Aug 28, 2023

Jeremy was 16 and depressed. A psychiatrist offered therapy to suppress his attraction to boys

Jeremy was 16 and depressed. A psychiatrist offered therapy to suppress his attraction to boys

Caitlin Fitzsimmons
The Age
August 19, 2023

Jeremy Smith remembers being taken to a child psychiatrist on the north shore when he was 16 and dealing with depression and difficult events in his life.

When the ostensibly reputable doctor offered therapy to suppress his attraction to boys, Smith was taken aback and declined.

Jeremy Smith grew up in the conservative Catholic sect Opus Dei and experienced conversion therapy after coming out as gay.

“I was really just shocked,” Smith says. “I didn’t think that this was something that went on still, and especially with a secular psychiatrist.”

Smith grew up in Opus Dei, a conservative Catholic group. Smith had known he was gay since he was 13 and told his family and close friends a few years later.

After the psychiatric sessions, his parents took him to see a Catholic priest. Smith remembers crying on his way to the pastoral appointment. The priest was “kind and sympathetic” but Smith found the focus on how he should never act on his sexual desires upsetting. After a few sessions, he refused to go back.

By this time, Smith’s religious school in north-west Sydney was also involved. He remembers his tutor talking about how he must never act on his attraction to other boys, or come out, and confiding that he too had experienced but overcome similar feelings.

Smith says his brush with conversion practices was only fleeting, but it left him with lasting scars.

All this could soon be illegal in NSW, as the Minns government moves on its election promise to ban LGBTQ conversion practices. Labor is planning its own legislation, but could be forced to vote sooner on a separate private members bill developed by independent Alex Greenwich.

“People might think of conversion therapy as electric shock therapy or really draconian techniques, but it’s a lot more insidious than that,” Smith says.

“It goes on in closed rooms, in private conversations ... and it can be just as devastating to people as more extreme forms of conversion therapy.”

Independent NSW MP Alex Greenwich has developed a bill with LGBTQ protections, including a ban on conversion practices.

Smith says conversion practices of all kinds encourage “dark thought patterns and self loathing” and the protections must extend to gender diverse people, given the high rates of suicide for young trans people.

The Sydney Morning Herald has spoken to two other men from Opus Dei families who had similar experiences.

Eamon McCaughan was sent to a psychologist to treat same-sex attraction until he refused to go. He attempted suicide on his 18th birthday.

Tim Pocock went to a Catholic psychologist who displayed religious paraphernalia in his clinic and tried to cure him of same-sex attraction using hypnotherapy. He says it took until his late 20s before he kissed another man, which meant he was unprepared for adult relationships, while the years of repression caused problems with intimacy because “an act of love with me and a partner would leave me thinking of Hell and Satan and eternal damnation”. As an adult, his sibling has tried to convince him to attend a conversion therapy camp.

More than a decade since Smith left school, he still knows people involved in a Catholic organisation called Courage International, which offers online and in-person support for same-sex attracted people to remain celibate. The techniques are adapted from an Alcoholics Anonymous-style 12-step program.

Courage referred media inquiries to the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, which declined to comment.

Steph Lentz, who wrote the book In/Out about realising she was gay and leaving the Sydney Anglicans, says LGBTQ people in her former church were typically referred to Living Faith or previously, Liberty Ministries.

The Sydney Diocese, which is more conservative than Anglicans elsewhere in Australia, teaches that same-sex attraction is “an inclination toward evil” and that gender is binary because God created Adam and Eve as male and female.

The Living Faith website says it supports Christian men and women who experience attraction to the same sex and/or gender incongruence, and supports people to live in accordance with church teaching. It says its goal is not orientation change, but notes this is possible for some people. Sydney Anglicans declined to comment.

Steph Lentz has written about leaving the Sydney Anglican church after coming out as gay.

A leaked NSW government consultation paper, revealed by the Herald last week, cites research that 4 per cent of LGBTQ people under 25 have encountered conversion practices. The possible harms include a heightened risk of suicide, mental health problems, loneliness, and physical injury.

Teddy Cook, director of community health at LGBTQ health organisation ACON, says research shows conversion practices are still prevalent among both young people and adults. Cook says trans people are often most at risk in mainstream counselling when they seek support with gender affirmation and encounter pushback. “These practices centre on the disproven and debunked idea that gender and sexuality are not intrinsic to a person’s character, so are therefore ‘fixable’, changeable or can be suppressed,” Cook says.

Greenwich says his bill will be modelled after Victorian laws that came into effect in February 2022. The leaked paper suggests the government is thinking along similar lines.

The leaked paper confirms that the bill is proposed to cover gender identity as well as sexual orientation, as it does in other states. Sexuality refers to sexual or romantic attraction to another person, while gender identity refers to someone’s sense of being a man, woman or another gender.

The proposed ban creates both a new civil offence and a crime. It would cover practices intended to make a gay person suppress same-sex attraction, whether to encourage celibacy or to attempt to “cure” them by making them become heterosexual. It would also outlaw tactics to persuade a gender diverse or trans person that they should not transition but instead base their gender identity on their biological sex, or what LGBTQ advocates refer to as the sex presumed for a person at birth.

The Victorian regime

The Victorian laws are the strongest in Australia because they apply in all settings, covering personal relationships as well as healthcare, religious groups, schools and workplaces. The Queensland laws only apply in a healthcare setting, while the ACT laws only protect minors.

But Victoria Police has confirmed that 18 months into the regime, there have been no criminal charges.

The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, which handles the civil scheme, says it received five reports so far. The commission has focused on education rather than punishment.

The Victorian laws were opposed by a number of religious groups, including Catholic and Muslim leaders, and subject to a scare campaign about parents being sent to jail for conversations with their children. The legislation has a “serious harm” test to qualify as a crime, and it is likely NSW would have similar safeguards.

Gender identity

The inclusion of gender identity in the NSW consultation was always expected by LGBTQ advocates, despite Minns before the election only using the phrase “gay conversion therapy”. People close to the issue might have clocked the T for trans in the acronym when the Labor press release referred to “LGBTQ+ conversion practices”. But a government source confirmed last week that the public comments were not detailed enough to explicitly include gender identity.

Former premier Dominic Perrottet also promised to ban gay conversion therapy if re-elected. Opposition Leader Mark Speakman says he cannot pledge his support for any bill until he sees the text.

The issue of trans rights is not nearly as polarised as in the United States or Britain where it has become a totemic issue in the culture wars, but public views are not settled. As Smith says, trans rights are “the new frontier”.

An Ipsos survey of about 1000 Australians earlier this year found four out of five respondents support protection from discrimination for transgender people. A 2020 survey of about 1000 people commissioned by Equality Australia also found similar support, including from three out of four religious people and nine out of 10 respondents who said they know a transgender person.

But the Ipsos survey found only 57 per cent support teenagers receiving gender-affirming care such as counselling and hormone treatment with parental support, while just 53 per cent say transgender people should be able to use the public toilets that match their gender.

The Equality Australia survey also found only 47 per cent of respondents thought transgender people should be able to play sport as their identified gender. There has been prominent debate about whether transgender women have an advantage in women’s sport.

The contested space also includes gay, lesbian and bisexual people who argue that transgender activists are being homophobic, by allegedly claiming that an effeminate boy is really a girl or a tomboy girl is really a boy. These views are not shared by any LGBTQ peak body.

Then there are the women’s groups – described by themselves as “gender critical feminists” and by their opponents as “trans-exclusionary radical feminists” or “TERFs” – that argue that gender cannot be divorced from biological sex and social conditioning.

These groups have been increasingly active. In March, there were clashes outside parliament house in Canberra, between the “Let Women Speak” anti-trans rally featuring British activist Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull, also known as Posie Parker, and a trans rights counter-protest.

A coalition of women’s groups recently put up a billboard in Belmore in south-west Sydney warning about risks for women and girls if trans people could self-identify their own gender.

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There are also many parents concerned that the health system could rush to affirm a young person’s gender identity and set them on a lifelong medical path, when there could be other things at play, such as mental health problems or undiagnosed autism.

In turn many parents of trans children say this is ludicrous because the health system puts up many barriers to gender-affirming treatment for young people, such as requiring the consent of a parent without custody.

There are only two public gender clinics and one of them – Westmead Children’s – is under fire for only taking three patients this year, and the suicide of a child who was on the waiting list. The NSW government has pledged a review of gender care across the state, and to open a third publicly funded clinic by early next year.

The evidence from international peer-reviewed studies suggests that mental health outcomes are better if gender diverse people are given health care that affirms their stated gender identity.

But most of this evidence is new and based on relatively few studies. The medical understanding is changing rapidly.

Professor Ian Hickie, a co-director at the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre, supports a ban on conversion practices covering the full LGBTQ spectrum, but warns a heavy-handed regime could put off doctors from working in gender care and restrict options for best practice to evolve with the evidence.

Yet Hickie acknowledges not all practitioners are genuine about wanting to engage with the evidence, and says they should “not be able to wiggle out of a ban”.

“Under the guise of gender exploration, some people have clearly been engaged in active attempts of gender conversion,” he says.

The Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists also supports a ban on conversion practices to include gender identity, as long as it does not impede a thorough psychiatric assessment for the individual.

The proposals provide carve-outs for gender-affirming care and any care that is necessary in the health provider’s reasonable professional judgment or legally required.

Parents for Trans Youth Equity spokesperson Lannen Stapleton says the lines between conversion therapy and good, constructive, psychological support should be clear.

“Conversion therapy says ‘you’re not this’, or ‘you should not be this’ or ‘we will help you to stop being who you are’,” Stapleton says.

Religious perspectives
Most religious groups are holding fire for now, citing the confidentiality of the government consultation, but the Hindu Council has broken ranks to share concerns about the proposals.

Much like other religions, different Hindu sects have varied teachings about homosexuality. And on the issue of gender identity, Hindu Council national vice president Surinder Jain says the Hindu scriptures refer to more genders than just male and female.

But Jain says Hindus are taught that sex should only occur in marriage. An observant Hindu might seek support to abstain from sex before marriage or to be faithful to their spouse, and they might be prescribed meditation, chanting and dietary restrictions.

“We want genuine religious practices, which are not harmful, which are being done with consent, to be exempted,” Jain says. “The advice a priest may give to a heterosexual person or an LGBT person, may be identical. In one case, it is OK; in the other case, it is not, and that’s where we are concerned.”

Part of the definition of conversion practices in the NSW proposals is they are done on the basis of a person’s sexuality or gender identity. On face value, advice given to both gay and straight people would not fall foul of the laws.

The proposals allow the expression of a belief, or delivery of religious practices such as sermons, unless they have the primary purpose of changing or suppressing an individual’s sexuality or gender identity. Legally this could create a loophole by permitting practices where conversion is a secondary purpose.

Smith hopes there won’t be too many exemptions for religion, since that is the setting for most conversion attempts.

“My personal view is that the safety of the individual comes before religious views,” Smith says. “God isn’t real, but people are, and I think that that should be, especially in a secular society, our No. 1 priority.”

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