(NEWS.AU) – A shocking new report has detailed the extent of gay conversion therapy in Australia.
The landmark report, conducted by La Trobe University and the Human Rights Law Center, highlights disturbing testimonies from people who went through a form of gay conversion therapy — some willingly, others by force — in an attempt to become straight.
Human rights groups have universally condemned the practice for the deeply harmful physical, psychological and emotional impact it has on those who take part.
Gay conversion therapy emerged in the early 1970s, with religious leaders claiming it was possible to “free one’s self” from homosexuality through their faith.
In 1978, Peter Lane founded Liberty Ministry — Australia’s first “ex-gay” ministry — although the report suggests conversion therapy programs were offered prior to this.
Such practices mostly emerged from conservative Protestant Christian communities, although the researchers note it can be found in all the major religions.
The programs entailed various activities aimed at “repairing” one’s sexual orientation, in defiance of medical, psychiatric and psychological practice.
By the early 1990s, the ex-gay movement had gone global, and by 2002 in Australia and New Zealand, there were over 30 ex-gay ministries in operation.
Mary*, now 48 years old, was sent to conversion therapy after she told her mother she was in love with another young woman at her church group.
Her parents and extended family were missionaries and ministers who shut her away in a mental hospital when she was just 17 years old.
She told the researchers she was made to sit in a bath full of ice cubes while Bible verses were read to her over and over again. She was also handcuffed to her bed at night and deprived of sleep.
“Then I remember going into another room … with a surgical table, and being restrained … having an electrode attached to my labia; and images projected onto the ceiling … and a lot of pain from the electrodes; and being left there for quite a long time afterwards, exposed and alone.”
After two weeks, Mary’s father came back to get her. All he said was: “I hope you’ve learned your lesson, and that you never sin like this ever again.”
Mary said it was a long time before she could enjoy loving bodily contact again. “It took me a long time to learn how to enjoy being in my body. Like, I mistrusted it for a very long time … I actively hated it … I had to learn that it was OK to feel pleasure.”
Mark* said he had been aware of his same-sex attraction for as long as he could remember, but he didn’t come out until he was 53.
He had been married to a woman for 30 years and had six children, but they thought he could just “pray away the gay.”
For decades, he attempted to get rid of his same-sex desires, but the task proved impossible. He was deeply immersed in family and church meetings in that time and noted that everyone who received counseling was made to feel like they were the problem.
“It was all this, infantilization — is that the word? … Pointing out that, because I was an undeveloped little child on the inside that (I) was wanting to be nurtured by a man so that I (could) grow and be a straight man … I felt like I was the most sick, abnormal, twisted nut person on the planet.”
“In hindsight, I was a guy who had fallen in love with another guy.”
Counselors gave him the narrative of “overbearing mother, absent father,” and he said at one point, the counselor almost convinced him he had been sexually abused as a child, which he hadn’t.
Frank*, now 44, was part of an ex-gay program two years ago.
He told the researchers his group would meet every two weeks to watch DVD testimonies from ex-gay church leaders. Members would pray together, read different ex-gay testimonies and discuss Bible passages that evangelical Christians used as evidence of homosexuality being a sin.
He also said he’d be forced to lie to counselors who asked him about his progress: “She sort of asked, ‘Are you finding women attractive?’ And I was thinking, deep down, no. And I probably told (her) … ‘Oh yeah, met this girl’ … pleasing everybody but me there.”
He said the overall experience affected his ability to connect with people on an intimate and personal level.
“We hope that these communities will receive the report, reflect on the damage it exposes and work towards ending those harms for their LGBT members,” said Dr. Tim Jones, senior lecturer in history at La Trobe University.
“The report reveals the immense trauma and grief participants felt at the prospect of having to choose between their faith or their gender and sexuality, both intimate and important parts of themselves.”
“The psychological and spiritual trauma experienced by our participants, at their loss of faith, or their struggle to be accepted by their communities, was devastating,” he added.
Anna Brown, director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Center, said the activities were proven to be ineffective and harmful, calling for stronger laws directed at state and federal governments and the health sector.
“We need stronger laws and support for survivors but also education about the harm caused by the cultural ideas and messaging prevalent within faith communities,” she said. “We particularly urge governments across the country to respond to the acute vulnerability of children and young people in religious communities.”
The research estimates that up to 10 percent of LGBT Australians are still vulnerable to these practices.
Today, at least 10 organizations promoting the practice continue to operate in Australia and New Zealand.
The report recommends new state laws prohibiting conversion therapy against minors and prohibiting doctors, social workers and teachers from engaging in any activities that could constitute conversion therapy.
Despite this, as the nation continues to debate freedom of religion, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the debate around gay conversion was “not an issue for him.”
When asked about the practice last month, he told Melbourne radio station 3AW: “I respect people of all sexualities, I respect people of all religions, all faiths. I love all Australians.”
“I’ve never been involved in anything like that, I’ve never supported anything like that, it’s just not an issue for me and I’m not planning to get engaged in the issue.”
Over the weekend, Morrison backflipped on the explosive issue of whether religious schools had a right to reject gay students.
The government pledged to change existing laws to prevent discrimination, by removing the ability of any school to exclude children based on their sexuality.
*Names changed to protect anonymity