The End of “Conversion” Therapy
16 February 2022 Hits:2194
Warning: This blog explores the rise and fall of “conversion” therapy and some of the failed techniques used to change a person’s gender identity from transgender to cisgender and/or to rid people of “unwanted same-sex attraction” (SSA) and as a result may be triggering for some people. Please proceed with caution, and reach out if you need help; either to the pastoral care team or Rainbow Door (1800 729 367)
For much of my time as a Pastor, the accepted position of most churches was that being homosexual or anything other than cisgender was a curable condition through prayer, counselling, and deeper dedication to Jesus. Churches worldwide told people that they could only be accepted into the Christian fold and please God by becoming heterosexual. They (we) were wrong.
Over the last ten plus years, Christie and I have been on a deep learning journey that has involved listening to the stories of LGBTIQA+ people who have attempted to change their sexuality or sexual identity. We know people who have been to counselling with psychologists, pastors, lay leaders, had accountability partners, attended confession groups and retreats, and engaged in visualisation, social skills training, prayer, and fasting to change their sexuality.
Some have deliberately or unwittingly participated in exorcisms and electric shock treatment. In times past, people had lobotomies, received nausea-inducing drugs or hormones, had hypnotism or castration (chemical or otherwise). The movie, The Imitation Game, tells the story of Alan Turing, a gay man who was subjected to chemical castration. He died by suicide in 1954.
I also highly recommend the movie (or book) “Boy Erased“. It tells of Garrard Conley’s shocking conversion therapy experiences at Desert Streams (Living Waters) Ministries. Garrard is one of some 700,000 Americans subjected to this so-called “Christian” ministry.
The Exodus from Exodus
Until 2013, Alan Chambers was President of Exodus International, the world’s largest gay conversion organisation. He said, “I would say the majority, meaning 99.9% of them, have not experienced a change in their orientation or have gotten to a place where they could say that they could never be tempted, or are not tempted in some way or experience some level of same-sex attraction.” Exodus had been operating since 1976 with a 99.9% failure rate!
Although some have continued under different names and umbrellas, Exodus shut down its support groups and counselling programs in 2013. Chambers also stated, “for someone to put out a shingle and say, ‘I can cure homosexuality’—that to me is as bizarre as someone saying they can cure any other common temptation or struggle that anyone faces on Planet Earth.” He apologised for the claims they had made that change was possible. Another provider, Living Waters, noted that almost all people experienced no change whatsoever.
As a young pastor in the 1980s and 90s, I believed the testimonies of “healing and change” spread by ministries like Exodus. I referred people to such ministries. I have since apologised, and I state here I am very sorry. I was wrong. We were wrong.
So Much Pain
Sadly, much damage has occurred. Many people have died by suicide over their anguish about being non-heterosexual and unacceptable to their faith community. Every Christian LGBTIQA+ person I have spoken to can tell me of someone they know who has attempted suicide because their church did not accept them. Thousands walked away from churches, taking their extended families with them in many cases.
Multiple medical, psychiatric, and psychological organisations have made it clear that people of diverse sexuality cannot be “cured” and that coercing people to try and change is harmful psychologically and spiritually. These include the American Psychiatric Association (APA), which describes attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation by practitioners as unethical. They’re confirmed by the British medical association, The Australian Psychological Association, and the Australian Medical Association.
And so, same-sex conversion therapy does not work in the best cases and has caused significant damage and suicides in the worst. Understandably, medical practitioners and LGBTIQA+ advocacy organisations have begun working together to see these practices outlawed.
The Victorian parliamentary process passed the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill last year. It became law on February 17, 2022.
This legislation prohibits change or suppression or “conversion practices that seek to change or suppress an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity.”
I think it’s an indictment on the broader church that the government even needs to introduce such a law. But when the church fails to regulate itself, it is left to governments to intervene. That’s the experience with the Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. And it’s the same here with so-called “conversion” therapy.
What Does This Mean for the Church?
In terms of our day to day work of loving people, nothing changes. We can share our belief about God, salvation through Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit. We can worship, preach, publicly and privately read the Bible, feed the poor, visit prisoners and feed and clothe the poor. Nothing will change.
Christians can freely read any passage from the Bible, including the six contentious verses that appear to condemn homosexuality. A preacher can preach on those verses, believing that the Bible denounces loving same-sex relationships or that they are silent on such relationships (as I think). We can encourage people to live lives of purity and be faithful in marriage. The legislation does not dictate what we teach from the Bible.
But, churches can no longer promote or provide any programs that purport to change LGBTIQA+ persons. Furthermore, we cannot refer people to anyone inside or outside of Victoria whose modus operandi attempts to change that person’s sexuality. That will now be illegal, and rightly so. Why would we desire to participate in something so ineffective and dangerous? We would be dishonest to claim that the church has a successful track record in “healing” same-sex attracted people or trans-people when all evidence shows this is just not true.
The Bill will mean that if church leaders have a person who shares that they are dealing with same-sex attraction or gender identity, we can support them, just as we should support people at any stage of their life journey. My focus is to assist people in loving God more deeply, not dictate with whom they can or cannot fall in love.
Leaders can pray for the individual to know and experience the love of God but cannot pray that the individual will be changed to being heterosexual. Nor can we play amateur psychologists. It is not our job to “treat” such people. Victorian church leaders and members should encourage people to speak to counsellors, medical practitioners, and psychologists to talk through their sexuality if they so desire.
Our primary call is to help people be followers of Jesus, not decide that people must conform to some image we think they should have. Bayside Church’s pastoral team supports many people with a whole range of concerns, but we never seek to “treat” people with anything other than kindness!
In 2021, Bayside Church released an Inclusion Statement, our promise to treat all people equally regardless of gender, sexuality, age, ability, race, or ethnicity.
Further Reading: Lucas Mendos, a senior research officer at the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, or ILGA World, has written an exhaustive account of so-called “Conversion Therapies.”
Australia’s largest collection of information, articles, and research on this topic: https://www.abbi.org.au/conversion-therapy/