Fight Not Flannel

‘Conversion therapy’ must be criminalised

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Metres of flannel…

From reading the press, and posts on Facebook, I was alerted to an apparent contradiction between the attitude of Australian Equality towards Victorian Labor’s proposals to outlaw so-called ‘conversion therapy’, and Federal Labor’s seemingly weaker proposed policy on the same issue.

On the face of it, Brown and AE seemed to be agreeing with criminalisation in Victoria, whilst advising against it federally. Although as yet it isn’t clear precisely what Andrews proposes to criminalise.

It also appeared that many in the LGBTI community were blindsided by these actions, thanks to a serious lack of pro-active communication and consultation on the part of Australian Equality.

So I took a look at the Human Rights Law Centre Report authored by Timothy W. Jones, Anna Brown, Lee Carnie, Gillian Fletcher and William Leonard, Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice: Responding to LGBT conversion therapy in Australia, which forms the basis of these positions.

I was immediately confronted by a giant loophole: criminal sanctions against conversion therapy practised in a religious context are flatly ruled out.

Giant Loophole

“While we propose a number of legislative and regulatory measures, they will not impact on informal conversion practices in faith-based settings, undertaken by laypeople and experienced by consenting adults. These informal activities in religious and social environments account for a significant component of faith-based LGBT conversion therapy. In these environments, LGBT people are immersed in messaging and cultural ideas that teach them that they are ‘broken’. The most effective way to address the harms perpetuated in these environments is through targeted community based interventions: raising awareness of the severity of these harms and supporting the development of improved pastoral practice with LGBT people.”

Expanding on this (in their recommendations to the Victorian government), they support criminalisation of religious conversion therapy when aimed at children, but produce a wholly spurious argument exempting the attempted ‘conversion’ of adults.

“…adults who freely choose to seek out discussions within their faith communities should be permitted to exercise their own agency to engage in these informal faith-based activities (including pastoral care, prayer and group activities) if they wish.”

“Legislation that prohibits such activities by adults would not only represent an impermissible limitation on freedom of religion, it may also serve to drive practices further underground and undermine efforts to tackle the harm caused to LGBT people.”

Too-hard basket

This is pure flannel to disguise that they are consigning religious conversion therapy to the too-hard basket. This is typical of many of our so-called advocates, who frequently perform this kind of pre-emptive capitulation to our politicians instead of standing up to them, fatally weakening their advocacy.

Let us be quite clear: conversion therapy is an evil practice, driven by prejudice, not fact or science. Those who are undergo it are always damaged, sometimes fatally. Depression, self-harm, and ultimately, suicide, are common outcomes. This is especially so when the participants “willingly” subject themselves to this fraudulent ‘treatment’. This is not free and willing participation. This is not “religious freedom”. Victims are driven by religious guilt, induced and stoked by the religious communities who promote, support and practice it.

No doubt many committed Chinese communists went to re-education camps to learn how to correct their errors of Mao Ze Dong Thought “willingly”, desperate to regain the approval of their comrades and political masters, in exactly the same fashion.

Complicity in Evil

To take the line espoused by the report is to collude with this psychological torture. By their words the authors make themselves complicit in this evil: doing so while presenting themselves as representatives of the LGBTI community renders us all complicit. Well, not me.

The authors further weaken their advocacy by touting civil rather than criminal law as a solution, again using the excuse that criminal sanctions are “too hard” to enforce.

“A criminal law would also require the elements (both the conduct and the mental element) of the offence to be defined with specificity and proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Such a burden of proof may be difficult to meet for these cases, particularly in circumstances where the only witnesses to the conduct are the victim and the perpetrator.”

They prefer instead to create a lawyers picnic where survivors take civil action and seek to recover damages: perhaps not surprising given the lawyers involved in writing the report. They also make the standard academic response, calling for ‘more research’ to keep LGBTI academics in funds, of course.

But away from the la-la lands of the law and academia, anyone who has tried to use the civil legal system (or statutory bodies) knows that you need enormous mental resilience and deep pockets, commodities likely to be in very short supply among survivors, as the authors acknowledge. These are deeply impractical ‘solutions’. But in their infinite compassion they do suggest the government might help:

“We suggest that a suitable office holder or statutory agency (whether the Health Complaints Commissioner or other body) be given the power to enforce the provisions against both individuals and corporations.”

Turning to federal law, they merely suggest that “the Federal Government should play a leadership role in coordinating the efforts to regulate conversion practices nationally. There are also specific regulatory and policy issues for the federal government to address.” But they continue to shy away from criminalisation, preferring instead to issue a collection of bland statements embodying pious hopes for “consideration”. For example:

“We recommend that the Federal Government consider including ‘counsellor’ as a protected title under the National Law, in consultation with APHRA and other relevant bodies. This would require counsellors to be registered and subject to training requirements and professional codes. These training requirements and professional codes should address the potential harm caused by conversion therapy. We recommend that consideration be given to explicitly naming conversion practices in the national Law and/or relevant guidance materials to ensure that practitioners understand that these practices are not consistent with their professional obligations.”

This is all grossly inadequate.

Wet Lettuce

Let us be perfectly clear. ‘Conversion therapy’ is brainwashing. Doctors, priests, counsellors and others who practice and promote it are guilty of profiting from mental torture, from damaging and killing LGBTI people. Us. They are unfit for their offices. They are quacks peddling false hopes, sickness and death. There is absolutely no justification for this exploitative assault on vulnerable people to whom they have a duty of care.

This is not an issue on which the LGBTI community should be playing nice, cosying up to politicians or anyone else. We should be standing up and fighting, not churning out hundreds of metres of cosy bureaucratic flannel meekly requesting the government ‘consider’ equipping itself with a box of wet lettuce leaves.

If Australian Equality wishes to represent the Australian LGBTI community, as it manifestly does not right now, it must first set up structures and systems to liaise with all existing LGBTI organisations, and conduct regular national meetings and consultations. They have good financial backing: they should spend some of it opening and staffing offices in all the capitals and major regional centres, and by organising a national conference.

Do not presume to speak for us without first speaking to us. And listening.

About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)