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Conversion therapy in New Zealand

On the face of it, our land may seem a place hospitable to the LGBTQIA+ community, with a culture supportive of people living as their true selves. We could be forgiven for thinking that three decades of relatively progressive and anti-discriminatory legislation means the queer community in New Zealand are well protected. However, recent events have highlighted the long-overlooked and serious loopholes in New Zealand’s justice system that have enabled the physical and psychological torture of many in the queer community; namely, conversion therapy.

Conversion therapy, also known as gay reparative therapy, aims to compel an individual to renounce their sexual orientation or gender identity via manipulative, abusive, hateful and even bizarre practices. There are many methods practiced on a regular basis by these ‘therapists’, among them giving patients nausea-inducing drugs while forcing them to view same-sex pornography, electroconvulsive therapy (where electric shocks can often cause seizures and memory loss), and now with the advent of psychoanalysis becoming commonplace, young people are relentlessly hammered with the idea that homosexuality is a disease and they must pray to their god to heal them.

When we think of conversion therapy, we probably think of the places usually associated with conversion therapy by the mainstream media. Such as in India, where sexual assault has been used as a reparative tactic. Or in America, where young people are sent to highly-secretive conversion therapy ‘camps’ that are isolated from the world at large. At first, one may think that these camps are all handholding and singing kumbaya. However, the Joel Edgerton movie, Boy Erased, highlights the danger of these privately-owned camps. Camps where vulnerable, adolescent boys are pushed to the brink of suicide in the effort to stop them from accepting their own natural sexuality and / or gender identity.

New Zealand continues to have the highest youth suicide rates in OECD countries and queer youth are disproportionately represented in these rates. The Ministry of Education reported that just last August that “rainbow students [are] five times more likely to make a suicide attempt” than non-rainbow students. A report by the Family Acceptance Project of San Francisco State University highlighted that suicide attempts nearly tripled for rainbow youth who experienced intervention efforts by ‘therapists’ and religious leaders in conjunction with home-based efforts to change their sexual orientation by parents compared to queer youth who haven’t. Chris Casbs, a conversion therapy survivor says “we know it's responsible for countless suicides, we know it's happening … something needs to be done about it.”

Mainstream psychology across the West has categorically rejected conversion therapy as as inefficacious, unethical and often harmful. Its abhorrent effects range from depression to anxiety to the loss of sexual function (in many cases) and suicide. World's leading health organisations, including the American Psychological Association and the UK Council for Psychotherapy are critical of conversion therapy and say there is no evidence to support it works.

A spokesperson for Living Wisdom School of Counselling told 1 NEWS that 20 to 30 people had their heterosexuality "restored" through its services. Rainbow Youth, a New Zealand queer youth organisation, has become aware of hundreds of conversion therapy survivors in Auckland alone. In 2018, TVNZ’s Sunday program investigated how prevalent conversion therapy was in New Zealand, disturbingly finding that conversion therapy was only a google search away from parents who wanted to subject their children to it.

These services are not only provided by registered and licensed therapists, but also non-professionals such as teachers and religious leaders. The New Zealand Psychological Society, NZ College of Clinical Psychologists and the New Zealand Psychologists Board all have adopted a code of ethics which puts the well-being of their clients above all else, a code which expressly forbids discrimination of any kind, however, this code is not legally binding to anyone not associated with these organisations.

Rodney Rainbow Group, Young Labour and Young Greens ran and presented a petition, signed by 20,000 New Zealanders, calling for a ban on conversion therapy, to Parliament,

in August 2018. Marja Lubeck accepted this petition and currently has a member’s bill, Prohibition of Conversion Therapy, in the biscuit tin. As we know it, this bill may never see the light of day in the biscuit tin lottery. If our government wanted, they could easily turn Marja Lubecks members bill into a government policy and advocate for a ban on conversion therapy.

The Human Rights Commission states on its website that LGBTQIA+ people have the right to “not be subject to any forms of therapy…to change your sexual orientation or gender identity”. However, this human right has not been honoured by Parliament by putting it into law via an explicit ban on conversion therapy in New Zealand. Instead, Marja Lubeck’s bill has been met with criticism and concern from both sides of the aisle.

ACT Party leader David Seymour says while he doesn’t believe conversion therapy should be practiced, he simply doesn’t believe in a ban. He argues that this ban would “have agents of the state going around trying to work out what is legitimate counselling and pastoral care and what isn’t”. Marja Lubeck debunked this, perhaps disingenuous, argument by explaining that “when you look at the compliance of other laws, that’s not what we do either … for example speeding, you’re not catching every person necessarily speeding but people know it is illegal and you shouldn’t be doing it.” She further explains that we currently have young people being forced into conversion therapy, however, these survivors have no legal means for holding their parents or providers accountable for the egregious harm incurred on them by conversion therapy.

MPs like Duncan Webb and Nick Smith raised concerns about if the freedom of religion could clash with a ban on conversion therapy. The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 protects freedom of religion; however, religious rights are subjected to limitations that are justifiable. In New Zealand legal doctrine, what is constituted as justifiable is often determined by the level of harm that would be caused by a person(s) exercising said rights and whether or not this harm is proportional and reasonable. Max Tweedie, when presenting the petition to ban conversion therapy to the Justice Select Committee, pointed out that “the New Zealand legislative framework legislates based on harm … religious freedom is not absolute[,] [w]hen the bible says that we [should] stone homosexuals to death, we obviously don’t allow that, because of harm … [and] conversion therapy actually causes demonstrable harm for people that are subjected to it.” The legal protection of our rainbow youth from psychological torture, from being pressured or compelled to renounce who they choose to love and be, is a justifiable limitation on religious freedom.

A non-partisan collective of volunteers called the Conversion Therapy Action Group has been established to navigate this issue in a constructive and civil manner, raise awareness on the significant harms of conversion therapy, and take further action to end it in our country. CTAG is currently being led by a team composed of Shannon Novak (LGBT+ artist and activist), Shaneel Lal (Youth MP for Manukau East), Neihana Waitai (Rainbow Representative for Princes St Labour), Max Tweedie (Queer activist and Director of Auckland Pride), and Harry Robson (LGBT+ writer). For anyone interested in joining, they can contact the group through Facebook or Instagram @endconversiontherapynz

New Zealand has strong historical roots in its acceptance of the queer community. In Maori culture, the concepts of Takatapui (“intimate companion of the same sex”) were an integral part to the community. Tragically, after New Zealand was subsumed as part of the British Empire in 1840, the Pakeha culture of shame and rejection towards queerdom became normalised and ever since countless kiwis have endured needless suffering.

New Zealand is a heteronormative nation. Despite political and popular-cultural acceptance, kiwis still struggle in their day-to-day lives to feel loved and accepted in their communities for who they are; queer normalisation is not a human reality. The safety of the LGBTQIA+ now lies at the feet of Parliament. If our government is sincere about its declarations to support and protect the rainbow community, then they must ban conversion therapy.

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