Australia has the potential to lead the world in eliminating conversion ‘therapy’ and the ‘ex-gay’ and ‘ex-trans’ movement that lies behind it.

An important step was taken in that direction at the end of last year when the Labor national conference dropped its existing policy of simply criminalising conversion therapy in favour of a new policy that targets the ideology behind the movement and proposes a multi-pronged strategy to addressing it.

A similar broader approach has been announced by Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, who called the conversion movement “bigoted quackery” and wants to see it tackled by education as well as legislation.

This broader focus opens the way for the key recommendations of survivor advocates, namely legislation to address practitioners and referrers, protections for children, support for survivors, regulation of the counselling industry, and a public education campaign.

This is in line with the recently-released Human Rights Law Centre and La Trobe University report, “Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice”, as well as the Sexual Orientation Change Efforts (SOCE) Survivor Statement.

The Australian Christian Lobby construed Labor’s policy shift as a victory, but it will rue its short-sighted triumphalism when it understands the implications of the new Labor policy.

Why is Labor’s new, broader focus so important?

In 2018 survivors shared their stories in unprecedented numbers, effectively bringing the conversion movement out of the closet.

While this has been a good thing, much of the focus in the media has been on the practice of formalised conversion therapy, obscuring a fuller view of the broad conversion movement.

As survivors, we want Australians to know it is not just the practice of conversion therapy that is harmful, but that much of the damage is done by the ideology that underpins the pseudo-therapies.

The extent to which this ideology of “brokenness” proliferates in Australia’s evangelical churches cannot be overstated.

Far from a traditional conservative view of LGBT identity as sin, the brokenness ideology has developed into a complex web of (thoroughly debunked) pseudo-scientific claims about the ’causes’ of same-sex attraction and gender identity, and the lives of LGBT people.

Much of the work of survivor advocates has been to expose this ideology as the driving force behind the harm.

It is the ideology that drives professional therapists to subvert their professional standards and work towards ‘healing’ this brokenness in their LGBT clients.

It is the ideology that has led some therapists to focus more on trans children, a group already vulnerable thanks to the high-profile attacks on their legitimacy and rights by politicians and religious leaders.

Conversion ideology is far beyond the bounds of conventional theology, yet we increasingly see conservative religious bodies refer to it as central to their faith and their religious freedom.

We urge Australians to see beyond these pious proclamations.

Through the work we have done in recent years in petitioning the government to act, through survivor support group Brave Network Melbourne, and through the recently-released Human Rights Law Centre and La Trobe University report “Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice”, a clear picture has emerged of the consequences of the conversion movement.

Poor mental health that lingers years after leaving the movement, difficulty in relationships, poor sexual function, profoundly damaged self-esteem, depression, self-loathing and suicidal ideation are just some of the most common long-term consequences for survivors.

The impact on the lives of survivors has been profound and the support they now require from genuine therapists and groups like Brave will last for many years.

Reference to criminal sanctions has been removed from Federal Labor’s new policy pending further elaboration of the party’s full strategy.

The question of penalties and deterrents is yet to be fully debated, particularly the issue of whether there should be criminal sanctions for referring to, or practising, conversion therapy.

Determining what penalties should apply is about protecting the LGBT community and ensuring a clear message is sent to perpetrators.

Recently in Malta, criminal sanctions were applied to those who enable conversion practices as well as those who refer people to those practices.

The view of Brave Network and the authors of the reports into the conversion movement released last year is that both classes of people are equally responsible for harm.

The ramifications of criminal penalties are significant because the vast majority of referrers are church leaders who engage in pastoral care of LGBT people in their churches and who wilfully extol conversion ideology.

In the past, this kind of discussion would land advocates right in the middle of a contentious religious freedom debate.

However, as our awareness of conversion ideology and the damage it causes grows, it is becoming clear that a debate about criminal sanctions cannot and should not be avoided.

In this regard, we are pleased the office of Shadow Health Minister, Catherine King, has confirmed criminal sanctions have not necessarily been ruled out as part of a multi-faceted response.

We also pleased that reports of the Victorian Government’s initiative say criminal sanctions will be an option as debate about appropriate penalties continues.

While the voices of survivors and community advocates must remain central to the conversion therapy debate, so extensive has been the damage inflicted on the LGBTIQ community by the conversion movement that we believe the community should collectively decide the next steps.

This is evidenced by recent surveys showing that stopping conversion therapy is the top-most concern for LGBTIQ Australians.

For now, survivors will celebrate recent steps forward that recognise the damage caused by conversion ideology as well as practice, and that provides broad solutions, not only law reform.

But we will continue to fight for a strong and effective response to the conversion movement.

Nathan Despott is co-leader of the Brave Network, a support and advocacy group for LGBTI people of faith. Both he and Chris Csabs are conversion therapy survivors.

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