The 2020 Midsumma Pride March in Melbourne. (Photo: Jeremy Gan)
“People do forget that we are talking about human beings that have had the courage to come forward and report that they’ve been extremely damaged. We’ve told our deepest darkest secrets to the public in the hope we can get some help, that by telling our stories people will listen and say ‘you know what, this is something we need to act on’.”
Those are the words of Sydney’s Chris Csabs, co-founder of SOGICE - Survivors (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Change Efforts) - and survivor of conversion practices.
Predominantly occurring in religious and faith settings, conversion practices are the attempts to change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. In Australia, the movement began on the coattails of the sexual revolution and gay rights movement of the ’70s and ’80s. Its driving ideology is to conform LGBTIQ+ people to binary roles of straight men or women, who identify with their gender at birth, thus fulfilling their natural purpose in God’s eyes. It upholds the belief that sexuality and identity is a choice and could be healed. For Csabs, a member of the LGBTIQ+ community who retained his faith, it’s pivotal in understanding the difference between theology and ideology – or, as he put it: “regular good old-fashioned religious homophobia or transphobia versus conversion ideology”.
“I’m not saying that someone’s belief that ‘homosexuality is sinful’ is a conversion practice,” Csabs said. “It’s not helpful and it can do harm to people, but it’s not actually conversion practice. It becomes a conversion practice when it’s attached to the ideology.”
To list just a few, the practices can entail prayer groups, Christian counselling, and pastoral care aimed at suppression or change of sexual orientation or gender identity. But, as Csabs says, it “wasn’t the practices that actually harmed me”.
“What hurt me was the fact that I’d grown up with this messaging from childhood that taught me that homosexuality was a form of brokenness,” he said. “It taught me to believe that if someone was homosexual, they were sick. It taught me to believe that homosexuality could be caused by a demon.”
These practices and beliefs are viewed as pseudoscience by the scientific, psychological and psychiatric communities. In 2015, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights categorised conversion practices as “torture and ill-treatment”. Just to name a few, the Australian Psychological Society, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, the Royal College of Psychiatrists (London), and the World Health Organisation oppose and condemn conversion practices.
Ex-leaders of conversion practice – or ‘ex-gay’ – movements are renouncing their views, with the latest being Randy Thomas who lobbied far-right leaders in the USA – such as Kellyanne Conway and George W. Bush – against LGBTIQ+ rights.
READ: (2014) Nine Former Ex-Gay Leaders Join Movement to Ban Gay Conversion Therapy In Australia, it resulted in this: on the 13th of August, Queensland became the first state in Australia to criminalise conversion practices after state politicians voted to make the practice illegal.
The new legislation imposes a maximum penalty of 18 months prison (or 150 penalty units) on healthcare professionals who practice conversion procedures on vulnerable people, with all other offences carrying a maximum of 12 months prison time.
Queensland’s Deputy Premier and Minister for Health and Ambulance Services Steven Miles said it is “time to send a clear message” opposing conversion practices, labelling them “unacceptable” and having “no place in Queensland’s healthcare system”.
“Being LGBTIQ is not an affliction or a disease that requires treatment,” he said while addressing Parliament. “An ideology that treats LGBTIQ people as broken or damaged has no place in our community.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the bill was met with opposition from the Australian Christian Lobby, with Queensland director Wendy Francis stating the legislation will have a “highly detrimental impact” on health service providers, whilst also adding the bill “represents a loss of parents' rights to affirm the birth sex of a gender-confused child”.
However, the bill was also met with opposition from survivors of conversion practices, because of the glaring problem with the wording: “healthcare professionals”.
This leaves a huge loophole open for conversion practices to continue unabated in the settings of pastoral care and within the faith community. This is an issue that doesn’t provide an overwhelming amount of quantitative data, but what it does provide is anecdotal evidence.
Marchers wave rainbow flags at the 2020 Midsumma Pride March in Melbourne. (Photo: Jeremy Gan)
Asked if there was anything good to come out of the new legislation in Queensland, Csabs emphatically responds: “no”.
“I feel like they have ignored our voices in it. They’ve passed legislation that just ticks a box,” he said. “It’s not protective – what’s it going to do?”
“The message I get when I see that is like ‘you can’t do this if you’re a professional, but you can still do it (if you’re not).”
At face value, Queensland’s bill appears to be confronting the issue but in reality, it ignores all the anecdotal evidence stemming from survivor groups that, for the main part, conversion practices occur outside of healthcare settings in pastoral care.
“It’s important for governments – and anyone working on this issue – to remember survivors have done an incredible amount of emotional labour here,” Csabs said. “Some of us have told our stories over, and over, and over again.”
“We’re the ones who are going to know what’s going to work and what’s not.”
It is these anecdotes from survivors that the public and politicians alike must listen to if the issue of conversion practices outside of formal settings is to be properly dealt with.
Csabs is worried about the “terrible” precedent this bill might set for other states if they seek to model their efforts off of Queensland’s, labelling it “potentially dangerous”.
“I can’t feel positive about it,” he said. “I wish I could. I remember when it passed, part of me felt like I had to celebrate. I felt a lot of pressure to be happy, but how can I be when I know it’s not going to help?”
There are already significant movements occurring within Australia surrounding the outlawing of conversion practices. On the 27th of August, the ACT banned it under the ‘Sexual and Gender Identity Conversion Practices Bill’, which Csabs said he’s “really happy” about, but there were still things “survivors wished were better”.
The Victorian Government held an inquiry into conversion therapy that started in 2018 and finished on the 1st of February 2019. Karen Cusack, the Health Complaints Commissioner, stated in the report: “I recommend that the Minister considers introducing legislation to prohibit conversion therapy/practices, and supports for survivors of conversion therapy/practices, which may include resourcing for counselling/support services for those survivors.”
“The great thing about Victoria,” Csabs said, “is they’ve put so much work into getting it right. It’s been a lengthy process, several years in the making, and I think that’s something I wish Queensland would have been willing to do more of.”
The movement to outlaw conversion practices is picking up steam across the globe. Numerous states in the USA already prohibit the practice along with countries such as Brazil and Germany. However, as Csabs notes, more needs to be done to ensure conversion practices cannot continue under all settings.
“Just passing a law to say ‘you can’t do gay conversion practices’ isn’t actually going to do anything,” Csabs said. “We’ve got to go deeper. We have to really examine this issue and figure out where the harm is occurring.”
“It’s very difficult to understand the issue for anyone who didn’t grow up LGBTIQ+ in a faith community because the issue is so nuanced.”
The list of recommendations made by SOGICE Survivors to fix conversion practices can be read here.
Sign Chris’ petition here: https://www.change.org/p/praying-the-gay-away-nearly-killed-me-outlaw-lgbtqa-conversion-therapy/u/27531361
If you need to find support or someone to talk to, visit www.qlife.org.au or call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Survivors of conversion practices are also encouraged to reach out for support at www.thebravenetwork.org.