Last week in the Victorian Legislative Assembly, a bill banning conversion practices passed unopposed. We are only half way there as it still has to pass the upper house before it becomes law. But I wanted to take a moment to offer another perspective. The words “Gay conversion therapy” hardly capture the insidiousness of the practices. They are the colloquial terms for “sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts” or “conversion practices” that are wide ranging in their forms and often subtle or subversive in their nature. They range from rare formal courses to more common informal counselling sessions often in a pastoral context. They might occur alongside Christian “mentoring” or “discipleship” or even prayer ministries that seek to deliver a person of the “spirits” that cause their “brokenness.”
I use the quotations there because the practices are abhorrent. They are infinitely damaging. I’ll also say this: I have no doubt that, post-ban, these practices will go underground but still continue, so deeply held is the homophobia and transphobia hidden inside some churches. While I am noticing rumblings of hope and inclusiveness within the church more broadly, and have been delighted to see some Christian leaders actually stand up in support of the bill, we have a long way to go. When I departed the world of conservative Christianity and embraced a more progressive, more inclusive faith, I was surprised that affirming Christians and affirming Christian leaders even existed. I say this to illustrate the fact that while we sit in our own echo chambers, we fail to reach the people who still trot out the harmful rhetoric that leads to conversion practices. That harmful rhetoric is based on bad theology, and the bill before parliament disabuses these people of the ignorance that allows them to practice harmful conversion attempts.
I also say this for another good reason: sometimes conversion practices render so much damage to the victims that they are unable to stand up for themselves and advocate for LGBTQA safety and equality in faith-based settings. It is therefore the job of allies to do this important work instead of retreating to the safety of the echo-chamber.
I tried to do this a lot. But the last few weeks have made me realise something: I can’t always do that and protect my heart because I am a victim too. Just a victim in another way. So, I’m going to dull my trademark sparkle for a while and let you inside a very personal journey.
It’s a realisation that has hit in a flood these past weeks. Patrick and I are separated, but for the time being, are living under the same roof as flatmates and co-parents. I have listened as he has taken phonecall after phonecall, taken part in meeting after meeting, and been interviewed a number of times for TV and radio.
I’ll admit that I felt it an honour to be there for him as he worked through his sexuality and through the scars of conversion practices (all of them, not just the formal ones). I loved being his best friend and confidante. I felt that sense of physical revulsion every time I walked past a particular bookshelf and my eyes settled on the blue bound display folder that held the photocopied pages of his Living Waters (Conversion therapy) manual. I knew the dangerous pseudo-psychological hogwash in that book. I knew how it was mixed with partial truths, and how it pathologised human desire, making it grotesque and sinful in any other setting than the vanilla, Living Waters-approved “biblical” one.
But that’s not how human desire works is it? You can’t suppress it, think of it as dirty and dysfunctional with the exception of one particular scenario – married, heterosexual sex – and then have all that mental baggage disappear on your wedding night. As people all over the world start to deconstruct purity culture (which essentially shamed any expression of desire or sexuality outside of marriage), we are beginning to understand the damage of that. Shame, repression, issues with sexual function and expression, depression, and other issues to name a few. And that was for us straighties! Many of us were taught about purity and how non-virgins were “chewed up gum” before we learned about sex. I mean, that’s messed up. That has long-lasting effects. So add that confusion to that which LGBTQA+ people learn through conversion practices and you have something insidious and deeply damaging.
How could you go through that course and not emerge messed up? I was, I am, proud of Patrick for the way he has healed and stepped forward with such courage and composure. Focusing on that was easy though. The hard bit was recognising that all the focus on him meant I wasn’t focusing on me.
We had married because someone counselled him against accepting his sexuality for years.
There were several “mentors” placed around him who did the same thing.
We were set up by a person who knew about this and was part of this conversion practices ecosystem and who never levelled with me about the potential implications of this. I was completely naive and trusting. When our relationship was a disaster, he was the one who broke us up. The message everyone got was that it was because of my PTSD. But that wasn’t really the whole story. Patrick was going through formal conversion therapy at that time.
When we got together again, we did so with all the dreams, hopes, affection and authentic desire for a future together that a normal couple would have. But all that was based on one underlying, unspoken condition: that he could repress his true sexuality for the rest of his life. Even in splitting up, I know its because I am loved – platonically of course – that this new chapter of singleness opens up.
There is no part of me that blames him for our divorce. I see Patrick as a giant of a man; whose selflessness and love made the dissolution of our marriage a survivable thing for me, after all the trauma I had faced. But last week, after listening to his interview on Raf Epstein’s ABC Drive-time show, I got a message from a neighbour asking if we wanted company. I went down there, Coles bags full of dinner in hands. She smiled at me and said hi. And I dissolved into tears.
I’m sure it was a lot to handle for a neighbour we met only months ago when we relocated.
These are the other victims of conversion practices. Ex-wives. Ex-husbands. We were sold a lie, one that our partners were also sold and so desperately believed, that you could pray the gay away. That it was a brokenness that could be healed. We were naive enough to think we could make it. No matter how amicable a divorce is, it hurts to know that I am part of the trail of wreckage.
I am now something I never thought I’d be: a statistic. More proof of the incredible difficulty of mixed-orientation marriage. More proof that you can’t pray the gay away. I am a single mum, a soon-to-be divorcee. All the promises of evangelicalism, gay conversion therapy and ideology and pure, outright naivety failed me. And no matter how much my ex-husband and I love each-other or perhaps because of that love, we recognise that we both deserve a second chance at this. And I have cried. Boy, have I cried over it.
I often think of the person behind my ex-husband’s conversion therapy journey. I often wonder why he matched me up with this man, knowing what he knew. Why did he not Google the astounding failure rates of conversion practices? Why did he not Google the incriminating failure rates of mixed-orientation marriages? Why did he not take stock of the evidence that so clearly showed that you cannot pray the gay away.
I think I might know the answer: blind faith.
But I wonder whether blind faith in this case and many others isn’t simply wilful ignorance. As a direct result of this, I’m divorcing. My children grow up as children of divorce. I know, I made a choice to marry him. But I did so in a different sort of culture where matches were often suggested or approved by a third party before a courtship commenced. Most people made the approaches to this third party themselves. We didn’t. Both he and I had turned down “opportunities” before. We said yes to each other. It’s complicated. I know. But I put an incredible amount of trust in the person who matched us up, in this and in many other areas of life. I had blind faith too. Wilful ignorance perhaps. Or maybe just straight up naivety and inability to make such a choice myself. I don’t know. But here we are.
Knowing what I know now, would I do it again? Yes. Because in a precious and unique way, Patrick and I saw each-other and rescued each-other in a way that is beautiful. The life that is now at my feet is because of him. And I’m forever thankful.
But two things can be true at once. All of the above, plus the complete confusion, anger and heartbreak over how my future could be so easily bet on someone’s blind belief that you can pray the gay away.
You can’t. Because human sexuality is part of God’s design, and human sexual diversity part of Their intended diversity. To try to repress it, pray it away, or fix it. In so, so many cases “happily ever after” simply increases the collateral damage.
It’s time for this to stop. If church doesn’t like the bill, I don’t care. If it disagrees and claims religious freedom, I don’t care. I am acutely aware that many of this bills most vocal opponents may be supportive of conversion practices in more than just theory (I can’t know this for sure, obviously. I just suspect…).
This bill disabuses churches of the ignorance to think their (no matter how well-intentioned) poor theology and dangerous pseudo-psychology is doing anything but the incredible, incurable amount of damage that it is.
Ban Conversion Practices.