Early this week Liberal senator Eric Abetz blamed the media for not celebrating or honouring people who 'come out', switching from being homosexual to heterosexual. The senator believes homosexuality is a lifestyle choice and if people switch from being gay to being straight, we should admire them for their honesty and courage.
It's probably difficult to believe there are still people and organisations in Australia and around the world who believe they can 'cure' gay people who struggle with same-sex attraction. Conversion therapists or ex-gay practitioners believe homosexuality is an affliction or disorder that can be fixed by praying and psychotherapy, sometimes referred to as "pray away the gay".
Reparative or conversion therapies are offered by ex-gay groups whose philosophy is based on the premise that homosexuality is an illness and unnatural. They maintain that people are born straight and only become gay when some trauma interferes with their sexual development.
Conversion therapy aims to repair the 'trauma' and teach people how to perform 'normal' gender roles. It offers support groups, individual counselling and prayer meetings to overcome a person's unwanted same-sex attraction, help increase their attraction to the opposite sex or encourage them to abstain from acting on their feelings.
There is no evidence that this therapy is effective and it is condemned by major health, psychiatric and psychological organisations around the world. The so-called therapies have been proved to be ineffective and harmful, especially for minors and most of the groups are not run by accredited counsellors or therapists.
Young people are very vulnerable. If they come from a religious family and are told that God doesn't love them if they are gay and that it's a sin, they become fertile ground for the ex-gay movement to convert.
The American Psychological Association conducted the world's largest sexual orientation-change efficacy study, which found that conversion and reparative interventions caused harmful mental health effects such as increased anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and sometimes loss of sexual functions.
In the US the largest ex-gay organisation in the world, Exodus International, announced in June 2013 that it was closing after 37 years. President Alan Chambers apologised with this statement: "I am sorry for the pain and hurt many of you have experienced. I am sorry that some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt you felt when your attractions didn't change". In this statement he explains his reasons; he now believes that homosexuality cannot be cured.
One of the longest running conversion therapy programs in Australia also ceased operations in 2014. But there are still churches and pastors who believe that homosexuality is a sin and God can change people from gay to straight.
'The Cure' is an Australian independent documentary on ex-gay ministries and the mental health implications of trying to 'change' sexuality, told through the compelling narratives of people who have tried to transform their sexuality.
This video, made in 2009, shows a young gay man, Ben Gresham, reconciling his sexuality and faith. He became part of a growing push within the evangelical movement that seeks to integrate faith with gay identity. He was part of the Hillsong Church, whose founder Brian Houston also no longer supports conversion therapy.
Anthony Venn-Brown, a former Pentecostal leader and ex-gay therapy critic, has been monitoring Australian ex-gay activities for nearly 20 years. In his memoir called A Life of Unlearning he describes his experience being one of the first in the world to go through a residential conversion therapy program. He is a founder of a support group for gay Christians called Freedom2b, which is now the largest network of LGBTI people from Christian backgrounds. His current project Ambassadors & Bridge Builders International, helps to overcome ignorance and misinformation about sexuality within religious contexts.
One of my clients who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian household was told that the Bible was very clear about homosexuality and that his sexual orientation was shameful and a sin. His parents found a 'psychotherapist' who promised that he could 'make' him straight. He only decided to give it a try because he wanted desperately to be accepted by his family and God. After he realised he couldn't be changed, he experienced depression, shame, feelings of isolation, failure and rejection. It took years of therapy but he is now in a loving relationship with a man. However, he lost contact with his family.
Many Australians have a gay or lesbian family member, friend or work colleague and know that sexual orientation can't be changed. To still have some churches and religious organisations -– or a politician like senator Abetz -- label them as dysfunctional and broken is abhorrent, offensive and ignorant.