A protest against the decision of a Brazilian judge who approved gay conversion therapy in Sao Paulo, Brazil in September 2017. Photo: NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images

I can’t believe we haven’t already, but we need to ban gay conversion therapy

Aotearoa must follow the lead of Britain and legally prohibit this pernicious practice, writes Toni Duder of RainbowYouth

“Do you have anyone we could talk to who has gone through conversion therapy at RainbowYouth?”

As the Communications Manager at RainbowYouth, part of my job is to make sure that we have people from queer, intersex and gender diverse communities stepping up to the mic to advocate for themselves, in their own words, wherever possible. When faced with the above question from a journalist recently, I was seized by a moment of panic as I replied: “No, we don’t have anyone who has been through that that we know of, or at least who uses our services.”

The reason for the panic was we know at RainbowYouth that this practice exists, but we don’t have tangible evidence based on our service users. Why?

Gay conversion therapy advises people to move away from their homosexuality toward a healthier lifestyle. They are told they can overcome it. Young people who have been told to turn away from their sexuality would not be visiting our “know who you are, be who you are” whare.

The details of what gay conversion therapy actually looks like in 2018 are murky. For starters, what we know tells us it’s not usually called Gay Conversion Therapy (in some cases it’s called “reparative therapy” or “help with sexual and relational problems”). From anecdotal evidence, the actual “therapy” masquerades as very closely aligned with other more conventional counselling methods (sitting and talking in a safe, calm environment)

A recent discussion with someone who had been through conversion therapy earlier in the year elicited some interesting insights. She was told that the reason she was experiencing same-sex attraction to women was because her father hadn’t affirmed her femininity enough, and her mother had been distant (Hello Freud, is that you?)

(Side note: on the three or four times my dad managed to get me to wear a dress in my childhood, he was extremely chuffed and told me so. I’m still gay af FYI.)

The person I talked to also told me that during the session, the “counsellor” told her that her same-sex attraction was a challenge laid down by God and it was her journey to moving away from this attraction that would bring her closer to God.

But these are just words right? Gentle encouragement away from the gay-rainbow and towards the God one. Seems much more palatable than ye ol’ faithful of strapping the lesbians and gays to a chair and forcing them to vomit when they are shown a picture of someone of the same sex à la American Horror Story season 2 (there are many fun and not-stressful examples of other similar methods in actual history too. JK they’re really bad).

The answer is: current practices are still harmful.

Why?

First, it’s unnecessary: there’s heaps of evidence that queer, gender diverse and intersex people are able to maintain a great connection to their faith after they have accepted their sexuality or gender identity. There are also churches that are openly accepting of queer, gender diverse and intersex people here in Aotearoa.

Second, our community needs support, not reinforcement of harmful norms: the stats aren’t great for our queer, gender diverse and intersex whānau around negative health outomes. All evidence we have tells us that having a whānau and a community that are supportive of someone’s sexuality or gender identity is a major protective factor from outcomes like self-harm, addiction and suicide.

It’s my view that we need action from our government to ban gay conversion therapy in Aotearoa. We also need our government to provide resourcing to LGBTIQ+ community organisations to work with our faith-based communities to improve their practices around supporting those who are struggling to reconcile their faith and their sexuality or gender identity. Welcoming them and supporting their individual relationship to God seems like an excellent place to start.

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