Gay conversion therapy really needs to be a crime in this country, writes Lee Suckling.
When we think of gay conversion therapy, scenes from films like Boy Erased come to mind. Big, hollow churches, a dozen or so scared-to-death teenage boys in polo shirts and chinos, and one large, domineering male minister or other clergy who speaks with authority and anger.
The reality of so-called conversion therapy in New Zealand, at least, is a little different. It's more likely to be one-on-one counselling in a small, unassuming office. The "therapist", as they call themselves, has all the markings of a traditional mental health professional, except for one core difference. They're not trying to help you acknowledge, understand, and develop strategies for better mental health. They have an ulterior motive: change your sexuality from gay to straight. They exist to guide you away from LGBT+ thoughts and convince you that you're really heterosexual.
I'm about as surprised as you are that this is happening in New Zealand. The concept seems so Middle America; so Bible Belt. Thirty-three years ago, homosexuality was a crime in this country. Six years ago, it was illegal to marry someone of the same sex. But today, as we head towards the end of another decade, it's legal to coerce a vulnerable person – usually a youth – to change their sexuality.
Last year, a 25,000 strong petition to ban gay conversion therapy in New Zealand was accepted at Parliament, but still, today, nothing has been done about it. No Select Committees, no debates. Just ignoring the issue.
Shaneel Lal is the youth MP for Manukau East and is working with a group of other young people to see this depraved, manipulative practice made a crime. It seems nobody wants to take responsibility for the issue: Health Minister David Clark told Lal it wasn't his responsibility; Justice Minister Andrew Little wrote a formal reply admitting conversion therapy is an abhorrent practice, but the Government has no current plans to consider making any changes to the law.
In the letter, Little wrote, "Any changes to specifically ban conversion therapy will require careful consideration of everyone's human rights, including freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination". If I break down the subtext of that sentence, the consideration of "everyone's human rights" and "freedom of religion" assumes that churches and other religious institutions retain some right to bully somebody's homosexuality out of them, because anti-gay feelings are in line with their doctrine. This contestation is the same trite line homophobic bakeries use when refusing to make cakes for same-sex weddings. Are you okay with that? I'm certainly not.
All you need is the right keywords on Google to find someone who offers gay and gender conversion therapy in New Zealand. You don't really need to put in that much effort, though: most churches have somebody available in their clergy who will engage in conversion therapy if requested by parents or an individual themselves.
This is why gay conversion therapy really needs to be a crime in this country. Not because people are forcing others into violence and coercive camps with cult-like isolation in this country. Because people so damaged by shame and their desire to fit into their community (and, moreover, not be ostracised) will self-enlist in the practice. They have been told so many times that they are perverted and wrong that they actually believe it, and will do anything to change it.
Is it in the general spectrum of a person's human rights to seek out therapy to change their mental state? Sure. Should it be within human rights laws for a therapist or counsellor to accept, handle, and manipulate that person because they THINK they want it? That's where we need to draw the line. It's the same as giving a razor blade to a depressed person and holding their hand in encouragement while they self-harm.
The reality is, suicide attempts double or triple for anybody who engages in gay or gender conversion therapy; presumably as they realise you cannot actually pray the gay away. A 2018 study by San Francisco State University highlighted that parents play a pivotal role here: "Rates of attempted suicide by LGBT young people whose parents tried to change their sexual orientation were more than double (48 per cent) the rate of LGBT young adults who reported no conversion experiences (22 per cent)," the report found. Suicide attempts nearly tripled for LGBT people who reported both home-based parental efforts to change their sexual orientation AND intervention therapists and religious leaders (63 per cent).
Gay conversion therapy is helping hurt people who want to hurt themselves. It's as simple as that, yet our Government refuses to act. Gay conversion therapy is not real. Changing your sexual orientation is simply not possible, even if you think you need to. We should be living in a nation where counsellors, therapists, and religious professionals are banned from cheating powerless young people by telling them otherwise.
WHERE TO GET HELP:
If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.
OR IF YOU NEED TO TALK TO SOMEONE ELSE:
• 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP) (available 24/7)
• YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633
• NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)
• KIDSLINE: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• WHATSUP: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757 or TEXT 4202