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Change or Suppression Conversions Practices Prohibition Bill 2020

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Sam Hibbins MP
Member for Prahran
10 December 2020

Mr HIBBINS (Prahran): I rise on behalf of the Victorian Greens to speak in support of the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020. I will start by acknowledging the survivors of this harmful, insidious practice and also those who did not survive this incredibly damaging practice and this ideology that at the heart of it believes there is something inherently wrong with people who are same-sex attracted or transgender and has the goal of changing or suppressing people’s sexual orientation or having trans people identify with the sex that they were assigned with at birth. It is a practice and an ideology that has caused incredible harm to so many people and that continues to this day. That is why it is so important that this bill has been brought before Parliament. I commend their advocacy, their research, their lobbying and their sharing of their stories, which have brought the issue to the fore and have resulted in this legislation—this strong legislation—that we commend.

We commend the government for listening to survivors and bringing forward this bill, which should be effective in helping stamp out this abhorrent process. They are the brave survivors of sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts and the wider LGBTQI+ conversion movement. Certainly I feel that without their efforts there would have continued to be a misconception within the wider community that conversion practices were no longer occurring, that the practices of the past had disappeared and this was no longer an issue or that it could be addressed through the regulation of existing rules for psychologists and counsellors or the banning of advertising.

It was survivors that brought this issue to my attention shortly after I was elected. They told me that it was still happening and how it was occurring—the vast range of practices. In response to them I put a question on notice to the Minister for Equality back in 2015 about what the government was doing to stamp out gay conversion practices, and interestingly enough that was the first reference. I have looked up the first references to gay conversion on record in Hansard until the Health Complaints Bill 2016 was introduced sometime later, and that does show that this was not at the fore of our state’s efforts and the wider efforts for LGBTI equality. So it is certainly testament to the survivors and advocates who put this at the fore and put this in front of MPs and the wider community.

I formed the view at that time that I felt a parliamentary inquiry was the best way to go to fully understand the extent of the practice and to look at how best to stamp it out, given the whole range of formal or informal practices and the range of ways it occurs, and importantly give survivors a chance to tell their stories if they so wish and also shine a light on the dark recesses of organisations where this was occurring—to have an open inquiry and hold them to account. While I appreciate—and I will talk about this a bit later—that the government went down a different route with the health services commissioner, I still think it may be necessary to keep that prospect of a parliamentary inquiry or a more open inquiry on the table, because they have dealt with similar sensitive issues in the past and we should feel with this issue that the light will always be shone where this is occurring.

I think another really substantial moment in the push or the campaign to outlaw gay conversion practices was the investigation by Farrah Tomazin of the then Fairfax papers on conversion therapy back in March 2018. This was a really important investigation. I commend Farrah and the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald—those newspapers—for investigating, for researching, for giving survivors, again, the chance to tell their stories and recount what had occurred to them and the effects that it had. It related to both same-sex attracted and transgender survivors, to young people. That article, again, made it clear that this practice, this ideology, was still occurring in Australia, and to quote from that investigation:

Australia had about 40 active ministries devoted to changing sexual orientation two decades ago. They were part of a broader global “ex-gay” movement, named after the evangelicals at the helm who often claimed their homosexuality had been “cured”.

While many ministries have officially disbanded, Fairfax Media has found about 10 groups that still operate, tapped into an informal network of churches and counsellors here and overseas.

In doing just a little bit of research online you will see that Courage International, who were named in that investigation, still have a website here in Australia, they still have contacts here for people in Melbourne, and they state that they offer:

… pastoral support to men and women experiencing same-sex attractions who have chosen to live a chaste life.

And their goal is:

To live chaste lives in accordance with the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexuality …

They are actively looking to suppress people’s sexuality under the guise of, ‘Oh well, we’re just assisting people to live in accordance with their faith’. But as Nathan Despott pointed out in that investigation:

The approach is totally grounded in the ideology that being same-sex attracted is problematic; that being gay is a form of brokenness needing God’s attention and needs to be submitted to prayer.

It is incredibly damaging to those people. Listening to the member for Forest Hill, who appeared to indicate in his contribution that that is okay, it is just incredible to think that in the debate in this chamber people are thinking that that is somehow okay and not recognising the damage that it does to people. It is incredibly harmful.

That was a really important investigation, and I was really pleased that the government announced in May 2018 that they were instructing the health complaints commissioner to undertake an inquiry. I thought that was really good. It was two months after we called for an inquiry, so it was really good; I really supported that approach. While I feel it would have been good for a larger report rather than the essentially two-page summary of findings and recommendations, it was an important report from the health complaints commissioner. I will just read out some of the key findings and recommendations from that report:

• Survivors experience acute distress and/or ongoing mental health issues such as severe anxiety and depression;

• Survivors experience feelings of guilt and shame about their sexuality, reporting being “overwhelmed by guilt” and guilt that is “always there”;

• Conversion therapy/practices reinforced homosexuality as a form of ‘brokenness’ …

And the recommendations were:

… that a legislative response sends a very strong message to the community that conversion therapy/practices are unacceptable—

and—

Funding for counselling and psychological services, together with legislation, would provide a very clear message to the community that conversion therapy/practices are not condoned in Victoria.

So the evidence is there. The evidence has again shown just how damaging these practices are. I also want to acknowledge the subsequent work of La Trobe University, the Human Rights Law Centre and Gay and Lesbian Health Victoria for their really important report, Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice: Responding to LGBT Conversion Therapy in Australia. Throughout their report they again shared the words and experiences of survivors and evidence that this is still occurring and there is a need to stamp it out.

Just going through this again, I read from these reports because this is the evidence that has been researched, coming from survivors themselves, with the terrible impacts of self-hatred and shame, of grief and loss, from people who have been separated from their family and their faith community. I really want to acknowledge all those LGBTI members of faith communities. Some of you have found fantastic faiths and fantastic communities that are supportive; others have gone through a very, very difficult and challenging time. Whilst there is no doubt that in many denominations acceptance is growing, there is still a long way to go in many faith communities.

That loss and separation I can imagine would just be incredibly difficult. The collateral damage to family and friends—people who might have pursued relationships, thinking that that might fix them, and the hurt that that would have done to those other people—the loss of intimacy and connection through not being able to form intimate relationships, mental health problems and self-harm are just devastating impacts affecting the very core of a person, the very being. These are just devastating impacts that the evidence has found and are all the more reason why we need strong and comprehensive laws to stamp this out. Again I quote from Nathan Despott and Chris Csabs:

Conversion practices tinker with LGBTQA+ people’s minds, attachments, and their deepest sense of self, ruining family connections and causing suicidal ideation rates that are among some of the highest of any cohort of the population.

This bill provides for both criminal offences and civil processes and importantly covers the broad range of formal and informal practices. That broad definition is so important to capture the informal practices that occur, with both the threshold of causing injury and serious injury and then the civil scheme as well, with the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission playing a strong role for those allegations that fall short of the criminal standard and being able to investigate serious and systemic change or suppression practices and enforce the outcome—two really important elements.

As I discussed with the Minister for Equality during recent estimates hearings, it would be good to see some funding allocated alongside this bill to support the reforms—to support the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission to undertake their tasks in supporting these reforms but to provide counselling and support and redress for survivors as well, a really important element that needs to go along with this bill.

We are now with this bill—and I hope for its successful passage through Parliament—addressing and intervening in some of the conversion practices and conversion ideology. Where previously intervention had come at the pointier end—with therapy, with trained counsellors from churches or private practices—we are now seeing it come into this wider movement. Whilst the law will impact it at a certain level, I think it is now important, as I said before, that in denominations, faith-based organisations, religions and communities there is growing acceptance among people who are part of those communities and people in areas of hierarchy, but there is still more to go.

I think this bill sends a very clear message. The law will come into effect at a certain point, but there still needs to be a continuation of the cultural change that is going on in faith-based communities. I am really always very pleased when on occasion I am invited to attend a service at a church in the Prahran electorate. A lot of LGBTI members within the Prahran electorate attend services, and it is really pleasing to see how welcoming they are to LGBTI members of the community—that is something that is no doubt growing amongst faith-based communities. Again, I acknowledge all those LGBTI Victorians of faith and the challenges that they have often faced, and it is really good to see that so many of them can practise their faith without having this conversion or ex-gay ideology being imposed on them. They can safely practise their faith and be with their faith communities.

This bill also amends the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 to modernise the definitions of sexual orientation and gender identity. It adds sex characteristics as a protected attribute from discrimination to better protect intersex Victorians. We really welcome this change. It is certainly something that the Greens have been calling for for some time—

Members interjecting.

Mr HIBBINS: Well, it is true. I literally produced a draft bill with similar changes. I am not—

Members interjecting.

Mr HIBBINS: All right—as part of broader reforms to the Equal Opportunity Act. On passing this bill we now look to move further reforms to protect LGBTI Victorians, and we do need to have broader reform to the Equal Opportunity Act to get rid of those exemptions allowed for faith-based or other organisations who are providing housing or health services or are running schools. Those exemptions, instead of protecting people from discrimination, actually legally allow discrimination. It relates, I think, very much to this particular bill because people, particularly young people, who have been discriminated against, with faith being the reason given, are then very much more reluctant to attend a housing service, a health service or another service if that is a faith-run service, because even if that service is welcoming and non-discriminatory—as many are, as most are—the insidious nature of that is that they are not going to go. If they fear that behind that door is discrimination, well, they are not going to go to that housing service; they are not going to seek that help. That is why—and I note the Premier is in the chamber today—those laws need to be changed. I hope that that is the next reform, the next cab off the rank, in terms of LGBTI equality.

There was a debate around schools, around faith-based schools, and students and teachers. I know the government’s position has been to wait for the federal government to act and then fill in the gaps. Well, the federal government ain’t going to act. It was always going to be a bit of a stretch to wait for them to act to protect students and teachers at faith-based schools from discrimination. So now it is time for the government to step up to make those changes, to get rid of those exemptions from the Equal Opportunity Act and to protect our students and our teachers at faith-based schools but also at other faith-based organisations—our housing and our health services.

I know the Premier previously, when he spoke on that, said, ‘Well, you can discriminate against the maths teacher but not the gardener’. Well, I think we all understand that that approach now is not the approach that we need to take. Now everyone, no matter what service or school you go to, needs to be protected by our Equal Opportunity Act.

So to conclude, we support this bill; the Greens strongly support this bill. The arguments against have been put forward by the Liberals—I mean, freedom of religion does not give you freedom to harm. The bar of injury or serious injury has been set in this law. If you feel your practices are causing injury or serious injury to LGBTI people, well, then you need to have a look at what you are doing, you need to have a look at your practices. So we support this bill. We commend the government for bringing forward these strong laws. We wish it a speedy passage.

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Sam Hibbins MP
Member for Prahran
10 December 2020
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