A LOOK INSIDE:
SYDNEY'S ANTI-GAY UNDERGROUND
It was a quarter to six at night. Seated in the driver’s seat of my parked car, the whites of my knuckles erupt from my hands firmly placed on the steering wheel. The church, camouflaged amongst the warehouses, is painted orange by the streetlights lining the street. It almost feels like a shady, backdoor deal, and in many cases it is.
Walking through the door, I am greeted by a man in his early 30’s. Thin build, and an overly honeyed voice. “I hope the drive wasn’t too long for you,” Adrian said, addressing me in the foyer of the recently renovated church. Question after question were layered on top of me, in a very obvious attempt to settle my nerves. But, given I was masquerading as a young man who was unhappy with his sexuality, it became apparent that no attempts on his part would do the trick.
Australia has seen a gradual decline in the number of major organisations that outwardly run conversion therapy practices over the past few years, such as Exodus International and the infamous Living Waters Program. But being invisible to the public eye does not mean instances of conversion therapy have completely ceased. Underground counselling sessions have spread all over the country within pastoral care offices, Christian youth centres, and church halls.
Although happening behind closed doors, arranging a session did not prove to be an arduous task. A simple email to the American headquarters of Desert Stream, another ex-gay ministry, put me in contact with a counsellor located in Parramatta. The ease with which this was organised speaks volumes about the dangers these pervasive practices pose.
Enveloped by a white artificial glow, Adrian’s office was meticulously set-up to facilitate our session. Two large grey arm chairs face each other, with tissues and a water jug stationed next to them; the space mimicked a psychologist’s office, in a not-so-subtle attempt to imbue a sense of legitimacy or scientific authenticity. With the anticipation of tears, the room provoked an innate sense of discomfort within me. Surely, to this room, not an unfamiliar emotion.
Peering over his thin-framed glasses, the corners of his mouth crinkled into a smile reminiscent of the Cheshire cat. Inhibited, but self-assured, his pen began to run along the page on his lap.
“What could he possibly be writing?” I recall thinking, as I pressed myself further into the back of my chair. Entering his room, I became a lab rat, unsure of what was going to occur but fully aware that I wanted no part of it.
Hands in a perpetual tremble, I signed a waiver of confidentiality form. The paper, with the very few words inscribed on it, actively conferred a great power onto the session. Every single word that was spoken from there on out, whether valid or not, officially came from a place of authority on the topic.
When I questioned his ‘expertise’ on the matter, I was told of his Psychology and Theology degrees. The merging of the two, albeit conducive to his own cause, posed a plethora of problems when it came to the fundamental ethics of his ‘therapy.’ Supported by his formal education in Psychology, my ‘therapist’s’ personal and spiritual worldviews became the very framework for the abstract analysis that I was receiving. Homosexuality was presented as a deviation away from what was ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’ for an individual, and shrouded behind the medical jargon being projected my way, he was easily able to establish this convincing narrative.
Routinely, my choice to leave the session was affirmed by Adrian, as well as my decision to continue on with future sessions. “We can stop anytime if this all get a little too much”, he would say almost as if my eyes were speaking volumes more than I was. Buried under the pretence of false-security and choice, children who are taken to these sessions are coaxed into believing that the true decision lies within their own autonomy. But the multitude of factors that demand an individual to seek out these kinds of services dictates this facade of ‘choice’. For these individuals, governed by the strict social, religious and family structures of their lives, there is little choice.
Speaking with a soft tone, coupled with looks of clinical concern, I was asked to speak about myself; my interests, my goals, what I study and so on. The natural flow of conversation soon progressed onto topics regarding my family history. Speaking as honestly as I could without revealing my own true acceptance of my sexuality, I told Adrian of my parents’ divorce, anticipating its use in an elaborate argument promoting his belief system.
Parental divorce, constantly working father, and female friends all warranted a mention in his journal. I was being psycho-analysed, and the diagnosis was clear. My sexuality was a point of critique, and its existence was argued to be a culmination of hurts and fears in my life.
Words such as brokenness and issues pierced me like the insults they are. Embroiled under the guise of concern and care, it is no wonder that these approaches can be highly insidious in nature.
Focusing on the 9-5 working nature of my father during my adolescence, it was clear from the onset that this was going to be considered a problem. The story of my life, although told by myself, was being constructed and directed by Adrian. Adrian was unmistakeably eager to find sound evidence that could have led to the development of my homosexuality, which he was certain no one could be born with. After 10 minutes of probing for viable ‘truths’ to support his claim, Adrian came to a clear conclusion; the lack of quality time spent with my father, compared to that of my mother, created a psychological longing for male affection which only become ‘sexualised’ as I went through puberty.
This kind of information screams absurdity when presented on the backdrop of 21st century Australia, however for people who have made a career out of ‘assisting’ those affected by the ‘same-sex love deficit’ that I apparently suffer from, it all makes perfect sense. A developmental flaw, according to their worldview, is plaguing our world and with the aid of both formal and informal educations, a solution is possible. An important takeaway from this experience that I found was that those involved in the ‘ex-gay movement’ truly believe they are being of benefit to those they are ‘assisting’.
Ex-gay programs have evolved significantly over the years. From observable therapy practices such as electroshock and hormonal therapy, to more underhanded methods such as counselling sessions and social regulations.
Historically, these practices have aimed to revert the individual’s sexuality to its 'natural' state, however, modern manifestations of the movement have appropriated this mode of thinking, aiming mainly for a suppression of same-sex attraction. It extends the view that sexual desire for persons of the same sex can be ‘managed’ or in some cases ‘healed’.
Like many conversion therapy practices, there is an obvious attempt to palm off religious doctrine and worldviews as psychological truth. These ‘Ex-gay’ ideologies are particularly dangerous for young people, who are extremely impressionable, especially when dealing with individuals of perceived authority. With statistics from the Human Rights Campaign stating that young people who identify as a part of the LGBTQ+ community are more than 8 times more likely to commit suicide, it is no surprise that these kinds of practices can have deadly effects. A quick google search reveals the multiple reports highlighting the very little sound research on sexual orientation change efforts, with many providing extensive evidence revealing the significantly harmful nature for those who participate.
And yet still, it persists.
Recently, Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews announced that Victoria will become the first Australian state to make conversion therapy illegal. This monumental move has highlighted that the laws of this country are finally taking the lives of the queer community seriously. But the question remains, how long will it take for the rest of the country to follow suit and put an end to Australia’s anti-gay underground?