This week the Human Rights Law Centre, La Trobe University, and Gay and Lesbian Health Victoria released a comprehensive 80-page report on conversion therapy practices in Australia. What it found was harrowing.

Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice: responding to LGBT conversion therapy in Australia details how conversion therapy emerged in conservative Christian communities in Australia in the 1970s, and how since then conversion practices have irreparably harmed many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans and gender diverse Australians.

The report includes the stories of Australians who experienced conversion practices between 1986 and 2016.

As I read their stories, I was moved by their profound grief, pain, and self-doubt as they struggled to reconcile who they were with what their faith told them they should be.

Most LGBT adults in Australia have at some point in their childhood or adolescence been made to feel they aren’t right.

This may happen in church or school, or may be accidental when friends or family aren’t aware of your sexuality or gender identity and say insensitive things. Often times after you come out, friends and family will apologise, and you learn that it’s a pretty common experience.

It does stay with you though, and you usually don’t have to go much below the surface to see the damage it does.

Conversion therapy is the systematic, deliberate, and prolonged attempt by organised groups to let you know you are broken and need to be fixed.

It is widely accepted by reputable medical and psychological bodies that it doesn’t work in changing your sexuality or gender identity. It does, however, work at causing harm that stays with you for life.

Much of the psychological distress among religious LGBT people comes from being told their sexual orientation or gender identity is incompatible with their religious beliefs. It must be said most religious people disagree with this sentiment, including an increasing number of clergy, and they welcome LGBT people into their congregations and faith with open arms.

While not as prevalent as they once were, unfortunately, conversion practices continue to occur in Australia.

Australia is obligated to put an end to conversion practices because they breach international human rights law. They violate the right to health, the right to non-discrimination, and can even constitute torture or ill treatment when administered on children or by force.

These harmful change efforts are not in the best interests of children.

The Australian Medical Association, Australian Psychological Society, Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia, Royal Australasian College of Physicians, and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists are all opposed to conversion practices due to their being harmful and not based on medical evidence.

We know conversion practices are human rights violations. We know they are harmful. We know they are happening, and we know when performed on children they are a form of child abuse.

Given all we know one thing is clear: we have to do something to protect our kids.

As the report released today recommends, conversion practices should be prohibited when conducted by professionals such as doctors, teachers, and social workers, or by any person when such practices target minors or people vulnerable to coercion, including those with cognitive impairments or intellectual disabilities.

The report also recommends that any attempt to take someone out of the country for the purposes of conversion therapy be criminalised; that conversion practices be identified as reportable conduct for the purposes of child safety; that health professionals be provided training in the risks and harms of conversion practices; and that more research into conversion practices be funded.

In all, the report makes 11 recommendations for Australian governments to better protect Australians from harmful conversion practices. These recommendations should be adopted in full and promptly implemented.

The report on conversion therapy comes on the back of the leaked religious freedom review recommendations which has resulted in a bipartisan commitment to remove exemptions under anti-discrimination laws that allow LGBT children to be harmed through discrimination.

As the Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice Report released this week shows, and as any survivor of conversion practices will tell you, these change efforts are also harmful.

If Australian governments are serious about protecting LGBT+ children, then they need to protect them from these practices as well.

Difference is not a defect. Being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or gender diverse is not a choice.  

The choice our politicians are faced with today is whether to do the right thing and fix our broken laws that are failing to protect LGBT people, or whether they continue to treat LGBT kids as wedge issues and do the bare, politically convenient minimum.

Simon Ruth is the CEO of Thorne Harbour Health, formerly the Victorian AIDS Council.

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