Victoria has urged Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to help other states crack down on gay conversion therapy, describing it as “insidious bullying” and “dangerous quackery” that should be tackled as part of a national mental health strategy.
But the Turnbull government has declined to cooperate, saying that conversion therapy – which involves trying to change or suppress a person’s sexuality or gender identity – is a matter for individual states to address.
A Fairfax Media investigation last week revealed that gay conversion practices remain prevalent in Australia: hidden in health services, schools, and religious ministries linked to an informal network of churches and counsellors.
In one disturbing case, a transgender child was forced into seven sessions of chaplaincy counselling at her religious school – without her parents’ knowledge – in a bid to stop her from transitioning.
In another, a gay man was encouraged by church leaders to exorcise his demons, leading to a spiral of self-loathing and shame when he was unable to change his sexual orientation.
Victorian Mental Health Minister Martin Foley said the Andrews Government was deeply concerned about the impact of gay conversion therapy, telling Fairfax Media: “It’s a whole new level of bullying and mental health trauma, where people are urged to deny who they are.”
The problem, he admitted, is that much of it is “clandestine,” making it difficult to track and regulate. “But that shouldn’t stop us.”
Dean Brodel tried to repudiate his sexuality before he eventually found acceptance at a different church.
“What is needed is for it to be taken up as a key part of the national mental health strategy,” said Mr Foley, who is also Victoria’s Equality Minister.
“Groups like beyondblue and Orygen talk regularly about one of the major drivers (of mental health problems) being LGBTI young people dealing with identity denial. And yet here, under a cloak of respectability, some organisations are promoting that very denial… It’s not anything other than dangerous quackery.”
The national mental health strategy commits governments to improve the mental health of Australians, prevent suicide, and reduce stigma and discrimination. If conversion therapy formed part of this plan, it would essentially sign up the states and the Commonwealth to work together to address the issue.
However, when asked if the Prime Minister was concerned about the practice, Mr Turnbull’s spokesman declined to comment, saying it was a question for Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt.
Mr Hunt’s spokesman, in turn, said: “This is not something which is funded, supported or practiced under the Commonwealth. Therefore by law this is a matter for states.”
Canberra’s response belies the fact that gay conversion ideology has been quietly pushed in schools as part of the federal government’s chaplaincy program.
It has also been raised in the context of the federal review into the religious freedom.
A Change.Org petition distributed last week, with about 12,000 signatures and counting, also calls for Mr Turnbull and Mr Hunt to act.
Mr Foley said he was “disappointed but not surprised” at the Turnbull government’s response. “Taking selfies at the Mardi Gras is one thing; dealing with the hard issues of LGBTI identity is another,” he said.
The Victorian government last year strengthened the powers of the Health Complaints Commissioner, who now has the authority to investigate and ban unregistered practitioners – including anyone who treats homosexuality as a disorder.
However, the commission’s powers are confined to health services and are not retrospective.
As Fairfax Media’s investigation revealed, the groups involved are often religious ministries with charity status, who say they are helping same-sex attracted people to live in accordance with their faith.
The Victorian Greens have called for a parliamentary inquiry in the next term of state parliament to determine the extent of the problem and make recommendations for reform.
“It would also give survivors a chance to tell their story and shine a light on organisations where this practice is occurring,” said Prahran MP Sam Hibbins.