Submission to Victorian Government Consultation on Banning Conversion Practices

The Victorian Government is currently consulting on legislative options to ban conversion practices, including ‘ex-gay therapy’ and ‘ex-trans therapy’. Submissions close 24 November 2019, with more details here. The following is my personal submission:

 

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Thank you for the opportunity to provide this submission in response to the Discussion Paper: ‘Legislative options to implement a ban of conversion practices.’

 

I write this as a long-term advocate for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community, as someone who survived five years at an explicitly homophobic religious boarding school in Queensland in the early 1990s,[i] and as someone who has written on this issue previously.[ii]

 

While I am not Victorian, given early-adopting jurisdictions will be effectively setting the standard for other states and territories to follow (including my current state of NSW), I am interested to ensure that the scheme introduced by the Victorian Government is as strong as possible.

 

On that basis, my answers to the consultation questions are as follows:

 

Do you agree with the HCC’s definition?

Would you suggest any changes?

Should the definition of conversion practices be broad enough to capture the practices that do not involve health services or counselling?

What treatments and practices should be expressly excluded from the definition?

 

The Health Complaints Commissioner’s definition appears reasonable. It is particularly important that the second part of the definition – ‘including efforts to eliminate sexual and/or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same gender, or efforts to change gender expressions’ – is retained.

 

This is because the harms caused by conversion practices arise exclusively in the context of activities trying to prevent people from identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

 

There is no evidence of harmful ‘conversion practices’ in the other direction (forcing people to be LGBT), and therefore care should be taken to ensure that support services for LGBT people, and especially LGBT children and young people, are not inadvertently captured in any definition of conversion practices.

 

The definition should, however, capture anti-LGBT conversion practices outside health services or counselling. Conversion practices are basically psychological torture and as such they should not be acceptable in any context.

 

There may nevertheless be scope for increased penalties, or additional regulatory responses, where these practices occur in health services or counselling given the duty of care involved in these settings.

 

Who do you think should be protected?

Should protection be limited to children and people experiencing vulnerability? If so, what vulnerable groups should be included?

Should protection be available to all members of the community?

In what ways do you think the issue of consent is relevant to determining who should be protected?

 

I think all people should be protected, including adults. Again, my starting position is that conversion practices are psychological torture. And torture is not acceptable in any context, or with respect to any victim.

 

We should also remember that an adult who seeks out conversion practices has likely grown up in a homophobic, biphobic or transphobic environment, and that the cumulative effect of years or even decades of this bigotry and intolerance is probably the primary causative factor in them agreeing to participate in such harmful activities. It is therefore not truly free and informed consent.

 

Of course, there are some groups who are particularly vulnerable, including children as well as people with mental ill-health or other reasons for diminished legal capacity. The penalties for engaging in conversion practices aimed at these vulnerable groups could be made higher than for other adults (for example, by making the vulnerability of the victim an aggravating factor in sentencing).

 

Who do you think should be banned from providing conversion practices?

Specific professionals or persons? Or everyone who offers conversion practices?

 

These practices should be banned by anyone. There is no justification to allow psychological torture in any context.

 

There may however be reasons to provide additional regulatory responses for health practitioners, including counsellors, who engage in these practices (including referring people to these practices). This could include being suspended, or deregistered from providing any health services in the future, in addition to criminal or other penalties which apply to everyone.

 

Do you think conversion practices should be regulated wherever they occur or only in certain contexts or places?

 

If only health professionals are regulated, then again it should not matter where the conversion practices take place, because psychological torture should be prohibited wherever it occurs. It is a breach of the duty to care for patients for health practitioners to engage in these practices, or to refer others to them, in any context or place.

 

Do you think conversion practices should be regulated through criminal law, civil regulatory schemes or civil laws, or a combination of these?

What aspects of each approach would be effective in regulating conversion practices?

What aspects of each approach would be less effective in regulating conversion practices?

 

Given the abhorrent practices involved, and their harmful consequences on the lives of victims, I believe there should be criminal penalties for providing conversion practices, and for referring people to conversion practices.

 

This is a proportionate response to the seriousness of the underlying offence, and necessary to send a signal to the community that such practices will not be tolerated, any time, any where.

 

However, acknowledging the potential difficulty in criminal prosecution in these areas, these laws should be supplemented by civil regulatory sanctions, enforced by the Health Complaints Commissioner, Commissioner for Children and Young People or another similar body.

 

Finally, victims of such practices should be able to make claims of negligence against the people providing them, especially where it involves health practitioners and/or counsellors. Again, this is in recognition of the damage caused to their lives. Any laws necessary should be changed to allow this outcome, and provide financial redress for the victims.

 

What rights do you think are relevant to consider when determining how best to implement a ban of conversion practices?

Can the impact on these rights be justified in light of the harm conversion practices cause?

 

The most important rights in terms of this debate are the right to health, and the right to non-discrimination (given conversion practices are an attack on people with diverse sexual orientations and/or gender identities).

 

I acknowledge that there may be an adverse impact on freedom of religion, in that some individuals and organisations may assert that these practices are in line with their religious beliefs against LGBT identities.

 

However, their religious beliefs do not justify the imposition of psychological torture on others, including children and vulnerable people. In the same way that religious beliefs do not justify physical torture, including female genital mutilation, a position already reflected in Australian law.[iii]

 

Are there other matters that you consider critical for the design of legislation or effective implementation?

 

I reiterate my view that the approach adopted in states like Victoria will exert considerable influence on the position that will ultimately be embraced in others states and territories. As such, I strongly encourage the Victorian Government to introduce the strongest possible ban on these abhorrent practices, for the benefit of LGBT people nation-wide.

 

Thank you in advance for taking this submission into consideration. Please do not hesitate to contact me at the details supplied should you require clarification or additional information.

 

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

 

Footnotes:

[i] See The Longest Five Years.

[ii] See Criminalising Ex-Gay Therapy August 6, 2018; Submission to NSW Parliament Inquiry into False or Misleading Health Practices re Ex-Gay Therapy and Intersex Sterilisation 16 June, 2014.

[iii] And, hopefully, one day religious beliefs will not be used to justify male genital mutilation/circumcision either.

Criminalising Ex-Gay Therapy

This post is part of a series looking at the unfinished business of LGBTI equality in Australia. You can see the rest of the posts here

 

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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