Criminalising Ex-Gay Therapy

[NB This article is the fifth in a series looking at the unfinished business of LGBTI equality in Australia.]

 

One of the many positive outcomes of the passage of same-sex marriage legislation late last year is that it has – finally – given greater space for the discussion of other important (in many cases, more important) issues affecting the LGBTI community.

 

One that is attracting particular attention right now is so-called ‘ex-gay therapy’, or gay conversion therapy (and the related ex-trans or trans conversion therapy).

 

Indeed, a recently released survey of 2,662 LGBTIQ people, undertaken by just.equal and PFLAG, found that ending the practice of ex-gay therapy was the top priority for reform. As reported by the Guardian, “[s]ome 93% of LGBTIQ respondents rated a national ban on ‘conversion’ or ‘reparative’ therapies as of high or very high importance.”

 

This prominence can be attributed to a range of factors including recent coverage by journalists like Farrah Tomazin, and because of campaigning from ex-gay therapy survivor Chris Csabs (I encourage you to sign his Change.org petition, here.)

 

The subject was also the centre of controversy at this year’s Victorian Liberal Party state conference, where religious extremists within the organisation sought to pass a motion in defence of this dangerous and abhorrent practice (disappointingly, Commonwealth Health Minister Greg Hunt not only failed to condemn ex-gay therapy, but when asked instead argued for the right to ‘free speech’ for those who support it).

 

The abuse of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender teenagers through ex-gay and ex-trans therapy is even the subject of two upcoming films, The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Boy Erased.

 

Of course, the attention this important issue is currently receiving is also a result of previous exposes from journalists such as Jill Stark, and the substantial work of ex-gay therapy survivor, and long-term campaigner, Anthony Venn-Brown of Ambassadors and Bridge Builders International (ABBI).

 

Thanks to all of these factors, it seems the time is ripe for long-overdue action to be taken to help end the practice of ex-gay and ex-trans therapy in Australia.

 

On a policy basis, there are two clear options for reform. The first lies in the existing regulation of health practitioners. This could include providing that offering or undertaking ex-gay or ex-trans ‘treatment’ is to be considered serious malpractice, because it is unsupported by any clinical evidence for its effectiveness (with plenty of evidence that it does not and never has worked, and that it nearly always causes severe psychological harm, including contributing to numerous suicides).

 

Any doctor, psychiatrist, psychologist, counsellor or other health care professional subsequently found to engage in these practices would consequently have their registration terminated and be banned from offering any health care services to the community in the future.

 

The second option is for wider legal reform, through the criminalisation of ex-gay and ex-trans therapy. This could cover any activity advertising, offering or undertaking by any individual or organisation seeking to change a person’s sexual orientation from same-sex attracted to heterosexual, or to alter gender identity to a person being cisgender.

 

Given the significant harms caused by this practice this would then be enforced through a possible term of imprisonment. Where any victims (or potential victims) of the ex-gay or ex-trans therapy are minors – who are therefore particularly vulnerable to such abuse – this fact could be treated as an aggravating factor, leading to increased penalties.

 

At this stage, only one Australian jurisdiction has taken concrete actions to prohibit ex-gay and ex-trans therapy, and that is Victoria, which has in fact adopted a ‘hybrid’ approach.

 

In 2017, the Andrews Labor Government created the Health Complaints Commissioner, which can investigate complaints against (some) registered and all ‘unregistered’ health practitioners, with the first appointee confirming that this would include pseudo-counselling services providing ex-gay and ex-trans therapy.

 

Where the Commissioner finds that a service is harmful, they can order the practitioner or organisation to cease providing it – and if they fail to do so, they can then be prosecuted, and potentially imprisoned (section 98 of the Health Complaints Act 2016 (Vic) provides that ‘a general health service provider who has been served with a prohibition order must comply with the order’, with a maximum penalty for a natural person for breaching this order of 240 penalty units or 2 years imprisonment, and for a body corporate of 1200 penalty units).

 

While these provisions are obviously a welcome step forward, it should be noted that there were no formal complaints in the first 12 months of the Commissioner’s operation (something that will hopefully be addressed by the current investigation into ex-gay therapy by the Commissioner).

 

Perhaps the bigger problem (or at least my problem with the Victorian approach) is that the act of providing ex-gay or ex-trans therapy itself is not criminalised. Even in the absence of a prohibition order by the Commissioner, this practice is so dangerous, and so harmful, that I believe it should attract criminal sanction in and of itself.

 

So-called ‘conversion therapy’ is, after all, nothing less than targeted psychological abuse, leading to severe actual or potential harm.

 

As this issue is hopefully addressed by other states and territories in coming months (with commitments already in place from some jurisdictions, such as the Australian Capital Territory) I think they should adopt both approaches:

 

  • The regulation of health practitioners, both registered and unregistered, who offer or undertake ex-gay or ex-trans therapy, and
  • The criminalisation of advertising, offering or undertaking ex-gay or ex-trans therapy by any individual or organisation, subject to potential imprisonment and including higher penalties where the victim (or potential victim) is a minor.

 

By implementing both, hopefully this abhorrent practice will finally be a thing of the past.

 

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Ex-gay therapy is having a cultural ‘moment’, with films like The Miseducation of Cameron Post (which is great, by the way). The question is whether Australian states and territories will seize the momentum that currently exists and ban this abhorrent practice once and for all.

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