may or may not involve a diminution of same-sex attraction or change of sexual identification. To allow individuals to freely seek to function more heterosexually is not to ‘seek to eradicate same-sex sexual orientations’ from society any more than helping some persons learn to swim is an attempt to eradicate walking from society.”

A sixth question: what’s at stake?

Stopping young gays and lesbians from being physically traumatised is the purported reason for a ban on conversion practices. But the real reason is to formally repudiate, in the words of the NSW Department of Communities and Justice, “the ideology that LGBTQ+ people have a disorder or require treatment”. In other words, it seeks to enshrine in law the idea that there is no ethically correct or natural avenue for sexual expression.

If this is the case, doesn’t this make the NSW government an enemy of the privileged status of heterosexuality and traditional marriage in our society?

Michael Cook is editor of Mercator.

Image credit: Pexels 

What do you think about opposition to a “conversion therapy” ban? A moral panic? Or an important issue? Tell us in the comments box below. (You might have to sign in and set up a password.) 

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  • mrscracker
    Aversion therapies have been used for addiction recovery. Snapping a rubber band on one’s wrist is a popular way to end unwanted habits. I don’t think aversion therapy is always a bad thing.