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Nine reports but no charges yet from bitterly fought anti-gay conversion laws

Religious conversion practices to alter a person’s sexuality or gender identity were banned over two years ago in Victoria. Ricky Sproule reports on the gains made, stalled and gone to ground in the slow road to changing conversion ideology.

Nine reports but no charges yet from bitterly fought anti-gay conversion laws

Midsumma Pride marchers in St Kilda in 2021, the year the historic reforms were passed. Photo: Shutterstock

Story by Ricky Sproule
 

Content warning: This story contains material which may be distressing for victim-survivors of conversion therapy

Nearly two and a half years after a controversial Victorian law criminalised practices that sought to alter a person’s sexuality or gender identity, nine reports of suppression practices have so far been made under the reforms, and no criminal charges laid.

Under the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Act, which came into effect in February 2022, anyone found to have caused harm to somebody by engaging in conversion practices could face up to 10 years jail.

The law was introduced a year after an emotionally charged 12-hour debate in the Victorian Parliament. Advocates who championed the reforms said they were urgently needed to prevent harmful practices and protect the vulnerable, particularly children and young people. LGBTQI+ people who have undergone conversion practices to try to change their sexual orientation or gender identity are more than twice as likely to self-report having attempted suicide than those who haven’t.

Overseas campaigns to ban conversion therapy include the UK in 2023, where protesters rallied outside Downing Street. Photo: Shutterstock

Overseas campaigns to ban conversion therapy include the UK in 2023, where protesters rallied outside Downing Street. Photo: Shutterstock

Critics feared the law would curtail religious freedom, with many parents, teachers and religious leaders concerned that they could be at risk for expressing core aspects of their faith.

Supporters and opponents remain bitterly divided, including on their interpretation of the low rates of reporting and charges to date, as revealed in statistics published last month by Crime Statistics Victoria for the year ending March 2024. The nine reports of change or suppression of practices in that year were the first recorded under the act, which is not retrospective.

The high standards of proof for injury and serious injury under the Crimes Act, together with the complexity of conversion practices, meant that criminal cases would likely be uncommon, “although I’m sure there will be some cases as victims and police become familiar with the law”, says Dr Tim Jones, a historian and social researcher on religion, gender and sexuality at Latrobe University.

Part of the complexity was that “there are rarely single perpetrators who could be demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt to have caused injury or serious injury”.

The strength of the Victorian model, compared to others, is the education and facilitation powers of the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC), Jones says. “Prevention and social change are the most common goals of survivors, rather than criminal proceedings, and this is the focus of the Victorian law.”

Jones says the success of the reforms should not be measured in criminal charges but rather by the lower profile “civil responses” to those reported for alleged conversion practices.

“The education and facilitation [civil] responses in the Victorian law are really powerful and … leading to significant social change.”

Human rights advocates say the lack of legal action on conversion practice does not mean that the law has not been effective. “It’s not about publicly shaming those responsible, but rather seeking to help them understand the damages these practices can inflict and the need to stop them,” a commission spokesperson told The Citizen.

Victim-survivor advocate groups have applauded the Victorian law for driving positive social change, including by educating religious communities on the psychological harm of conversion practices.

But many religious communities remain concerned and angry, particularly about how these laws may affect children seeking gender affirming care, parents and community leaders. Theologically-based beliefs about gender and sexuality remain in tension with the law’s intent.

One religious leader told The Citizen that the reform was a “bad law” and that parents and community leaders were conforming out of “fear”. Another suggested his denomination continued to “strongly believe” in prayer in relation to changing a person’s sexuality.

Anyone concerned that somebody is trying to change or suppress another’s sexuality or gender identity can make a report to the VEOHRC.

The state-based human rights body responds to reports by investigating claims and either facilitating behaviour change, engaging the person or persons responsible in a targeted education program, or referring the matter to another body for further investigation. This can include referring matters to the police for criminal investigation.

Due to secrecy provisions within the act, the commission is unable to reveal the nature or outcomes of these reports.

According to the commission, survivors who report suppression practices are usually seeking that those responsible be taught that change and suppression practices are wrong, harmful and do not work.

Jones describes conversion practices as a complex social phenomenon, usually involving a whole community, where victims themselves often become perpetrators.

As conversion practices are often based in a religion’s theology, they may lack a specific perpetrator, are often shrouded in coded language, and victims usually take years, or even decades, to come to terms with their experiences. Therefore, Jones says few single instances of a conversion practice are likely to meet the criminal standard of proof for injury or serious injury.

Critics of the reforms remain concerned about the law’s intrusion on their beliefs. Despite the VEOHRC engaging with religious communities to explain the law, some fear the commission’s initial focus on civil responses will give way to increasing rates of referrals and that members of their communities could face criminal charges in the future.

Adel Salman, president of the Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV), says the Islamic community remains fearful of the law, and he claims the commission has signalled it will take a more aggressive approach to enforcement in the future.

A spokesperson said the commission’s approach to preventing change or suppression practices had not changed. “We are continuing to provide support and guidance around how the law works and how it may impact some practices, as well as addressing any misinformation.”

The VEOHRC has engaged with the Islamic Council over a number of years on issues such as religious and racial discrimination as well as LGBT+ rights. Salman says a recent education session about the suppression practices law provided by the commission did not alleviate concerns and people in his community still don’t know what they can and can’t do or say.

“People walked away from that session more alarmed, more scared more fearful and more angry about the law,” he says.

“The law is wrong, it’s a bad law. Parents, imams, medical professionals and religious leaders are being cowed into not actually doing what they would normally do.”

Salman says his community is particularly concerned about children undergoing gender transitions.

In response, a spokesperson for the commission said Victoria’s system for gender-affirming care is cautious and supportive, and reiterated that Victoria does not allow irreversible medical interventions for people under 18 years of age.

While Salman agrees that coercive practices that cause harm should be outlawed, he says the current law in Victoria is like “taking a sledgehammer to a tiny child’s toy”.

David Devine is a pastor and the head of church health and capacity building at the Baptist Union of Victoria. He says the Baptist Union welcomes any action to prohibit abusive practices but notes that in his more than 30 years of pastoral ministry, he never witnessed anybody adopt extreme conversion practices.

He says since the law came into effect, community anxieties about its effects have decreased, but notes there is still a lack of clarity about what specifically has been outlawed.

When asked if Baptists still believe homosexuality can be cured, Devine responded, “Baptists are strong believers in the power of prayer to change all sorts of situations”.

Former evangelical preacher Anthony Venn-Brown is a leading advocate for survivors of conversion practices, having endured conversion practices for decades as he struggled with his sexuality, believing it might be changed with prayer, exorcisms and faith in God.

Many of the programs he attended were facilitated by “ex-gay” ministries. The “ex-gay” movement is a loose global collaboration between mostly evangelical churches promoting cures to homosexuality.

After 17 years of marriage to a woman, he accepted that conversion had not worked and came out as gay, writing a book about his journey and founding an NGO working with church groups on LGBTI issues.

In a 2018 article, Venn-Brown noted that many evangelical churches have moved away from promoting “cures” to homosexuality, and most churches centred around the “ex-gay” movement in Australia have closed down.

These days evangelical churches are far more likely to encourage gay Christians to remain celibate. But Venn-Brown has argued this message of celibacy leaves in place a wider conversion ideology that still considers homosexuality an affliction. Preaching celibacy was itself unlikely to be reported as a conversion practice, however churches that advocate celibacy may have a wider culture that demonises homosexuality and gender nonconformity.

A spokesman for VEOHRC noted that the second reading speech for the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Act expressly states that telling a same-sex-attracted person to remain celibate could be a change or suppression practice.

Venn-Brown has urged continuing education and advocacy as key to achieving cultural change. “The enemy is not individuals, churches, ‘ex-gay’ organisations or political parties; the enemy is ignorance.

“Change is created by focusing our energies on overcoming the latter instead of attacking the former.’ Counteracting and deconstructing the myth has been a focus of mine for years.”

 Editor’s note: This story has been updated to expand on the difficulties of bringing criminal charges under the act, which is not retrospective.

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