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ANZASW on so called “gay conversion therapy”

The Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers (ANZASW) wishes to communicate its strong opposition to the practice of so-called “gay conversion therapy,” also known as “reparative therapy,” in Aotearoa New Zealand.

An investigation into the subject by TVNZ documented individuals in several locations appearing to offer conversion services; ANZASW has seen online advertisements for this form of “counselling” in various regions of the country.

There is no evidence that this method changes the sexual orientation of its subject; rather it encourages the demonstrably false notion that non-heterosexual orientation is pathological, a “disorder” or “illness” that can be “cured,” or that one’s sexuality is a matter of choice. Such viewpoints have been thoroughly discredited and are unsupported by any mainstream peer-reviewed research.

A corollary of the above is that the existence of this form of so-called “therapy,” being neither ethical, necessary or effective, is in itself of highly questionable utility. This is not least because its practitioners are able to attract clients on the basis of a promise that there is no evidence they can possibly deliver.

We agree with social work colleagues across the world who reject the use of this practice. We believe that Aotearoa New Zealand, as a country that values human rights and freedom should consider whether it has a place in our society at all.

The Association is concerned that this model of intervention reinforces beliefs that give rise to rejection, bullying, exclusion and shaming of members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender / Transsexual, Intersex and Questioning (LGBTIQ) community. As social workers, non-discrimination and recognition of diversity are enshrined in the heart of our social work practice and code of ethics; it is perplexing that a so-called “therapy” which is premised on the basis of concepts that affirm societal prejudice and perpetuate stigma should be allowed to operate largely unchallenged despite these laws.

The very fact that the practice of "conversion therapy" is still technically legal in New Zealand sends the message to the LGBTIQ community that they are not given equal legal protections and status in New Zealand society, despite the government’s publicly stated commitment to LGBTIQ rights.

We are concerned that many of the participants in this form of “counselling” may not be engaging with it as a matter of free, independent choice but rather as a result of external pressure- often due to fear of rejection by peers, family / Whanau or members of their religious community. Victims may be compelled to seek out a “reparative” therapist because they have internalised notions of sinfulness or abnormality imposed on them by others. Such beliefs often have the effect of provoking feelings of guilt and anxiety while eroding self-esteem, with the result that their vulnerability is sharply increased.

ANZASW is particularly opposed to the use of this practice with suggestible or vulnerable young people, including adolescents, who are questioning their same sex attraction. We believe that those who are experiencing anxiety over their orientation should not be encouraged to invest in erroneous beliefs that heighten their discomfort, but offered services that involve acceptance, support, and identity exploration – freed from heteronormative assumptions.

In marked contrast to the regressive and pseudoscientific techniques promoted by so-called conversion therapists, social workers actively seek to empower their clients, promoting self-acceptance and affirmation of one’s identity. We seek to nurture and support the individual to make their own decisions about how best to help themselves during challenging periods in their life.

Self-evidently, this form of so-called therapy is exploitative, disempowering and discriminatory to its core, particularly so when imposed on children or young people; it is utterly antithetical to the principles of self-determination and dignity that define ethical social work processes.

Another matter of concern is the fact that almost anyone can set themselves up as a “conversion therapist” with little to no professional oversight and limited legal accountability. As a result of this we fear that there may be unqualified practitioners of this so called therapy who may be damaging already highly vulnerable people across the country.

We also believe that the possibility of an outright ban on this practice may be in the public interest, for the reasons stated above; we note that this has already taken place in parts of Australia, Canada and the United States, and that there are moves toward this in the parliaments of the UK and European Union. At the very least we would like lawmakers to consider whether there should be a ban on the promotion and marketing of this practice to our population.

As professionals dedicated to advancing the wellbeing and dignity of our clients, we urge all those who are experiencing feelings of shame or anxiety about their sexuality to seek out help from professional clinicians or social workers who are qualified and accountable, rather than engaging with any form of so-called “conversion therapy.”

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