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A report released this week confirms conversion therapy is still practised in Australia, despite being deemed unethical and harmful by psychologists, as former Greens leader Bob Brown talks about his experience of similar procedures. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Conversion therapy in Australia

On June 22, 2013 a rare thing happened on live television: an influential man admitted making a grave error. One, he conceded, that had likely resulted in deaths. He had apologised publicly before, but perhaps never so nakedly as he did now on CNN. The man was Alan Chambers, the former president of “ex-gay” ministry Exodus International, the world’s largest such organisation dedicated to “curing” homosexuality.

In 1991, at the age of 19, a desperate Chambers joined the organisation hoping to be cured or cleansed. Ten years later, in the same year that the United States Surgeon General pronounced conversion therapy ineffectual, Chambers became the ministry’s president. In 2005, he described homosexuality as an evil. Less than eight years later he was announcing the dissolution of the organisation and apologising for the “pain and hurt” it had caused.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper was blunt: Had Exodus International contributed to suicides? “It’s something that will haunt me until the day that I die so, yes, I do believe we have a tremendous amount of work to do to make up for how we wield the sword of the beliefs we live by,” Chambers said.

“Do you now believe it’s possible to change your sexual orientation?” Cooper asked.

“No, I don’t.”

Chambers knew firsthand: he admitted that he himself still experienced same-sex attraction.

But the dissolution of Exodus International did not compel its international affiliates to close. As noted in this week’s landmark report on conversion therapy in Australia, “Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice”: “While the United States organisation repudiated its ministry and closed down, the international umbrella organisation Exodus Global Alliance and most of its affiliated organisations continued to operate, including within Australia.” Jointly written by La Trobe University, the Human Rights Law Centre, and sector health and wellbeing organisation GLHV, the report surveys the cultural history of conversion therapy, offers intimate case studies of those affected by it, and makes legal and health recommendations. No similar report has been published in Australia.

“We are not aware of Exodus International’s closure inducing any Australian ex-gay organisations to repudiate their ministries or convictions and similarly close,” the report says. “There are currently at least 10 organisations publicly advertising the provision of ex-gay and ex-trans therapies in Australia and New Zealand. These are connected through two umbrella networks: Renew Ministries, based in Melbourne, and Exodus Asia Pacific ... Both networks link ex-gay organisations and act as referral services to individual counsellors offering conversion therapy.”

The report found that the precise number of ex-gay organisations is difficult to determine, because these days they are less likely to advertise their services, and when an organisation does, it is liable to “cloak its anti-LGBT ideology and reorientation goals in the language of spiritual healing, mental health, and religious liberty”.

For many years, psychologists have damned conversion therapy programs as ineffectual, unethical and harmful. The report’s release prompted the Australian Psychological Society this week to reaffirm its opposition to “any form of mental health practice that treats homosexuality as a disorder, or seeks to change a person’s sexual orientation”.

The report’s case studies distressingly show why. Each of the 15 people interviewed for the report was profoundly cleaved, their sexual and religious identities at war. Each spoke of conversion therapy’s insistence upon their “brokenness”, and of their mistaking the inefficacy of it for their own incurable sinfulness. It dangerously compounded their self-hatred. The report tells of “Gary”, who “after five years of struggle and involvement in ex-gay activities ... amicably divorced [from his wife]. This prompted their minister, Gary recalls, to ‘get up’ and tell the church ‘that Karen and I were separating, and that I was a sexual deviant – I think that was the word that was used.”

The Human Rights Law Centre has recommended legislation, as exists in Victoria, that prohibits the administration of conversion therapy by professional health practitioners and prohibits its administration by anyone against minors. Asked last month about his thoughts on the practice, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told 3AW’s Neil Mitchell: “I’ve never been involved in anything like that, I’ve never supported anything like that, it’s just not an issue for me and I’m not planning to get engaged in the issue.” Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has floated the idea of legislating a national ban if elected.

 

Conversion therapies began emerging in the 1970s, and the report makes clear that the reason for this flourishing was that, until then, psychology was already doing the job for it by designating same-sex attraction as a mental disorder. It was classified as such in the second version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1968, and when the American Psychiatric Association voted in favour of its removal in 1973, the “disorder” wasn’t expunged but renamed. Homosexuality became a qualified “orientation disturbance” and wasn’t removed altogether until 1987.

In 1971, a year after E. M. Forster’s death, his novel Maurice was published. Completed in 1913, and dedicated to “a happier year”, Forster was determined that his “homosexual novel”, as the press referred to it, only be released posthumously. Just as the strictures of conversion therapy judge a homosexual to be doomed to death, damnation or sordid exile, literature – or at least its arbiters – would not permit a happy ending for gay lovers, Forster felt.

“A happy ending was imperative,” he wrote in the novel’s afterword. “I shouldn’t have bothered to write otherwise. I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows, and in this way Maurice and Alec still roam the greenwood ... Happiness is its keynote – which by the way has had an unexpected result: it has made the book more difficult to publish ... If it had ended unhappily, with a lad dangling from a noose or with a suicide pact, all would be well, for there is no pornography or seduction of minors.”

Happiness is a word Bob Brown mentions to me, after I ask the former Australian Greens leader to reflect upon his own submission in the 1970s to aversion therapy, where subjects are conditioned to associate negative feelings with particular thoughts or behaviour. “There was a common adjective being used about gay people then,” Brown says. “Letters to papers often had the line, ‘these sad people...’, as if homosexuality was automatically a prescription for unhappiness, when it was society that was making it so. It was self-fulfilling. 

“Another was that it was your own fault – it’s a malevolence. Or it’s an illness, one that comes from wickedness, not goodness. Somehow, though, Walt Whitman got away with writing about their happiness about being in the company of those of the same sex. Whitman made it explicitly clear – holding the hand of his male friend in nature was the greatest happiness ... We can’t bring Walt back, but he saved and encouraged and gave succour to countless millions through that one poem.”

Brown says his awareness of his homosexuality coincided with puberty, and it generated shame and confusion. “There was no sex education then,” he tells me. “You didn’t understand. You pick up schoolyard scuttlebutt – homophobic – which was rife. So you couldn’t talk about it. I knew it was shameful. I had a small brush with the law – when a teacher sexually mistreated me and came before the court, and that was a shameful experience. Thank God I had a great family. They never in any way gave anything but support. Even unspoken support spoke volumes.”

Family would ask Brown when he would “settle down and have kids”. A medical doctor, Brown was well aware his sexuality was formally classified as a disorder. In considering his options, and agonising over whether to come out, Brown was hospitalised for anxiety and depression. In 1970, he travelled to London where he worked as a doctor. While living there he saw a psychologist who prompted him: Why don’t you be who you are?

“It freed me up to meet other gay men who had similar stories,” Brown says. “London was a great meeting place of people from all over the world. The burgeoning gay society – I stayed at the edges of it. I really just wanted to talk to people.”

The psychologist helped but Brown was still anguished. He moved to Launceston in 1972, when he began considering aversion therapy with a secular basis. Psychologists were then experimenting with sexual conversion and Brown wondered whether it might work for him. He flew to Sydney where he was subject to something like a scene from A Clockwork Orange. Brown had electrodes attached to him and he was then shown a series of images of naked men and women. When females were shown, Brown was positively reinforced with compliments or a glass of water. When images of men were shown, he was electrocuted.

“Nobody was prevailing upon me to do it, because no one knew I was gay,” Brown says. “One good thing about it – the electrocution – was that they were figuring out whether it was possible to convert sexuality. The doctors involved were all male, so I could speak to them. They weren’t doing it for any other purpose other than whether it was possible to convert through electric shock. This went on for weeks, or maybe months, but I got to talk it over. I was desperate to come to terms with myself.

“The attempts at aversion therapy were some way out of the discrimination, which criminalised my sexuality. Because, you know, we had laws that of themselves were aversion therapy – 20 years in jail. Before that it was a hanging offence. It’s too easily forgotten that all of society was homophobic, not just the church. If you’re quoting St Paul – the most explicit references to homosexuals, put to death, were obtained. You can see this in the Inquisition, people burned at the stake. You can see where the idea was manufactured 2000 years ago and society became permeated by it. But search the New Testament about Jesus saying anything about homosexuality – Jesus was at worst neutral about it. That of itself was important to me.”

Brown came out as gay in 1976 – the same year that Exodus International was founded.

He tells me now he’s never been happier. Six years after leaving the parliament of which he was the first openly gay member, Brown lives in lush seclusion in Tasmania with his partner, Paul. “What a wonderful piece of fortune to see the change that has occurred. It’s a very pleasing surprise – it’s now mentally impossible to reconstruct the society 70 years ago, or 50 for that matter.”

Nonetheless, the report released this week demonstrates that such change has not yet restrained the practice of conversion therapy in this country.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 20, 2018 as "Conversion damage". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.