Australian Senator Janet Rice gave a moving speech on the traumatizing effects of so-called conversion therapy in an effort to mobilize legislators to criminalize the practice.
The Victorian senator, who addressed the Senate on Thursday, shared the experience of a boy she called Chris, who was subjected to conversion therapy. According to Rice’s telling, Chris knew he was gay by the age of 10. He came out to a local church leader, and by 16 he began meeting with a counselor who tried to "convert" him to heterosexuality.
“His story is one that highlights how destructive, how damaging this so-called ‘therapy’ is and why we need to stamp out this harmful practice one and for all,” Rice said.
Chris was “convinced he needed to be ‘cured’ of his sexuality” and eventually relenting to trying a gay conversion therapy program at an organization called Living Waters Australia.
Living Waters Australia is one of the longest run conversion therapy programs in the country, with origins tracing back to the 1970s. Its mission statement includes “globally educating God’s people in the principles of biblical evangelism” through “strategic conferences, academic and practical training opportunities, networking platforms, and the production and dissemination of various printed and audio/visual media.”
During Chris's therapy, members would gather weekly to confess their “sins” and recant; they'd also discuss what transpired spiritually and experientially that had supposedly “made” them gay.
“He speaks of being so ashamed and guilt-ridden than he remained completely celibate for years,” Rice said. “In his words, ‘it was a really lonely way to live, really, but that’s what I felt I had to do.’”
Chris was led to believe that there were demons inside him, and he would pray to God to either “heal him or kill him.”
“As you can imagine, the trauma associated with gay conversion therapy still affects Chris today. How could it not?” Rice said.
Janet mentions a study done by Dr. Tim Jones of LaTrobe University, which investigated the nature of conversion therapy in Australia as well as its traumatizing effects. According to Jones’s study, conversion therapy in the country centers less around electroshock therapy and more on prayer and psychological counselling.
"The most common range of activities involves one-on-one, group counselling and pop psychology," Jones told The Sydney Morning Herald. "But the boundaries between clinical care and pastoral care are very unclear. Law in Australia struggles to comprehend religious practice."
Rice's speech highlighted the fact that conversion therapy in Australia is growing rather than diminishing, and organizations are just becoming more discreet, and therefore better at concealing what they do.
“Conversion therapy, far from going away, is actually expanding in Australia. It’s just going further underground. Organizations are changing their names and their public profiles but they’re still doing the same insidious and harmful work,” Rice said.
Rice quotes Dr. Jones in her speech, saying, “There is no evidence that gay conversion therapy works. We really want religious groups to recognize that these practices — that they’re doing in a well-meaning way — are actually harming their own people. It’s devastating to think that around Australia, young people are trying to pray the gay away and feel immense fear and shame about who they are.”
Despite the trauma that Chris experienced during and after conversion therapy, he is now “flourishing” and “comfortable with who he is.” But the main topic of Rice’s speech centered around the fact that due to the laws in Australia today, not every child is so lucky.
She called the fact that young people are still undergoing conversion therapy in 2018 “unacceptable” and brought up the fact that the mental health of LGBTQ young people is far worse than that of heterosexuals at the same age. The same rings true in the United States, where studies show that LGBTQ people are three times more likely to experience a mental health condition such as major depression or generalized anxiety disorder.
Laws surrounding conversion therapy in Australia has been a touchy topic for some time now. New South Wales proposed a bill last year that would criminalize "any attempts to convince someone to change their sexuality by any means.” Earlier this year, a proposal was made in Victoria to debate conversion therapy, the topics of which would have included offering parents easier access to the treatment for their children. Liberal Party President Michael canned this debate before it could be held.
“LGBTIQ people should be receiving support, education and understanding, not being funnelled into vicious programs that use shame and fear as conversion tactics in the name of religion,” Rice said.
Janet ended her speech with a call to action, invoking Prime Minister Marcus Turnbull and Health Minister Hon Greg Hunt to “lead the conversation” among the states and territories in Australia to work with experts and publicize traumatizing experiences that highlight the damages of conversion therapy.
“No one else should have to feel the fear and shame that Chris felt for so many years,” Rice said.